< Why We Might be Telling the Wrong Stories in the Gun Debate


Friday, April 12, 2013

BROOKE GLADSTONE: On Thursday, the Senate voted 68 to 31 to consider proposals to curb gun violence, under the eyes of many who’d lost family members in the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Jillian Soto was there. She’d lost a sister Vicky, a teacher.

JILLIAN SOTO:  Before Sandy Hook happened, before December 14th, I knew nothing about guns. I did not know that you couldn’t – that everybody had to go through a background check; I thought everyone had to. I never thought that anybody could just receive a gun. You could go to your neighbor who had a gun and buy his gun and not have to go through a background check. And that’s wrong.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Sandy Hook’s 20 dead children, some of whose pictures were held up by two senators from Connecticut, is why that vote took place, why it cleared the threatened Republican-led filibuster. But lately, we’ve been seeing and hearing many, many stories of shooting deaths involving children.

MALE CORRESPONDENT:  A four-year-old somehow got ahold of a weapon and accidentally shot his six-year-old neighbor.

FEMALE CORRESOPNDENT:  Authorities in Tennessee say a four-year-old boy shot and killed a woman in what appears to be a complete accident.

MALE CORRESPONDENT:  A six-month-old baby killed, not by natural causes, but by gun violence.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  In fact, we’ve noticed more stories of every kind of shooting death, a change in the coverage that reflects a change in the Zeitgeist, or vice versa.

MALE CORRESPONDENT:  The latest push to prevent gun violence comes as Maryland mourns a 17-year-old honor student shot by her Army recruiter.

BOB GARFIELD:  Even stories that aren’t about guns end up being about guns, like this week’s story about a student who went on a rampage with an Exacto knife.

FEMALE CORRESPONDENT:  A community college campus is locked down after an apparent stabbing spree that left as many as 12 people wounded, one critically.

MAN:  We wish we could protect ourselves with guns and stuff. We wish that the law would let us carry guns ‘cause we’re legal adults and carry guns on campus to protect ourselves. But so far, all we have to rely on is on God, but we’d love to have God and the law on our side.

BOB GARFIELD:  God, the law and a campus full of Lone Starians blasting away. Picture the crossfire. By now, you should be picturing lots of unimaginable things.

MALE CORRESPONDENT:  A deputy’s wife was killed over the weekend from an accidental shooting at the hand of a child.

FEMALE CORRESPONDENT:  A somber Wilson County Sheriff Robert Bryant stood outside the Department today trying to explain how a fatal shooting hit so close to home.

SHERIFF ROBERT BRYANT:  All these guns were locked up in this – in a, in a safe, and he was actually pull – pullin’ another gun out to show somebody – they were at the house – one of his rifles.

FEMALE CORRESPONDENT:  At one point, everyone’s back was turned to a four-year-old who reached for one of the guns, immediately killing Josephine Fanning, the deputy’s wife.

BOB GARFIELD:  In the current phase of coverage, the gun debate is presented not so much with data as with anecdote. That’s not to say there aren’t facts to report. We know from a division of the Centers for Disease Control that in 2010 guns wielded in homicides, suicides or accidentally accounted for the equivalent to roughly 86 deaths every day. We also know that as recently as last month, in the bill passed to keep the government funded through September, Republican senators inserted a measure requiring the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to issue a disclaimer saying that the gun data it collects, quote, “cannot be used to draw broad conclusions about firearms-related crimes.” Moreover, as New York Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg told me last January:

SHERYL GAY STOLBERG:  There is no central database of gun transactions.

BOB GARFIELD:  Now, this is not because the federal government hasn't thought of that. This is the result of being essentially handcuffed by the law. Can you tell me what the law is in early 2013 and how it got there?

SHERYL GAY STOLBERG:  So in 1986, Congress adopted the Firearms Owners Protection Act, and that law prevents the ATF from establishing a central database. Instead, the ATF has to comb through records, computer printouts, hand-scrawled index cards, sometimes water-stained sheets of paper to gather up necessary data on firearms transactions.

BOB GARFIELD:  And the reason for this is that legislatures friendly to the NRA have tucked certain provisions into bills that have nothing to do with gun control, in order to make sure that the ATF's job is as cumbersome as possible. What is their thinking?

SHERYL GAY STOLBERG:  Well, I think the argument made by the NRA is that a central database is tantamount to Big Brother. It could be used by the government to send agents into people's homes and repossess their guns. It's interesting that the NRA, in speaking about the Newtown case, suggested a central database of people who are mentally ill but it, nonetheless, opposes a database of registered gun owners.


ANA MARQUEZ-GREENE:  One, two, three, ready and go.

[SINGING]:  Come thou Almighty King, help us Thy name to sing.


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  The faces of the victims of Sandy Hook, like six-and-a-half-year-old Ana Grace Marquez-Greene, hover over

the national debate. And every day they’re joined by new faces. If, as the NRA believes, using data to draw conclusions about guns is somehow unfair, what about the coverage of the current parade of gun victims, a procession that was always there but we never used to see? Is that journalism or activism? New York Times Op Ed writer Joe Nocera doesn’t particularly care. He pens opinions for a living. But he started the Daily Gun Report, a blog that posts short news items on individual gun deaths nationwide to tell a bigger story, along with much of the rest of the news media.

JOE NOCERA:  And the reason is simple. When you live in a town and you read the paper or you watch television or you see the local media, you’re only aware, really, of the gun deaths that take place in that town, and not even all of them ‘cause many of them don’t even get reported. And so, yes, it creates a narrative in the sense that you have a broader understanding of what kind of violence is happening across the country.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  I wonder, do you know who the number one victim of gun violence is?

JOE NOCERA:  I have no idea. You tell me.


JOE NOCERA:  Well, that is true, but what does that have to do with anything? It –


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  I'm just saying that I wonder whether anecdotes present the truest picture.

JOE NOCERA:  Let me phrase it this way:  Journalism is inherently anecdotal. Prior to the heightened awareness of Newtown, you would get anecdotes about mass shootings, you would get anecdotes when there was, in New York this past summer, a coldblooded murder in broad daylight. You get anecdotes when the police – and this also happened last year in New York – had to shoot a guy 80 times and he still wasn’t dead. So those are the kind of anecdotes that are getting in the paper now and have historically gotten in the paper. So what’s different now? What’s different now is that you’re getting reporting and a much broader level of anecdotes, of the kind of anecdotes that are actually so mundane that they don’t normally make the paper. And yes, suicide’s a part of it. Drive-by shootings are part of it. Gangland violence is part of it. Handgun violence in urban areas is part of it, and so is people breaking into homes and being shot by the homeowner. And as the country is thinking about what should we do about guns, what should we not do about guns, we need to have a picture of what gun violence actually is.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Newtown drove legislation, which is now driving coverage. Once the legislation goes through or dies, will this window close? Will the coverage, once again, begin to diminish, do you think?

JOE NOCERA:  I think there’s a strong possibility that it will. And I’m very sad about that. I plan to continue doing the Gun Report for the foreseeable future, new legislation or no new legislation. The media, like everybody else, has a short attention span. Something else will come along, and I fully expect that the media will move on because that’s kind of what the media does. It’s part of who we are.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Joe, thank you very much.

JOE NOCERA:  Thank you, Brooke.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  New York Times Op Ed columnist Joe Nocera. But is all that coverage having the effect Nocera is aiming for, that is, to alert the public to the threat posed by lax gun controls and to pressure legislators to act? This week's vote suggests something may be changing. And an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Thursday did find that 55% of respondents favored stricter gun laws, though that was skewed by a very high percentage of women.

BOB GARFIELD:  On Wednesday, the NRA called a new Senate compromise on extended background checks a “positive development” but has since opposed it, on the grounds that extending background checks would be useless in preventing such tragedies as those that befell Newtown, Aurora and Tucson.  Executive Vice President of the National Rifle Association, Wayne LaPierre:

WAYNE LA PIERRE:  Law-abiding gun owners will not accept blame for the acts of violent or deranged criminals, nor do we believe the government should dictate what we can lawfully own and use to protect our families.

BOB GARFIELD:  As for the pro-gun senators who did vote to consider gun-control legislation, many shared the sentiments of Richard M. Burr, Republican from North Carolina, who met with family members of the Newtown victims on Wednesday. It really does have an impact, he told the New York Times. He voted to debate the bill, but that's about it. He asked, “Is there anything I've seen so far that would move me to vote for new gun laws?” And then he answered, “No.”

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Leaving Washington for a moment, nearly 1500 firearms-related bills have been introduced into the 50 state legislatures since the beginning of the year. According to the Sunlight Foundation, roughly half those bills would strengthen gun controls. The other half would loosen them. Thus, there are bills to ban or not ban assault weapons, bans to tighten or loosen concealed carry provisions, bills to require or not require background checks and bills to prohibit or allow guns in schools. And there are plenty of bills that would nullify any future federal gun control regulations.

FEMALE CORRESPONDENT:  Police in Tupelo, Mississippi are investigating a drive-by shooting involving a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus elephant. Police say that an unidentified vehicle drove by the arena and opened fire at the animal around 2 a.m. According to WBIR, the elephant was struck in the shoulder…


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  All this attention is different, but it may not make a difference. As Joe Nocera said, new things come along and both America and its media have a short attention span. He said that's part of who we are. Are guns?


Joe Nocera and Sheryl Gay Stolberg

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Bob Garfield and Brooke Gladstone