The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Another Fox News-driven target of likely GOP probes: ‘Looting’

Rep. James Comer (Ky.), ranking Republican of the House Oversight Committee. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

When Republicans take control of the House in January, it’s likely that Rep. James Comer (Ky.) will move from ranking Republican on the House Oversight Committee to its chairman. That likely promotion in mind, NBC’s Chuck Todd welcomed Comer to “Meet the Press” on Sunday to get a sense of what the committee and the Republican Party broadly had in mind once in power.

As might be expected, Comer pledged a slew of investigations into the Biden administration. That included — perhaps less predictably — a look at the pandemic response, going back to the administration of President Donald Trump. But after a back-and-forth with Todd on the subject of gun crime, Comer pointed at a focus for his party that would have been nearly impossible to see coming: potential legislation or investigations centered on looting.

Hard to predict that as a focus. Unless, that is, one watches Fox News.

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The exchange with Todd on guns was interesting and important as context for the “looting” conversation. Responding to a spate of mass-shooting events in recent weeks, Todd asked Comer whether he supported any legislation addressing the issue.

“If passing a bill would simply end gun violence, then I think you would have overwhelming support in Congress for that,” Comer said, waving the question away. Instead of laws, there needed to be better identification of those likely to commit crimes, which he suggested was downstream from the country’s “mental health crisis.”

Todd pushed back: Would he then support a law implementing mandatory waiting periods, during which this purported mental health trigger might be identified? Congress would discuss it, Comer said, but Republicans were more focused on fentanyl, which he said had killed 100,000 Americans. (In 2021, about 71,000 deaths nationally were attributed to the drug.)

The host kept pushing: Would Comer support a waiting period? Comer deflected.

“When you look at cities that have the most strict gun laws, like Washington, D.C., Chicago, these are the cities with the highest rates of crimes committed with guns,” Comer said. “So you know, just simply passing more bills isn’t going to solve the problem.”

Todd was ready for this. He showed data compiled by the pro-gun-law group Everytown showing that states with the strictest laws had the lowest rates of gun deaths and vice versa. You can see a version of that data below; states with weaker gun laws (further to the left on the chart) have more gun deaths per resident (higher on the chart).

Comer pushed back, insisting that “places like rural America, where just about every other household exercises their Second Amendment rights, there aren’t a lot of crimes in these areas” — which he attributed to the higher rates of gun ownership. Of course, there are fewer crimes in rural America primarily because there are fewer people. Relative rates of gun violence, though, are often lower in big cities with large populations. (Analyses of this question are hampered by limited or outdated crime data.)

It’s worth noting that the Everytown data are somewhat misleading. A large percentage of gun deaths in the United States are suicides. If we extract those deaths from the total (using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), the correlation with gun laws is far weaker. This makes sense in its own way, of course: Less access to firearms means fewer suicides using firearms.

That said, the 10 states with the loosest gun laws had an average rate of non-suicide gun deaths 44 percent higher than the 10 states with the strictest laws. It’s also worth noting that two states with strong gun laws but a lot of non-suicide gun deaths — Illinois and Maryland — also have a lot of guns recovered at crime scenes that originated out of state. In other words, strong gun laws are weakened in states where guns flow in from nearby states with weaker laws.

All of this, though, is a very standard patter for a Republican politician. Crime is bad in blue cities, not red counties; gun laws don’t work; it’s the fault of mental illness. This is the narrative on Fox News, for example, which drives and reflects a lot of the conversation about crime on the political right.

Bringing us to Comer’s other proposal for fighting crime.

“We’re going to continue to protect our Second Amendment rights,” he told Todd, “but while at the same time we want to get serious about crime in America, the fentanyl crisis, as well as the looting that’s taking place in cities.”

The idea that U.S. cities are riddled with looters is almost entirely a function of the right-wing media and Fox News. Yes, looting has occurred. Fox News is happy to show examples of it occurring. It’s worth noting that the network has mentioned “looters” or “looting” in nearly 400 chunks of airtime this year, more than three times as often as has CNN or MSNBC — a number of times that might well match the actual number of looting incidents on a 1-to-1 basis. (Again, we don’t have a lot of data on “looting” as a crime.)

Fox News has covered looting so often because it is a particularly visceral (and non-bloody) iteration of its incessant “crime is out of control” narrative coming into the midterm elections. Shortly before the election, we looked at how Fox News’s coverage of crime had surged in late September relative to the first six months of the year, an increase that was not linked to any obvious increase in crime at that same point. Continuing the analysis into this month, we see that mentions of crime on the network completely collapsed in the second third of this month — after the election was over.

What Comer presents to Todd, then, is that his party will focus heavily on fentanyl (which also got a pre-election bump in attention) and looting … almost certainly because these are elements of the Fox-led crime narrative that have been a focus of attention. Legislation on blocking shooters? Congress will debate it, as it always does, but Comer’s confident no laws will do any good.

In 2021 and 2022, Fox News has mentioned “looters” or “looting” in 40 percent more chunks of airtime than it has “mass shooting.” No wonder a prominent Republican sees the former as a more urgent focus of attention. Apparently looting isn’t simply an unaddressable function of mental illness.