Guns and the Media


In the months since Adam Lanza rampaged through Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, killing 26 students and teachers before committing suicide, a robust debate over the limits of gun rights has played out in the nation's media.

But America has been down this road before.

Its cities and towns experience more than 12,000 homicides each year, roughly two-thirds of which are firearms-related—many of them in the poorest neighborhoods—and they rarely make it off the police blotter to daily headlines.

And few of the nation's more than 19,000 annual gun suicides make the papers at all.

At a two-day roundtable on gun violence, gun laws and the media for senior editors at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York last week, journalists met with politicians, academics and even firearms industry representatives to explore the wider dimensions of the issue.

High on the agenda for the journalists, who represented 15 of the nation's most influential news outlets, was searching for new angles to bridge the gap between every day crime coverage and the wider-scope issues that face our nation.

“How do we do it so it's fresh, how do we make it more relevant, and how do we make people care about areas of town they might have written off?” asked Gilbert Bailon, editor-in-chief of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch during a panel on May 15.

“I think that's the challenge we have, because violence is in our papers every day.”

The answer, according to many of the speakers at the May 14-15 “Under the Gun” roundtable, is to avoid the clichés and pitfalls of a debate that can often seem stale after simmering for decades.

“The politics of this moment really is very similar to a political arc that we have seen a number of times in the last century,” said Robert Spitzer, chair of the Political Science department at the State University of New York, Cortland, and one of the country's leading experts on gun issues.

He recounted a series of violent incidents that sparked national outrage and debate—only to fizzle out soon after.

But new perspectives on mental health issues, and potential technological updates that might make firearms safer, offer the opportunity to re-frame the debate.

Connie Rice, Executive Director of the Advancement Project, said that instead of focusing on guns themselves, journalists should hone in on the effects of violence.

“We need to shift the frame from violence to trauma,” she said.

“The public health model says 'don’t focus on arrest, don’t focus on wars and particularly don’t focus on shootings.' It says 'focus on kids, focus on their safety.'”

Shannon Frattaroli, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, suggested journalists focus on innovations that have the potential to make guns safer.

She said engineers are capable of creating 'smart guns' that can only be triggered by their owners' fingers and grip mechanisms designed to prevent children from operating handguns.

However, Frattaroli's solution does little to address the hundreds of millions of guns already on the streets in America.

Joe Bartozzi, vice-president of the Connecticut-based firearms manufacturer O.F. Mossberg and Sons, argued the low-tech approach is best for keeping kids safe from those weapons.

The gun debate really turns on “access to guns,” Bartozzi said. “We should be talking about keeping guns in safes.”

But as journalists try to expand their coverage to include the impact of current research on mental illness and gun safety, it's an almost sure bet that politicians and advocates will circle back to finger-pointing and old talking points.

Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy complained, for instance, that journalists' attempts to give both sides equal play created a false “moral equivalency” between elected officials and gun advocates.

“Until we reset the balance of this moral equivalency, the National Rifle Association (NRA) will be treated just the same way as anyone who sits across the table on the issue,” Malloy said during an opening roundtable discussion May 14, adding that he believes the outspoken organization cares more about the gun industry than gun owners.

But the gun advocates have their own beefs with the press.

According to Joe Bartozzi, the media has distorted the issue by focusing on the NRA's wealth and power as a lobby group.

Do both sides have a point?

Jesse Wegman, one of the media participants in this week's conference, believes they might.

Wegman, former editorial operations manager of The Daily Beast/Newsweek,. believes that when covering the gun debate in particular, journalists can't just write off one side as insidious or scientifically unsound.

“It's not just sort of the craziness of some factions in our government,” said Wegman during one of the panels. Wegman will join The New York Times editorial board this summer.

“It's also these words in our founding documents, and I think it just changes everything about (this issue).”

Graham Kates is deputy managing editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers. He can be found on Twitter, @GrahamKates.

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