Guns in political advertising over four US election cycles, 2012–18

Colleen L. Barry, Sachini Bandara, Erika Franklin Fowler, Laura Baum, Sarah E. Gollust, Jeff Niederdeppe, Alene Kennedy Hendricks

Research output: Contribution to journalComment/debatepeer-review


Gun-related deaths are on the rise in the US, and following recent mass shootings, gun policy has emerged as an issue in the 2020 election cycle. Political advertising is an increasingly important tool for candidates seeking office to communicate their policy priorities. Over $6 billion was spent on political ads in the 2016 election cycle, and spending in the 2020 cycle is expected to be even higher. Tracking gun-related political advertising over time can offer critical insights into how candidates view the salience of gun policy in the context of the 2020 election and beyond. We analyzed the coverage of guns in over fourteen million candidate-related television ad airings for presidential, congressional, gubernatorial, and state legislative races over four election cycles: 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2018. The share of candidate-related ad airings that referred to guns increased from 1 percent in the 2012 cycle to over 8 percent in the 2018 cycle. Pro–gun rights content dominated but dropped from 86 percent of airings mentioning guns in the 2012 cycle to 45 percent in the 2018 cycle. Advertising in favor of gun regulation and against the National Rifle Association increased over time. These shifts offer insights into how gun issues are being framed in the 2020 election cycle.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)327-333
Number of pages7
JournalHealth Affairs
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported by the Bloomberg American Health Initiative, the Smart Family Foundation, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (Grant No. 73619). The authors gratefully acknowledge the expert research assistance from Meg Cummings, Thafir Elzofri, Sofia Headley, Allison McGlone, and Elliot Polur at the Wesleyan Media Project. Sachini Bandara gratefully acknowledges support under a postdoctoral fellowship from the National Institute of Mental Health (No. T32MH109436). The content of this article is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institutes of Health, or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 Project HOPE— The People-to-People Health Foundation, Inc.

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't


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