About Those Guns…

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The front page of Sunday’s New York Times and the story within carry snapshots of the 126 most recent victims of mass shootings. “Inside a Deadly American Summer,” reads the page 1 headline. “An American Summer Stained in Blood,” is the inside title.

Both tap into the fear, anxiety, even terror that the overwhelming majority of us feel about mass shootings. “And all we could do is ask why,” notes The Times. “And wait for it to happen again.”

What if I told you that the media’s approach to these clearly horrendous mass shootings, which are increasing in number and frequency, may actually be making us less safe?

Suppose we are viewing the issue of gun violence through too narrow a lens—and we are therefore standing in the way of what could be real progress in reducing and preventing the deaths and serious injuries in our gun culture-run-wild?

A friend who spends a great deal of his time trying to make us all safer by volunteering for a prominent gun control organization alerted me to a most informative segment of NPR’s program On the Media. I’m linking to it here, but for those who can’t listen to the entire discussion, I’m also summarizing it (with some added references).

The segment is titled “How to Report on Gun Violence in America.” The host, Brooke Gladstone, interviewed Lois Beckett, a senior reporter for The Guardian, who has been covering gun violence for seven years.

Gladstone began by quoting journalist Margaret Sullivan, who said that whenever a mass shooting occurs,

“we reflexively spring into action. We describe the horror of what happened, we profile the shooter…we talk about the victim’s lives…we get reactions from public officials.”

This is gut-wrenching work, she says. But…

“If journalism is supposed to be a positive force in society, and we know it can be, this is doing no good.”

And that’s a problem.

Beckett says the same thing, perhaps more emphatically. Media reporting of mass shootings is misguided, she says. Even now, these rampages account for 1%-2% of all gun deaths. They’re so dreadful that they’re making us view our institutions and ourselves differently—and to take what may be the wrong steps in reducing gun violence.

Almost 2/3 of gun fatalities result from suicides, she points out. And many other victims are caught in “everyday” shootings in poverty-stricken segregated areas in cities.

With the focus on mass shootings, “We’re trying to prevent 1% from dying and not caring about the other 99%.”

Beckett credits the Parkland students, who rose far beyond the trauma of their own ordeal to call attention to the fact that “America’s gun debate has been racist for decades.”

According to statistics reported by Everytown Research, black Americans are 10 times more likely to die of gun homicides than are white Americans.

Everytown also reports that “firearms are the second leading cause of death for American children and teens and the first leading cause of death for Black children and teens…, and Black children and teens are 14 times more likely than white children and teens of the same age to die by gun homicide.”

The situation is untenable, and these awful crimes are committed by only a small proportion of individuals in these areas.

So we know that if we’re serious about preventing gun violence among those most affected, the media must draw our attention to approaches that actually help people at risk for suicide and/or living in poverty-stricken segregated areas.

And though suicide is a mental health issue, guns are a critical component: Everytown reports that access to a gun triples the risk of death by suicide, gun suicides occur mostly in states where there’s heavy gun ownership, and guns increase the fatality of a suicide attempt dramatically: less than 5% of suicide attempts succeed when a person doesn’t use a gun, but 85% are lethal when guns are used.

In her work with The Guardian, Beckett and colleagues have been exploring efforts that have made a difference in poverty-stricken areas, and she points to some “tremendous programs at the state level” that need more visibility to push back against the immobilizing views that nothing is possible; nothing can be done.

The Guardian is giving those efforts more visibility, and I found them so encouraging that I’ll describe them in Part 2 of this post.

“Looking at the big picture,” Beckett observes, “we need a real public health approach.” That’s a position that physicians’ groups and others have been advocating for years.

Beckett didn’t elaborate on this point, but my understanding is that a public health approach must begin with sufficient funding to yield solid data (that doesn’t solely rely on the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), as Brady, the oldest gun violence prevention group, has explained), and include background checks, banning assault weapons and the magazines and ammunition that enable the quick, devastating damage we’ve seen, and other interventions that we have reason to believe will be effective.

We know, for example, that banning assault weapons works because we had such a ban from 1994 until its expiration in 2004.

Discussing current proposed gun laws, Beckett said something I found concerning: When Colorado and Washington state passed background check legislation, the number of checks didn’t increase much because the laws weren’t being strictly enforced.

If, as a vast majority of Americans hope, strong federal background check legislation does finally pass, perhaps a newly aroused public will demand greater accountability.

We also know strong gun laws make a difference. According to Giffords Law Center, “On average, fewer people die from gun violence in states with strong gun laws, and more people die in states with weak gun laws.” Alaska has both the highest gun death rate and some of the weakest laws, while Hawaii is the reverse: strong laws, few gun deaths.

Beckett says she looks for legislation based on policies with science behind them, such as red-flag laws that depend on the judgment of people closest to the person at risk: law enforcement, social workers, schools, parents—laws that don’t remove a person’s gun rights forever, but try to line up with what’s happening now. Some states have already enacted such laws.

She says that although these proposals, which have support among some conservatives, have gained attention because of mass shootings, they can also help with many people who might be in danger of harming themselves or others—the 99% noted earlier.

One positive that has emerged from these dreadful mass shootings, she feels, is the numbers of white suburban parents getting involved in the gun control movement—and learning, for example, that homicides of black children often occur in circumstances different from what they expected.

I’m assuming she means that in so many of these fatalities, the child is doing nothing wrong—is simply in the wrong place, is the victim of mistaken identity, or other tragic situations.

Beckett cautions that advocating for the wrong thing is extremely dangerous. She believes almost all the efforts to make schools safer are having the opposite effect. This comment led me to further research.

In The Conversation, three researchers discuss efforts that have been called “target-hardening”:

“attempts to fortify schools against gun violence through increased security measures. These measures may include metal detectors, lock-down policies, ‘run, hide, fight’ training, and surveillance cameras.”

The researchers, who have collaboratively written about these approaches elsewhere, point out that surveillance cameras didn’t stop Columbine, and school lockdown policies didn’t save the children at Sandy Hook.

“We believe what is missing from the discussion is the idea of an educational response. Current policy responses do not address the fundamental question of why so many mass shootings take place in schools. To answer this question, we need to get to the heart of how students experience school and the meaning that schools have in American life.

“An educational response is important because the target hardening approach might actually make things worse by changing students’ experience of schools in ways that suggest violence rather than prevent it.”

All these target-hardening methods tell students that schools are “scary, dangerous and violent places,” the researchers say. And they may lead teachers to begin assessing students “not as budding learners, but as potential shooters…The more teachers think of students as threats to be assessed, the less educators will think of students as individuals to nourish.”

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Beckett believes the press must focus on the things that readers or listeners have the power to do. They need to think more about providing information for people who are worried about someone close to them and don’t know what to do. She believes that:

“The biggest enemy is not the NRA: it’s cynicism and exhaustion of everyday Americans who don’t see evidence of help.” 

When Gladstone asked Beckett how she felt about the Walmart CEO’s determination to no longer sell assault weapons and ammunition, Beckett observed that Walmart had actually stopped selling handguns in 1993.

“Walmart’s policies on the dangerous threats are more in line with data than our whole debate is.”

She added that actions like Walmart’s do matter, and change is possible. Gun owners are a minority in the US (and many of them now support gun safety legislation). Seventy to 80 percent of Americans don’t own guns, and 60% live in homes with no guns.

“It’s important to recognize that extreme gun absolutists are fewer than 10% of gun owners”—a very aggressive group, but a small number of people.

“If even a small number with a different view can organize against them, they can change the debate. It’s taken a long time, but we’re seeing it happen now.”

Unquestionably, these mass shootings have increased, and they have caused an enormous level of fear and anxiety. The danger Beckett finds is that the reflexive focus on these shootings is leading more Americans to arm themselves—which could result in more suicides and domestic violence (as well as accidents). “Our fears are going to make us less safe.” To counter that, she says,

“We need to remind ourselves to de-escalate and trust each other and not be afraid.”

Please join me next week when, in Part 2, we explore programs that do just that.

Annie

23 thoughts on “About Those Guns…

      1. Sorry; I thought you live in the UK. Regarding the gun owners you know, I’ll just assume they are law-abiding folks who would not handle guns if they felt they were impaired in any way.

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  1. There is no way the print, broadcast and social media will avoid providing major coverage of mass shootings. It’s in their DNA.
    Such coverage of these grisly and shocking events reminds of the lethal nature of guns and the mindset of those who use them to purposely kill others , often men, women and children they don’t know..

    However, such coverage should be augmented by in depth coverage of those causes of gun related deaths and injuries which amount to a much higher percentage of the annual total of 40,000+ gun -related deaths and almost 100,000 injuries. Each death and injury exacts a major economic and human toll which collectively adds up to a staggering cost each year.

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    1. I’m sure you’re right, but I think the quest for greater perspective and the broader view you mention is a worthy goal—and I’m glad Beckett raised the issue. I do worry about the changes to us as a people that result from all this—and the possible increase in arming oneself in the mistaken belief that that is the only approach left.

      I’ve often wished that members of the media would individually decide simply to withhold the shooter’s name so that others who seek notoriety receive less encouragement that they’ll be remembered for these awful acts.

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  2. Wow Annie – that was a real eye-opener for me. I did not know you had had a ten year ban on assault weapons – how did it ever get reversed? And the suicide rates – the media never touches on those. We are seeing more gang violence in the Toronto area, and its spreading out now to other cities nearby – recently a young black man (18 yr old high school senior who went back to his apartment to change his shoes) was in the wrong place in a shoot out near a low income housing development and died in his mother’s arms. I wish they would not televise the shooters names too – and I believe in one of the most recent Texas shootings, the police tried not to release it – but it got out anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In the days when politicians compromised to get things done, the law was designed to expire 10 yrs later. But it was successful.

      That’s such a sad story about that young man. Multiply that story many times, and that’s what these young people are experiencing.
      Is anything being done about the gangs?

      I think it’s probably impossible to withhold shooters’ names, unfortunately.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Not that I know of…..they talk about fighting crime but I don’t really think the Toronto police can get a handle on it. It used to be such a safe city. A few years ago I was there for a work conference and there had been a shooting across the street from the Hilton I stayed at – even though it was just down the street from the Eaton Centre shopping mall I was not comfortable going down there. There was a gang shooting in the food court of the Eaton Centre where I used to go for coffee also and a lot of innocent bystanders got caught in the cross fire. You make good points about the suicide risk – if you have a means readily available it’s more likely to happen. I’ve seen a few devastated parents in ER I’d like to forget because their teenagers had access to a gun, and one poor man who missed and ended up crippled and brain damaged the rest of his life. These would be hunting rifles as it was a rural area, for killing raccoons getting into the corn field and such. It seems like the mass shootings get most of the attention though.

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      2. You’ve really seen the damage close up. I always wonder if the first responders are permanently scarred by their heroic work.

        I’ve been to the Eaton Centre. So troubling to think of violence there. But troubling to think of violence anywhere.

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  3. It is gratifying to see the debate going somewhere other than the norm. I was pleasantly surprised at the direction taken in the source you cite.

    I would like to see more attention paid to the human element. We live in a time when profiling is frowned upon but what is present in, what, 97% of incidents involving offensive use of guns is young males. Everyone agrees that most of these young men are far from what we here would call well-adjusted. It seems to me that the epidemic has been one of fatherless boys who are failed by the substitutes we have tried to provide over the last generation or two.

    You can outlaw all the guns you care to – look how well it has worked with illegal drugs. And what of these video games that teach young boys what it’s like to kill people? The guns will find their way here no matter what. Those who have evil intentions will find and use them.

    There are no easy answers here. The left must come to grips with the fact that normal, well-adjusted people with guns are not a danger. The right must acknowledge that it’s not 1950 anymore and the percentage of”normal” people (children who spend their entire childhoods with the same 2 parents and surrounded by extended family) has dropped dramatically.

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    1. Always glad to move your assumptions slightly off-kilter, JP—as you sometimes do to mine.

      But I really don’t think this is a left/right issue. Most people, some polls say more than 90%, want universal background checks—and that includes many gun owners. And we do know that some of these laws work because we have the history, as I note in my post.

      As to your seeking more attention to the human element, stay tuned for Part 2.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This was so well researched and informative, Annie. What really resonated with me was the comment about schools being turned into violent and scary places… After almost twenty years of being a teacher and school counsellor I can honestly say that nothing makes me more uncomfortable than beefed up security at schools. In a place where we should be welcoming and warm, we are inciting suspicion and fear. Children and youth coming into our buildings can be made to feel like the enemy or, and this is just as bad because it breeds fear and anxiety, a target. This is not the way to motivate or inspire young people, or to keep them from resorting to violence themselves.

    I also want to make a comment about the media’s coverage of mass shootings. We have known for a long time about suicide contagion. It is the reason the media does not report suicides (for example, suicide by subway is never reported in the media, at least here in Canada). If you report a suicide, there will be a rash of similar attempts, so members of the media have guidelines advising them against doing it. I’ve always thought mass shootings should be treated in a similar fashion. Unfortunately, the coverage is often detailed and grisly, emotional and personal. It is the perfect way to motivate other individuals at risk of committing violent acts. In this internet age, it is hard to regulate the dissemination of information, but something should definitely be done in terms of guidelines for the reporting of shootings.

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    1. Janine,
      Thanks so much for your extremely thoughtful comment; reading your perspective as a professional reinforces the researchers’ conclusions about schools’ target-hardening approaches very well.

      The issue of contagion on the part of mass shooters is one that we as a society—media and public—must explore more fully. I was unaware of press guidelines about suicides, but I agree that guidelines on covering mass shootings—with voluntary media concurrence—might well be beneficial.

      When Beckett (interviewee) was stressing the need for more focus on suicide prevention, she was encouraging her colleagues in the media to provide information to guide people who either feel suicidal or are concerned about someone who is/may be. That can apply to potential mass shooters as well as other troubled people.

      I am hoping to bring some news of progress concerning gun violence in Part 2 of this post.

      All good wishes,
      Annie

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  5. Hi Annie, I don’t usually comment here but this has been eating at me all week. What you very rarely see in all this is comparison to other western countries. If you widen your scope to include other countries with relatively high rates of gun ownership it is quite apparent that the US is an outlier in the data by a wide margin. It also casts JP’s factors in a different light. There are fatherless households in Canada, there are violent video games in Finland, there is mental illness in Australia yet death by gun is much less likely in these countries.

    So what’s different? The media coverage as you mentioned is a factor. Lack of regulation, not just background checks but firearm registration and storage regulations. This is where Finland really has it right, they have compulsory military service so although the ownership rate is high everyone is properly trained, guns must be kept locked separate from ammunition etc and permits are not issued for self defence. It does not completely stop illegal guns from being used in crimes but trained owners and careful storage greatly reduce the number of guns falling into the hands of criminals.

    Then there’s culture, as I mentioned on JP’s blog a couple of years ago other western countries regard firearms as tools. In the US it is wrapped in many additional layers of meaning. I am lucky to work in an office with people from many nations, I asked my Australian colleague about the 1996 National Firearms Agreement and if that affected their family. He said his father gave up his long gun, he could have kept it but it wasn’t worth the trouble and expense to comply with the new regs, it wasn’t a big deal.

    So, my international colleagues and I remain bewildered. I am looking forward to news of progress in Part 2.

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    1. Hi, DougD–

      I agree with everything you’ve said, and many of us are as bewildered as your international colleagues–and appalled. I didn’t mention the international aspect because I assume everyone knows what an outlier the US is, but perhaps I should have. And I’m glad you mentioned the fatherless children and video games issues; I was remiss in not directly addressing them.

      Somehow, a blatant misreading of the Second Amendment, which even conservative Justice Antonin Scalia contended was not absolute, has been elevated by gun lobbyists to, now, “a God-given right.”

      Thanks very much for your comments. I hope you’ll visit more often.

      Annie

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  6. Hi Annie.

    Very interesting and thought provoking post!

    I listened to the podcast and I agree that excessive TV coverage of mass shootings can actually contribute to more of the same and can cause us to lose sight of how extensive gun violence really is in our communities, but I don’t see mainstream news changing how they report these massacres. And even if they did, I believe that social media probably does more to encourage mass shooters than do news reports.

    The fact that mass shootings make up a very small proportion of deaths compared to other gun fatalities in our country is mind opening, but that the press jumps on these stories is no more surprising than their coverage of a hurricane disaster that kills hundreds or thousands of people at a time.

    The bottom line is to continue to work for gun control to get guns off the streets…not an easy task. Banning only assault weapons won’t do anything to prevent neighborhood gun violence and suicides.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Fran—
      A very interesting and thought-provoking response—and I’m glad you listened to the podcast.
      I agree with just about everything you said, but I think Beckett was more concerned about the media’s ignoring the preponderance of sources of gun violence than she was about the media’s actually encouraging gun violence per se—more that the results of reportage were leading us to bad decisions. But I think you raise an important point about social media.
      In addition to continuing to work for gun control to get guns off the street, I hope to expand what we see as the bottom line in Part 2.
      Thanks again.
      Annie

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  7. This raises such an important issue about the impact of media because it shapes collective consciousness, it guides opinions but then it goes some way into affecting the change, which may be skewed if the original content wasn’t reflective of reality. As you say, with people turning to arm themselves and the fear the builds from the notion of mass shooting being so prevalent. “With the focus on mass shootings, “We’re trying to prevent 1% from dying and not caring about the other 99%”, that’s also really sad, especially when you consider the proportion of suicides from guns. I wonder how many accidents there have been? Even in the UK, with things like pellet guns and not actual bullets, children have been blinded, injured or killed from accidents and inappropriate use and safety of weapons. More weapons mean likely more accidents. More fear, more anger, more negativity. Not the way forward… Such a thought-provoking post, and it’s disconcerting to think the media can and should be doing more to help in the battle against guns and violence, not making matters worse…
    Caz xx

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    1. There are many gun accidents as well—particularly involving children whose parents don’t appropriately lock away their firearms. The media’s responses, as others have pointed out, are predictable; that’s why I’m so impressed with The Guardian’s year-long investigation into regions where programs have actually reduced gun violence. I’ll cover some of this in my next post.

      It’s great to have you visit and add your astute comments and questions, Caz. xx

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  8. The suicide rate associated with guns had crossed my path, but it was good to see you point that out. Tragic. As one of your readers noted, your discussion of things never quite goes where one might anticipate, which I very much appreciate! The role of the media on this issue is so interesting. Makes me think about how I acquire information, which is by no means meant to be disparaging of our hard-working, under-appreciated journalists (especially with this White House). I look forward to your continued commentary on what has actually worked. Thanks for your thoughtful work. Hope you are enjoying it as much as this faithful reader does.

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    1. Just posted Part 2, dear Faithful Reader. I hope Part 1 didn’t sound like media bashing, as I share your view of our tireless, vilified press as especially vital to our democracy now. But I do think Beckett of The Guardian makes some strong points. I want to find out if the US press operates under similar guidelines as the Canadians do re: suicides, as per one of my blogger friends from up north. If so—or even if not—perhaps there should be some discussion of voluntary guidelines for covering mass shootings.
      I look forward to your reactions to Part 2.
      Yes, I do love this work—the research, writing, interaction—but I worry about imposing on people’s time too much when I run on so long!

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