Our son Galen was killed in a school shooting in 1992. In the aftermath of shootings like the ones that have taken place recently in Texas and Ohio, and then in Texas again, friends still send emails and texts. They can imagine the pain such incidents evoke, and they want us to know that they’re thinking about us.
As much as we appreciate these expressions of love and support, and as important as they’ve been to our survival, they’re somewhat off the mark by now. Mass shootings no longer re-awaken the trauma and pain that accompanied Galen’s senseless murder. The fact is, my family doesn’t follow the reports of these incidents very closely. My wife and daughter spend time with friends on social media. My son and I are addicted to what sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy once referred to as Moron Sports Talk Radio. A survival tactic, no doubt.
When I do turn my attention to reports of mass shootings, I’ve begun to notice a formulaic aspect to way this news is delivered. Reports are likely to feature the 911 call, squad cars and SWAT teams responding, smartphone footage recorded during seconds or minutes of mortal terror, traumatized survivors weeping and hugging, and ambulances wheeling away. The perpetrator, of course, is of interest. Sometimes we even get a mug shot of the crazed young man. We desperately need to know, and we will never know, Why did he do it? If we could figure that out, we think, we might be able to prevent the next one from happening. So we read on. Mass shootings account for only about 2% of gun deaths each year, and yet they suck up a far greater percentage of our attention.
Without our even being aware of it, we’ve entered into a sort of symbiotic relationship with the phenomenon of mass shootings. The news media commodify reports of these horrific events as “content” and we unwittingly consume this content along with the rest of the news. Not because we need more data in our tireless quest to end gun violence, but because these reports feed our news habit.
We know that mass shootings have become creepy memes that morph and evolve on the basis of information gathered from prior shootings. Yet we continue to make that information available – in mind-boggling abundance – to the next wave of racists and madmen. I understand that there is not a conscious conspiracy between the news media and the forces of evil. But I do believe the time has come to take a hard look at the role the media play in this problem.
It’s clear by now that cultural change will be an important factor in reducing gun violence. It’s equally clear that, as much as reporters rely on cultural activity to create content, the content they create helps shape the culture upon which they report.
Why do we not hear more about the destructive effects of gun violence – 100 deaths each day – on families and communities, particularly among people of color? Where is the reporting on the devastation that trails in the wake of suicide with firearms by teens, vets, and law enforcement officers – which has risen by 30% since 2013? Why do we not hear more about the link between ownership of firearms and domestic violence?
In my experience, people who are affected on a daily basis by gun violence – people of color who live in specific, socially isolated areas in almost any big city – hardly ever ask why? They’re more interested in how. Ruth Rollins, one of the founding members of Boston’s Operation LIPSTICK told me that when someone is killed in her neighborhood the first thing people want to know is where the gun came from? How did it get into the shooter’s hands? She said, “If you stop that gun you stop a shooting.”
We need to dispense with the 911 tapes, the second-by-second descriptions of the carnage, the postmortem psychological profiling, and the gnashing of teeth over warning signs disregarded.
Let’s talk instead about what kind of gun did what kind of damage. We need solid reporting on how the shooter got his hands on the weapons he used, and where they came from. It’s as true in your town as it is on the streets of Roxbury, Massachusetts or El Paso, Texas.
You stop that gun and you stop a shooting.