STUDY: A History Of Gun Violence And The Presidential Debates

A wave of mass shootings have occurred over the past few years, often garnering extensive media coverage. Despite those tragic attacks and the roughly 30,000 deaths by firearms that occur every year, moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS' NewsHour failed to ask the presidential candidates about gun violence during the first presidential debate, the only forum specifically dedicated to domestic policy. 

14 mass shootings have been committed over the past four years, according to an analysis by Mother Jones. These include recent tragedies that rocked the American public this year, such as the attack at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and an assault at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Last year, a mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona, nearly claimed the life of then-U.S. representative Gabrielle Giffords. 

Nonetheless, in the first presidential debate for the 2012 election, Lehrer asked no questions on the topic of gun violence. This continues the troubling pattern established during the 2008 presidential debates, which similarly featured no discussion of the topic even in the wake of the mass shooting at Virginia Tech the previous year. Past presidential debates have featured this subject regularly: A Media Matters review found that in 1992, the second debate spent over six minutes on it; in 1996, the first debate gave it almost four minutes; in 2000, the second and third debates devoted more than 13 minutes combined; and in 2004, the third debate spent nearly three minutes on it.

The lack of a single question on gun violence during this cycle's first debate is especially concerning because the news media provides so much coverage of such violent crimes, as a review of the Aurora massacre demonstrates. The leading broadcast and cable networks have referenced that attack in at least 480 broadcasts, according to a review of the Nexis database. Because of that database's limitations, the results significantly underrepresent the total amount of coverage devoted to the Aurora shooting.

Those networks featured a total of 223 reports mentioning the shooting during their evening programming alone.

The media continues to report on the event, with the most recent result being the October 13 edition of This Morning on CBS, which reported on $5 million in donations being distributed to survivors and families of the deceased in a news brief.

Lehrer's own NewsHour, the only PBS show in the results, discussed the shooting in some capacity on seven separate broadcasts.


Media Matters searched the Nexis database for “Aurora” or “Colorado” within 50 words of “massacre,” “shooting,” or “killing,” or “James Holmes” between July 20 and October 14, 2012. Our review counted the number of show episodes that broadcast any number of segments on the shooting as well as any that mentioned the shooting at least once. In the case of the latter, single mentions are often said within the context of a segment on violent crime.

Our search is limited to what is available in the Nexis transcript database, which includes ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS news shows; all-day programming for CNN; and only evening shows for MSNBC and Fox News (excluding Fox Report with Shepard Smith).

Media Matters reviewed video of all presidential debates since 1992 and tabulated the amount of time devoted to gun violence in each. Only discussions triggered by moderator or audience questions were counted; references to the issue initiated by the candidates themselves were not.