Time to Talk?

12.14.12

Newtown Massacre Exposes a Media Gun Shy on Gun Control

The media swarm over tragedies like the Connecticut school shooting but treat gun control as the third rail of politics. Lauren Ashburn on why the press avoids this vital debate—and why it shouldn’t.

Not long after the horrifying massacre at a Connecticut elementary school, the usual panoply of pundits on cable television was asked to react to the news.

“This is not the day to talk about the politics of it,” said Susan Page of USA Today on MSNBC. That, in turn, prompted blogger Jeff Jarvis, to write: “Wrong. This is the day.”

Even White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, when asked by reporters Friday whether the tragedy put gun control higher on the president’s priority list, said “today is not that day” to discuss policy.

We have been through this again and again. Columbine. Virginia Tech. Tucson. Aurora. Is Jarvis right? Is it finally time to have an honest debate about the subject our politicians seem determined to avoid?

I understand the reluctance to dive into a divisive debate even before the bodies are counted. I understand the passionate feelings on both sides of the issue.

But how many more shootings of this magnitude will it take?

Every time there is a tragedy involving guns, all the ideologues come out with their predictable positions. Gun enthusiasts claim that opponents want to get rid of the Second Amendment and that it doesn’t take such weapons to kill people. Gun control supporters say there would be less senseless violence in America if it weren’t so easy to walk into a store and buy a gun and—in most states—endless rounds of ammunition.

Watching on television as parents flooded to the elementary-school campus searching for their children, I couldn’t help but think, as a mother of three under the age of 12, that all of us are vulnerable to an attack of this nature. It’s incomprehensible to me how any parent lives through the death of a child, especially one gunned down in what is supposed to be a safe haven.

The media are great at endlessly replaying scenes of grieving parents or, say, interviewing a young boy saying how his teacher had saved him—as one 8-year-old told a camera crew outside the Newtown school. These are the sound bites and images we’ve come to expect from breaking news coverage as anchors parachute in and networks put on the inevitable specials. (NBC and ABC have already announced one.)

On cable shoutfests, surrogates from both sides parade into studios, seemingly arguing just to hear themselves talk. These “discussions” usually generate more heat than light. Within a few days, the mainstream media will have forgotten the issue entirely, until their laser focus moves to the next unimaginable attack. With few exceptions, the media swallow the notion that new gun laws will never pass Congress, so why bother delving deeper?

Early last year, when Jared Loughner killed six people and wounded Gabby Giffords and five others at an Arizona shopping center using 30 rounds of ammunition, the debate over the limits of how many lethal rounds a person could buy briefly seized center stage. That, too, quickly faded.

With few exceptions, the media swallow the notion that new gun laws will never pass Congress, so why bother delving deeper?

During a yearlong presidential campaign, media outlets were more interested in talking about “binders full of women,” Big Bird, and Etch-A-Sketch. Clint Eastwood may be famous for shooting ’em up in the movies, but his empty-chair debate at the Republican convention generated a thousand times more coverage than gun control. Candidates didn’t want to talk about that issue, and neither did the media.

Most members of the media are as afraid of this highly divisive subject as politicians are. By tackling it, they risk alienating a huge swath of readers and viewers on one side or the other who will accuse them of being in the tank for the enemy camp.

After the Aurora shooting, at a midnight showing of the newly released Batman movie, the Pew Research Center found that 47 percent believed it was more important to control gun ownership, while 46 percent put a higher priority on the right to own guns. The numbers split right down ideological lines, with 72 percent of Democrats favoring gun control and 71 percent of Republicans putting a high priority on gun rights.

When the media are willing to take up a cause like gay marriage, which now draws majority support in the polls, we see an endless parade of families who can’t get insurance or see loved ones in the hospital, soldiers who were discriminated against, and couples who couldn’t adopt children. Gay marriage was seen as politically unrealistic a decade ago, but the press, and the culture, helped change that.

Gun control, by contrast, only hits the media radar in the aftermath of a tragedy.

Three days before the Connecticut shooting, a gunman fatally shot two people in an Oregon mall before killing himself. The coverage barely lasted past one news cycle. Apparently the death toll wasn’t high enough.

This is not an argument for gun control. It’s an argument to stop turning away from the issue except when bodies of children are piled up and we can no longer avert our eyes.