Deseret News article illustrates subtle technique of pro-gun control bias

February 28, 2020


Matthew Hoy

Pro-Gun Control Bias

Deseret News article published Monday on the defeat of three gun control bills in the typically pro-Second Amendment state illustrates a subtle pro-gun control bias that drew the ire of one of the writers at The Truth About Guns.

As I stated in the comments to the original article, while I certainly see the bias in the article, the TTAG writer's outrage is overwrought. While there's certainly a pro-gun control bias in the article, much of TTAG's criticism, if actually incorporated in the article, would make it a pro-Second Amendment piece, not a neutral news article either.

Pro-gun control bias explained

This article piqued my interest, because when looked at objectively, the bias is subtle and probably unintentional. It is a result of groupthink common to many newsrooms where the ideological diversity is even even more homogeneous than its racial diversity.

The story begins:

Utah lawmakers shoot down slew of gun bills

By Katie McKellar

SALT LAKE CITY — One by one, lawmakers shot down three bills seeking to strengthen Utah’s gun laws on Monday.

This is the first example where word choice subtly betrays a position. Generally, "strengthen" has positive connotations. It's generally good to "strengthen" things, and bad to "weaken" them.

A more neutral phrasing might be something along the lines of three bills designed to "enact new gun control laws." The TTAG writer would've probably only been satisfied with three bills "attacking Second Amendment rights."

The next two paragraphs are a pretty standard description of the bills and a non-controversial characterization of the two opposing sides.

The fourth paragraph:

The bills were supported by anti-domestic violence and suicide prevention groups, but opposed by gun lobbyists and gun rights supporters. In both committees, dozens of supporters from both groups wore red or blue shirts stating their cause, from members of Utah Moms Demand Action in red, to the gun rights supporters wearing blue shirts reading “Guns Save Lives.”

The following is copied from my comment on the TTAG article when I was asked to illustrate some of the subtle bias.

She [reporter Katie McKellar] later quotes someone from Moms Demand Action. Which of the four groups above does that group fall into? Certainly not the last two. Suicide prevention? They don’t do squat for suicide prevention unless it involves gun control. They don’t come out for more spending on mental health treatment or counseling or promoting suicide hotlines. Anti-domestic violence? There’s no pro-domestic violence groups. The way the two sets of groups are put at odds implies that the gun rights supporters are pro-domestic violence. Why not characterize the MDA side as gun control lobbyists?

The next paragraph:

HB109, the universal background check bill that sought to close legal loopholes to require background checks on all firearm sales in Utah, hit a dead end on a party-line vote in the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee. Three Democratic colleagues of the bill’s sponsor, House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, supported the bill, but eight Republicans swiftly voted to table it after a lengthy public hearing but no debate.

A "loophole" by definition is "something legal that I don't like." What is often characterized as a "loophole" by opponents is, 99 times out of 100, something that lawmakers crafting the law knew about and made a conscious decision not to include for all sorts of reasons. The use of "dead end" also has negative connotations and is really not necessary at all; "failed" is more neutral and just as accurate.

This next paragraph is probably one of the worst at showing the reporter's bias.

Preston Maurer, who wore a blue “Guns Save Lives” shirt and sat in a wheelchair, told lawmakers of how he was robbed and shot 12 years ago on the side of the road, and yet he didn’t believe a universal background check law would have helped him.

If there's one line in this story the editor should've red-lined it's "...and yet he didn't believe...." The fool! Doesn't he know this would've helped him. It would've! We need this law specifically because of what he went through.

This line is condescending, arrogant and probably the best evidence of the reporter's (and her editor(s)) beliefs as to the benefits of the proposed law.

“Criminals, by definition, do not follow the law,” Maurer said. “What was done to me was illegal, yet it was still done, and if you think a criminal would follow this or any new law, you’re just lying to yourself and others.”

Maurer, like other gun rights supporters and gun lobbyists, argued a universal background check law was only a slippery slope to a statewide or nationwide gun registry, and therefore would increase risk of violations to gun owners’ “God given” Second Amendment rights.

I'm no fan of the scare quotes around "God given." If I'm editing this I just delete the two words altogether.

But King and other anti-domestic violence activists argued a universal background check law would be “commonsense” policy to close legal loopholes that make it too easy for criminals to evade background checks and obtain firearms.

Again, by characterizing King and his allies as anti-domestic violence activists, it suggests that those on the other side of the argument are pro-domestic violence, which they obviously aren't.

Neca Allgood, a volunteer with Moms Demand Action, told lawmakers that the man who shot and killed her brother, Jordan Allgood, at his St. George coin store in 2003 was on parole from a prior felony conviction and would have never passed a background check, and the person who provided him the gun was also a felon.

“And yet, he had a gun,” Allgood said. “I implore you to think about my family and the heartbreaking loss we have endured. Think about the families of Utah that might be protected from such a loss.”

While we have a reportorial snark after Maurer's comments, there is no such reality check after Allgood's. The fact that the felon who killed her brother bought the gun from another felon who was also legally prohibited from possessing a gun is noted in passing. Allgood isn't asked the obvious question: How likely is it that a felon who already has a gun illegally would go through a background check when selling a firearm to another felon? 

This really emphasizes Maurer's point better than it does Allgood's. Only a fool would believe that had a universal background check law already been in place that Allgood's brother would still be alive today.

Brian Judy, National Rifle Association liaison for Utah, said the bill would be “unenforceable,” and that supporters should instead be “clamoring” for full enforcement of parolees or felons who attempt to buy a gun but don’t pass a background check. Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council, made the same argument.

“Until we start prosecuting them and crime goes down, I don’t think this bill is ready for prime time,” Aposhian said.

This isn't bad, but I wouldn't put the quotes around unenforceable or clamoring. I don't see these being used as so-called scare quotes, and I have no doubt Judy used those words, but if it's not a full quote, it's really useless. I would also strike "full enforcement" from the former paragraph since that's an awkward term for what the two are seeking. A better term would be "consistent" or "increased prosecution of" or something along those lines.

In the House Judiciary committee, two other bills sponsored by Democrats were iced. HB115, sponsored by Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Sandy, failed on a party-line, 3-7 vote. The bill — another iteration of last year’s failed “Lauren’s Law,” which was inspired by Lauren McCluskey, a University of Utah student who was gunned down in 2018 — would create liability for people who give or sell their firearms to someone who later uses it to harm someone or damage property.

Again, the use of the word "were iced" has a certain negative connotation. A better term would simply be "failed."

That same committee also voted unanimously — including Democrats and Republicans — to hold HB136, sponsored by Rep. Elizabeth Weight, D-West Valley City, after a slew of gun rights activists spoke against it. The bill would have made it a criminal offense if a firearm is stored irresponsibility [sic] and a child or a legally restricted person obtains the gun and hurts someone.

Irresponsibly. Not Irresponsibility.

Supporters argued it would prevent suicide by gun, which in Utah is the most common method of suicide, and stop preventable death of children, but critics argued the same logic would be to [sic] criminalize parents who don’t lock up their toxic chemicals, since the most common form of accidental death in Utah is by poison.

Couple of editing fixes: "...the same logic would be to..." needs to be changed to "...the same logic could be used to..." or "...the same logic could...."

While I've no doubt that some foes of this bill made the toxic chemicals analogy, I think this is perhaps the weaker argument against such a bill. I strongly suspect that an argument was also made that "irresponsibly" is vague and could be abused by a unscrupulous prosecutor.

If the firearm was kept in a safe, but the combination was easily guessed by a minor, would the fact that the combination is easily guessed irresponsible? How about if it is a small handgun safe that was locked, but not bolted down and it was stolen and then broken into at the thief's leisure, is failing to bolt it down irresponsible?

Meanwhile, a pair of bills being sponsored by Rep. Cory Maloy, R-Lehi, awaits action. His bill to block local gun laws, targeting Salt Lake County for enacting background check requirements at gun shows, was on a House committee agenda Monday, but was held while he makes changes. He said he expects to discuss it in committee later this week.

Awaits should be await. A pair of bills await action.

Again, this is the pro-gun control characterization of what is more commonly referred to as "preemption laws." Many states pass preemption laws on all sorts of subjects so that the state's residents do not unwittingly break some local ordinance when traveling from one jurisdiction to another. Those mean Republicans want to "block local gun laws," bad! A more neutral, but still accurate, characterization would be to drop the "to block local gun laws" phrase and then explain in a separate sentence explaining why he's targeting it. Not because it's out of spite for what Salt Lake County did specifically, but the larger concern about citizens unwittingly violating local ordinances.

Maloy’s other bill, one that would allow Utahns to voluntarily put themselves on a no-buy list but is criticized by anti-gun violence groups as pointless, is awaiting action on the House floor.

Another red flag bill was also abandoned by a Republican sponsor earlier this legislative session, but may still be carried by a Republican Senate sponsor and Democratic House sponsor later this session.

Again, we have the "anti-gun violence groups" as opposed to their foes, the "pro-gun violence groups?" Changing this to simply "Moms Demand Action and their supporters" would be non-controversial.

Pro-gun control bias, but not an opinion piece

This is not an opinion piece; not even close. If anything, it's a better-than-average bit of newspaper reporting. There are many other articles out there that are far more biased and inaccurate (like this Los Angeles Times article that argues if we just made straw purchasing of firearms illegal, it would cut down on mass shootings—straw purchasing is already illegal).

Does the mainstream media have it out for gun owners and gun culture? Certainly. However, there are still reporters who aspire to the old ideal of neutral reporting. While this article is biased, it's somewhere in the normal deviation of a news outlet that is trying not to be biased. It is unlikely that the word choices and other characterizations made above were consciously made to slant the article—someone making conscious decisions to slant an article would have a very difficult time not going overboard. Instead, this reads as an earnest effort by a reporter and editor who just aren't experts on the subject and come from social circles where being pro-gun control is the default view.

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