Dereliction of Duty

12.20.12

Curse the Media in Newtown for Doing Too Little, Too Late on Guns

If there seemed to be too many journalists after Sandy Hook, then at least there were not too few. Michael Daly on how the media’s collective shrug at daily gun violence helped lead us to tragedy.

Yes, curse the media for swarming grief-struck Newtown, but our real sin lies in not having covered other shootings enough, in not doing all we could to keep murderous firepower out of such easy reach.

Why didn’t we pour into Newtown last year, when the National Shooting Sports Foundation, headquartered there, successfully blocked a bill in the Connecticut legislature that would have outlawed magazines holding more than 10 rounds?

That simple measure might have at least reduced the body count at Sandy Hook Elementary School and the number of mourners driving past the NSSF’s big white building on the way to funerals for 6- and 7-year-olds.

As I watched a black limousine bearing a grieving family go by with a police escort on Tuesday, I thought back two decades, to a time when four children were killed by stray bullets during a nine-day period in New York. The victims had included a 9-month-old in a walker. None of it had roused more than passing attention from some of us in the local press.

My own daughter, Sinead, not yet in kindergarten, was toddling just ahead of me on a Brooklyn street when an argument between some teens at the corner escalated directly into gunfire.

My impulse was to throw myself on top of her, but the gunfire had already ended. I remember running my hands over her, panicked she had been shot, as relieved as I could ever be when it was clear she had not.

Video screenshot

The media's reputation is always a question when big stories break. The Sandy Hook shooting was no different.

The memory of that moment and a growing indignation at the seeming indifference of the media and the rest of the country compelled me over the years that followed to knock on the doors of those who were not so lucky.

In 2003, 8-year-old Daesean Hill was killed by a stray round on his way home from his Brooklyn school with his 5-year-old brother and 3-year-old sister. I told myself that I was justified in going to see the grieving mother because the story might make some contribution, however small, toward ending the madness.

“He wanted to be a real-life superhero,” Daesean’s mother, Kimberly Hill, told me of her slain son. “He wanted to go into the Army and then be a police officer and then be a fireman.”

I was with the mother the day after the shooting, when she told her 5-year-old and her 3-year-old that they could not let the tragedy keep them from going to school, that there was now even more reason for them to do everything they could with their lives.

“They missed enough school,” the mother told me. “I don’t want them to fall behind.”

The moment seemed eminently worth reporting as they all set off to school, the surviving son, Terrence, with a Batman backpack, the daughter with a Hello Kitty backpack. They paused at the top of the block, and Terrence looked both ways,

“That is usually Daesean’s job, to look and see if cars are coming,” the mother said.

Kimberly and I became good friends. She called me in 2005, after a 2-year-old named Danny Pacheco was killed by a stray round in the Bronx while being driven to Easter dinner. She wondered if I knew how to contact the mother.

The youngest gunshot victim I covered had not been born when his pregnant mother, Nicole Figueroa, was killed by a stray round outside a Brooklyn housing project in 2005. Doctors managed to deliver baby Nicolas Khyree Figueroa and to keep him alive on a respirator for 10 weeks, as his aunt read aloud such books as “Angels A to Z” to him and sang him the Barney song.

If we’d all done our job through all the years of carnage, then maybe something would have been done about guns before this horror.

When the doctors decided there was no hope and disconnected the infant from the respirator, the aunt had dressed him a blue hat and pants and a beige shirt decorated with trains and teddy bears. The respirator was disconnected, and she sat with him in a rocking chair hugging him and rubbing his chest and telling him he was going to see his mommy. She sang the Barney song once more.

“I love you, you love me …”

All of that seemed worth reporting, even though nothing significant was done about guns. There still hadn’t been earlier this year, when I was in Chicago covering shootings that included another pregnant woman whose baby was delivered after she was hit by a stray round. The shooting was in the same park where a pregnant woman had been shot in the face the year before as she begged for the life of her unborn child.

On St. Patrick’s Day, a 6-year-old named Aliyah Shell was killed by a stray round as her mother braided her hair on their front stoop. Aliyah was one of 49 people shot that weekend in our president’s hometown, and the violence prompted not a word from him. I went up those same steps telling myself that I was justified in disturbing this latest grieving mother because our only hope of reducing this carnage was to keep reporting about it, to convey the enormity of even one loss.

I am not sure I managed to convey that, and I am even less sure that whatever I did made the slightest difference. I felt like I was doing what a reporter should do as I watched the surviving 2-year-old sister gaze about, clearly looking for the person who was not there, who would never be there again.

“She can’t find herself,” the mother told me.

I also covered mass shootings and the shooting of countless cops and adults and teens. But it was always the children who struck so deep. I marveled again and again at how even these deaths were so quickly forgotten, if they were noticed at all.

Then came the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. I set off with a notepad as I had so often before, but this time, it was not just me and maybe a few other knock-around reporters at the scene of a tragedy that would otherwise draw little more than a shrug from a nation of guns.

Here was a horror so unimaginable, involving the killing of so many youngsters in a school, that much of the national media seemed to descend on the scene. The state police assigned a trooper to each family to keep the press at bay as they emerged stricken from the firehouse where the Gov. Dan Malloy himself had broken the news to them.

One couple stood for a few moments without an escort and I did not even think of going up to them. This time the whole world was paying attention, and there was already some real talk of finally doing something about guns.

But sure enough, a radio reporter went over to them and held out a microphone. They just looked at him and stepped away. I almost went up to chide him, but who was I to do that, when I had done the same at other times?

The couple was left alone until a state trooper appeared and walked with them up the road, circling around a big NBC truck that had gotten stuck trying to turn into a driveway to set up a network base camp.

Among the people who seemed not averse to being interviewed was Msgr. Bob Weiss of St Rose of Lima Church. He was already speaking to several reporters and I stepped over to ask a question. He then cut the interview short.

“I have to go see Ann Curry!” he exclaimed.

If there seemed to be too many journalists, then at least there were not too few. I could not help but the think that if we’d all done our job through all the years of carnage, as kid after kid after kid after kid was killed, then maybe something would have been done about guns before this horror.

In Sandy Hook the day after the shooting, I encountered a woman named Henrietta Beckman, who had come to bear witness and offer support wearing a red jacket with “Mothers United Against Violence” on the back. Her 20-year-old son, Randy Beckman, had been shot to death in a drive by shooting in 2003, a case of mistaken identity.

“He had a 4-month-old son when he was shot,” she told me. “His son is 11 now, and he is the spitting image of his father.”

Her son’s murder had received no more press attention than thousands of murders that the most cynical inner city cops term “misdemeanor homicides.” I asked her if she thought that now something might finally be done about guns. She stood with the sun on her face beside the sign marking the school’s entrance and said nothing for a moment.

“You hope that it will,” she then said.

She had more cause to hope, as Obama finally not only said something, but also arrived in town to say exactly the right words, what should have been said long ago. He departed pledging to do something real about gun violence.

Much of the media mob remained, and one complication that had come with the sheer numbers was that there was little opportunity to catch a detective in a quiet moment to check if you had your facts right.

Competition for exclusives and the velocity of news in the digital age further contributed to an astonishing number of errors, beginning with misidentifying the brother as the shooter and continuing with reports that the handguns had been the murder weapons and the rifle had been left in the car, when the rifle had been the primary instrument of death.

There was talk that the killer had attended the school and then the police suggested he had not, but then USA Today reported that a former classmate, now 20, remembered him. The paper posted a photo of a class T-shirt the kids had all signed and sure enough, there were was “Adam Lanza.”

I took one of the other names on the T-shirt and called that person’s home, figuring she was probably off at college, but that I probably should check with the parents first anyway before trying to contact her. My purpose was to confirm the Lanza story for myself and maybe to get some sense of how his time had been at the school. The person who answered was apparently the young woman’s mother. I only got as far as identifying myself.

“Why don’t you stop calling?” she said and then hung up.

I realized that by “you” she meant the media and that a number of reporters must have already called. I then thought of how this woman must feel to have all these people calling about someone who had attended school with her daughter and gone on to murder 20 children there.

I also considered all the reporters and camera crews I had seen the day before, when I drove past St. Rose of Lima Church, which had held a funeral for a 6-year-old earlier in the day and then was making ready for a 6-year-old’s wake. I decided that maybe this little town had suffered such monumental loss that we should all just step back and give it some peace. I reminded myself that the state police had said they would make their findings known after they completed an exhaustive investigation into the massacre and everything that led up to it.

So I resolved I would not go back to Sandy Hook on Wednesday unless there was somebody I had to speak with in person who wanted to speak with me. There were fine reporters such as Matthew Lysiak of the New York Daily News doing creditable work up there. I just was not going to add to the media presence, for the moment anyway.

I was still reporter, so I called a noted forensic scientist to sound out my theory that it was no coincidence that Lanza chose to go after 6- and 7-year-olds at that school. Lanza had been that same age when he moved to Connecticut from New Hampshire and became an awkward new kid. I guessed that it might have been a psychic marker of when everything began to go bad.

“I’m sure that’s why,” the psychiatrist said.

We talked of such maniacs in general, and she was of the opinion that there was but one remedy.

“Gun control,” she said.

She added that at the very least we should get rid of not only automatic but semiautomatic weapons. She wondered aloud how many Lanza would have been able to kill if he had just six shots before he had to empty the cylinder, then reload bullet by bullet. She also suggested that just a six-shot revolver in his hand would not have given him a sense he would have required to burst into the school in the first place, a sense he must have been given by a Bushmaster rifle loaded with a 30-round clip.

“Power,” she said.

So yes, curse the media in Newtown, but curse us more for not doing enough to keep assault rifles and automatic pistols and high-capacity magazines away from those bent on mayhem.

Me, I keep thinking of that moment when I ran my hands over my daughter to check if she had been shot. I then look at her and think of all the life she would have missed, of all the life those 20 little ones up in Sandy Hook will never see now that it is too late to have stopped it.