Again and Again and Again and Again (and Again)
Brooke: Last week's show was titled Again and Again and it led with an essay about the then latest devastating mass shooting in Buffalo. We comb through our archives for all those people we've spoken to in the past about the tropes and the mistakes that litter the coverage of these abominations. We didn't gather a new tape because, honestly, we'd set it all before, and then it happened again.
President Biden: I had hoped, when I became President, I would not have to do this again. Another massacre, Uvalde, Texas, in Elementary School, beautiful innocent second, third, fourth graders.
Brooke: August of 2019 was another moment when two shooting rampages occurred within days of each other; one in El Paso, Texas, and the next in Dayton, Ohio.
At the time, Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote, "When a mass shooting happens, even when it happens twice in a 24-hour period, even when the death tolls soar into the dozens, we reflexively spring into action. We describe the horror of what happened. We profile the shooter. We tell the story of the victims' lives. We get reaction from public officials.
It's difficult, gut-wrenching work for journalists on the scene. Then there's the next one and the next one. If journalism is supposed to be a positive force in society, and we know it can be, this is doing no good."
Lois Beckett is a senior reporter for The Guardian. She covered gun violence for many years. She says that mainstream coverage of the issue is flawed because it's focused mainly on one type of tragedy. She explained to me, when I spoke to her three years ago, how better coverage would mean focusing on the root causes of gun violence.
Lois Beckett: Our whole gun violence conversation is driven by mass shootings, which are incredibly horrific, and statistically, still, even now, very rare events. If you look at the people who are dying from gunshot wounds in this country, it is primarily people dying from suicide, that's two-thirds of it, and people dying in everyday shootings in local cities and places where there has been concentrated gun violence for decades, and mass shooting victims make up maybe 1% or 2%.
We continue to have the same conversation over and over trying to prevent 1% of people from dying and not caring about the other 99%. Those students from Parkland, Florida, were the first gun violence prevention group to really say clearly and explicitly that the American gun control debate has been racist for decades, the Black and brown kids who are dying outside of school were not getting the same attention as primarily white kids dying at affluent suburban schools, like the Parkland Students School, and that needed to change.
That we really needed to have a conversation driven by and focused on the majority of the victims and that understood that not every solution is going to prevent every kind of violence, and that what mattered was doing a lot of different things, trying to make everybody safer, not just trying to prevent the shooting that shows up on the news.
Brooke: You have, for a long time, been an advocate of solutions in the coverage. How do you propose incorporating solutions?
Lois: There are lots of policies that make tiny amounts of difference that can be helpful. There has actually been a tremendous amount of progress at the state level, even as there has been political gridlock in Washington.
When we talk about solutions journalism, I think what we're saying is we want to push back against the inaccurate biases of our readers, of our listeners, that nothing can be done, that nothing is possible. I don't think we need to overstate claims, but I think it's really important that we're accurate about what we do know about what works to save lives.
Brooke: When we examined solutions journalism, one thing that a very strong advocate, Tina Rosenberg, told us is that it's not always about solutions that work. Sometimes it's solutions that don't.
Lois: If you think about the single policy that's getting the most attention right now as part of America's gun control debate, it's whether or not the country should ban military-style assault weapons, and whether there should be even a mandatory buyback of the assault weapons that Americans currently own. Public opinion surveys suggest that a majority of Americans support a ban on assault weapons. Even nearly half of Americans support a mandatory buyback, something that, until very recently, was not even conceivable on the political agenda.
Brooke: In fact, we have a clip of Beto O'Rourke advocating that very thing.
Beto: Americans who own AR-15s, AK-47s will have to sell them to the government. We're not going to allow them to stay on our streets, to show up in our communities, to be used against us in our synagogues, or churches or mosques, or Walmart's or public places.
Lois: The fact is, two things are true at the same time. It is undeniable that guns like the AR-15 are a fetish object for mass shooters that have been used in one terrible public mass shooting after another. It is also true that handguns have always been responsible for the overwhelming majority of gun homicides. Handguns are actually used in a large number of mass shootings overall. Americans are having fierce and furious debate about whether to ban the gun that is not used in the majority of gun murders.
Brooke: Even though the AR-15 is maybe the most popular gun in the market, at least according to Meghan McCain, of the view:
Meghan: The AR-15 is by far the most popular gun in America. Again, I was just in the middle of nowhere, Wyoming. If you're talking around going and taking people's guns away from them, there's going to be a lot of violence, there's going to be a lot of--
Speaker 1: They lived without them for many years during the ban.
Meghan: I'm not living without guns.
Lois: Meghan McCain saying that she thinks that a mandatory buyback of assault weapons would lead to violence. This is actually a pretty mainstream conservative view. There was a report in 2009 from the Department of Homeland Security, which warned about the dangers of white nationalist radicalization and domestic terrorism, and it identified guns and gun confiscations as central to that.
Brooke: The NRA suggests that the Second Amendment includes the right to wage civil war. Of course, Tucker Carlson says confiscation is basically a call for civil war.
Tucker: You're calling for a civil war. What you're calling for is an incitement to violence is something that I wouldn't want to live here when that happened, would you?
Lois: It's really hard to know, what might happen if Congress actually passes an assault weapons ban with mandatory confiscation. I think it's certainly true that a lot of people won't comply. They'll bury their AR-15s in the backyard, and nobody knows they have them. There's no gun registry. I think it's also true that there are a significant number of law enforcement officials who will not comply with this law.
We've already seen that in some states that have passed universal background checks, like Colorado or Washington state, that the number of background checks conducted in those states hasn't actually gone up since the law passed. The suggestion is, it's just not being enforced very much.
Brooke: You said we have no gun registry. That's another proposal. If we license people to drive cars, why not to use guns? Then, of course, the common-sense legislation that people refer to like universal background checks, there's the red-flagging issue. Which of these do you think would be helpful or do you think none of them are?
Lois: If we talk about policies that have more science behind them, extreme risk protection orders, which are sometimes called Red Flag laws, are really promising. Conservatives are more open to them. The laws are based not on the government knowing when someone is dangerous or not, but on the judgment of someone who is closest to a person at risk, whether that's law enforcement, family members, people at school, or co-workers.
The idea is that the bar for getting your gun rights removed permanently under federal law is really high. The thing about extreme risk protection orders are they don't remove your gun rights forever. The idea is that it tries to line up the law more closely with when people are actually in danger of hurting themselves or someone else. The second reason that this policy is so good, is that it's gotten a lot of attention because of mass shootings but it tends to be used most often to help people who are suicidal.
That's so important because gun suicide is two-thirds of all gun deaths in the United States. Rather than a policy that's just driven by the rarest violence, these extreme risk protection orders are actually relevant to the most publicized and well-known kinds of violence and the kinds of violence that's actually hurting the most people.
Brooke: Don't you think, though, that the media's focus on school shootings and other high def told tragedies, prompt more outrage and potential for change, than suicides and domestic homicide say that may be less relatable to the people who might push to make changes?
Lois: There's two ways of looking at that. One is more optimistic. One is the fact that after Sandy Hook, there were a lot of suburban white parents who did not think that gun violence was relevant to them at all, who started getting involved in the gun control movement. As part of doing that, they began to learn that gun violence didn't look like they thought it did. I talked to a woman in suburban Indianapolis who met a Black mom from the center of Indianapolis and realized that the way that mom's son got shot didn't meet her expectations of what gun violence looked like. The fact of people getting involved in activism, no matter what brings them in that you learn through that. On the other hand, if you are trying to fix a problem and you are fighting for the wrong solutions, getting more people involved to advocate for things that even might be counterproductive is incredibly dangerous.
There is so much tremendous focus on school safety and fortifying schools and surveilling students and adding video cameras and watching what students are doing online. Almost none of this has any evidence behind it. The best thing that we know is that more police in school and more surveillance in school and spending a lot of monies to turn schools into bunkers has actually led to more violence, has made students less safe, and it's all being done by parents who want to protect their children and they are doing the wrong things.
Brooke: You've written about the changes that Columbine made, the [unintelligible 00:11:06] school shooting in our era.
Lois: Columbine really fueled to focus on zero tolerance, policies, and schools, and continue to push to put police officers in schools to protect students from extremely rare school shootings. What researchers and activists have found is that that appeared to disproportionately affect students of color to have fueled the school to prison pipeline. The attempt to make American kids safer by putting police officers in schools seems to have just left a lot of kids in the criminal justice system, and that doesn't make anybody safer.
Brooke: What about the solution reported by NBC nightly news earlier this week on a $48 million school that's "designed to deter active shooters in Fruitport, Michigan"?
Speaker 3: No more lockers in the hallways. Instead, short lockers in a common area, so teachers can see 900 students at once.
Speaker 4: We also installed these wing walls to provide safety for students to hide behind if there's a threat down the hallway.
Speaker 3: A grant from Michigan state police paid for the impact-resistant film on the windows and a special system to lock down specific sections of the school.
Lois: That kind of incredulous coverage that accepts the false belief that children are most at risk of being shot in schools is incredibly dangerous. There are 1,300 American school-aged kids who die every year from gunshot wounds, 700 from gun homicides, 500 from gun suicides, about 90 from gun accidents. If you look at the data, going back for decades, schools are actually the place where American kids are least likely to get shot. Of all school-age homicides going back for 20 years, less than 2% of those are in schools.
What we have right now is a society in which kids are getting shot in their homes and in their neighborhoods, and they're safest at school. Our response to that is to design barricaded fortresses of schools. One of the saddest things is that The Trace, which is an outlet that covers gun violence exclusively, did an analysis, trying to find every kid who had been killed in a gun homicide since Parkland. In looking at all of those individual cases, what they found was that more kids were actually killed by their parents in murder-suicides and domestic violence than were killed at school, about twice as many, in fact.
There's just a complete disconnect between the conversation that we have and the fears that the parents have about what puts their children at risk.
Brooke: What do you think the press should be reporting on? What do you want to see in the coverage?
Lois: I think one of the things that journalists really can do is focus on solutions, but also focus on what their individual readers or listeners have the power to do. If you talk to longtime gun violence prevention advocates, people like Nicole Hockley who lost her son at Sandy Hook, they will say that the biggest enemy really isn't the National Rifle Association or gun rights advocates, it's the cynicism and exhaustion of everyday Americans who just don't see any evidence that anything can be done to help except maybe buying a gun to protect their own families because there's nothing else that they see that they have the power to do.
I think we not only need to focus more on policy and things that are working but also think more about providing people with information like what do you do if you're worried about someone in your life?
What we do know about mass shootings is that there are almost always red flags, that people are nervous, that people thought something was wrong, but people also don't want to hurt someone that they care about and they just don't know who to go to for help. I think we need to do a lot more work in trying to think, how do we serve not just people who are watching these shootings terrified at home, but what journalism are we providing for the people who have a bad feeling in the pit of their stomachs, who think something is wrong and they don't know what to do?
Brooke: What about the countless shootings of people of color in communities that are largely invisible to much of the mainstream coverage of this issue?
Lois: What we've been doing at The Guardian, this year, is focusing a yearlong series on the Bay area because, in the past decade, the Bay area has seen gun homicides drop by 30%. Some cities have seen even bigger drops, 50%, and 60% drops. We're trying to put sustained attention on what's working to save lives. New York has seen historic drops in gun violence, it's safe like it's never been safe before.
Oakland and Richmond, places where there was generational gun violence have seen real reductions. Part of it is just trying to put the focus there and to remind people that things aren't always getting worse. Part of it is just investing the time and money to make those stories interesting. Part of what makes our project work is that we hired a young reporter from Richmond who's grown up here, who can be a voice in the newsroom from a community that's been affected by gun violence, and provide coverage that she thinks is most relevant for the people who are living with this every day.
Brooke: You mentioned New York and California, I can't help but think part of the reason is that it's really hard to get guns in those states.
Lois: One of the challenges here, of course, is that it's really easy to go back and diagram one particular horrific act of violence and talk about exactly how it played out and really difficult to know when violence doesn't happen, who's responsible or what's responsible, probably California's and New York's strict gun laws do play some role in the reductions.
At the same time, what we've seen is really dramatic short-term drops in gun violence, even though there haven't been dramatic gun control laws passed in that period, are the best experts in the Bay area, for instance, say that they think it's local intervention programs and that really person-focused gun violence prevention that's probably responsible for the majority of that 30% drop in gun homicides over the past decade.
Brooke: If you were going to issue a guide to journalists covering this issue, what would you suggest the three things they should stop doing and the three things they should start doing?
Lois: I think the most important thing for good journalism on this issue is to challenge people's fears and conceptions and to say what violence actually looks like in this country, fact-checking all of these different school safety measures, talking very particular terms about what kinds of guns are actually most dangerous in the circumstances in which people die.
That you can look at the coverage and say, "Is this coverage pushing back at my assumptions about what's happening? My assumptions about what will make the most difference? Does this coverage include solutions? Am I learning about the different things that people are trying to make a difference in this issue, and also, is it honest about when solutions don't actually work that well, that not all gun control laws might be that helpful? Is this coverage looking at the big picture?"
Because that's a real public health approach to gun violence, it's not just about legislative action. There are a lot of different methods and approaches to this.
Brooke: You've been doing this for seven years. Do you think that's about how long a person can cover this stuff?
Lois: I think it's about as long as I can cover this stuff. One of the things that is so difficult is that gun violence in America overall is down dramatically in the past 25 years, it's down about 50%. At the same time, these relatively rare mass shootings are increasing, and that doesn't mean that more people are dying, but the level of fear and anxiety in this country is tremendous.
That has real effects. Your ability to feel safe in a public space, the psychology of worrying about your kids at school, all that takes a toll. There's also a real limitation to trying to focus on data and the objective facts of what's going on. One of the frightening things is just the knowledge that the more violence that there is in the media, with the more focus there is on these horrific acts that we are seeing, that encourages more Americans to arm themselves.
That means that then the rare incidents in which someone misuses the gun that they own with domestic violence or with suicide, that those might be increasing. It's hard to look at this and know that, no matter what the data says, our fears are going to make us less safe. What we're seeing now is a continued escalation. What we really need to do with this whole issue with the media and everyone else is deescalate and remind ourselves of the reasons that we have to trust each other and not be afraid.
Brooke: Lois, thank you very much.
Lois: Thanks for talking.
Brooke: Lois Beckett is a senior editor at The Guardian covering gun policy criminal justice in the far right in the US. Thanks for listening to the midweek podcast. On the big show, this week will be parsing the current state of our immunity, so-called at this stage in the pandemic. If we've taken all the shots, if we'd even had COVID already, are we safe-ish? Attempted answers to pressing questions. See you Friday. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
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