The language news media use when covering extreme risk protection orders differs depending on whether a given state has actually adopted such a policy, according to research presented at Monday’s Annual Meeting session on “Firearm Violence: Policy and Prevention.”

ERPOs are civil orders that temporarily remove access to firearms for those whom a judge deems to be at increased risk of firearm-related harm to themselves or others and who are not otherwise prohibited from buying or possessing firearms.

Before the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that killed 14 students and three staff members, only three U.S. states had ERPO laws, according to presenter Amanda Aubel, a research data analyst at the University of California-Davis Violence Prevention Research Program.

Today, 19 states and Washington, D.C., have such laws. The “intense public discussion” about gun policies that often occurs after mass shootings lasted longer after Parkland, Aubel said. There was wide discussion about ERPOs, in particular, because many believed that such a law could have prevented the Parkland shooting. 

Aubel and colleagues analyzed 2018 news coverage about ERPOs. In their study, “Extreme risk protection order policies: A qualitative look at nationwide and state-specific news media coverage,” they examined coverage in three states in which ERPO legislation passed following the Parkland shooting (Florida, Rhode Island and Vermont) and three in which it did not (Ohio, Colorado and Pennsylvania).

They found a total of 2,294 news articles. In the six weeks before the Feb. 14 Parkland shooting, only seven articles mentioned ERPOs; but in the six weeks after, there were 820 articles. 

To analyze the content of articles, researchers reviewed 244 ERPO articles. They found that ERPOs were often described as “a tool for preventing firearm-related harm,” but specific uses of ERPOs were rarely mentioned. 

Some articles used the term “red flag law” for ERPOs, which is a term gun violence prevention advocates discourage for its vagueness and stigma. About one-third of articles used both official policy names and red flag language, one-third used only official names, and other third and used only red flag language. Articles in states where ERPO laws were ultimately passed were significantly more likely to use only official policy names, Aubel said. Articles in non-passing states were more likely to use only red flag language. 

The analysis also examined the language used when describing removing firearm access from someone subject to an ERPO. The most common phrasing was to “take away,” “seize” or “remove.” Articles in states that did not have ERPO laws were more likely to exclusively use the word “seize,” while articles in states that passed ERPO laws were more likely to use prohibitory language or “prevent.” But overall, using the word “prevent” was very rare, Aubel said.

Of the articles, 74% mentioned the Parkland shooting, 26% mentioned a perpetrator by name, 14% mentioned a victim by name, and no articles mentioned the race of a perpetrator or a victim. In addition, 20% of the articles included information about the firearms used in shootings and 13% explicitly made the link between ERPOs and violence prevention. All of these mentions were more likely to appear in articles in states that passed ERPO laws. 

Aubel and others called on the news media to not include the names of the perpetrators or specific firearms, “which could both be considered unnecessary details for the public that might encourage copycat crimes.” 

Only three articles (1.2%) mentioned addressing the root causes of gun violence, and nine articles (3.7%) mentioned gun violence research as a prevention strategy.

“Despite the range of solutions that were put forward in our sample of articles, few made reference to addressing the structural inequities or other systemic issues at the root of firearm violence,” Aubel said. “It was also relatively uncommon for articles to reference the need for more gun violence research, existing evidence or the scientists who do the work.” Instead, she said, articles mentioned law enforcement or politicians much more often.