Useful Sideshow

The Gun-Control Debate May Be a Circus, but at Least It’s Not Fading

Some are turning a dead-serious debate into a spectacle. But Howard Kurtz says the noise is helping.

Clockwise from top left: AP; Nicholas Kamm/AFP, via Getty; CNN

We are finally lurching toward a serious debate about guns and violence in this country.

But not without a whole lot of sideshows and silliness.

On Friday we got the stunning news that David Gregory will not be going to jail. Yes, District of Columbia authorities, exercising their prosecutorial discretion, will not bring charges against the moderator of Meet the Press for waving a high-capacity gun magazine on the air while interviewing the head of the NRA.

The outcome was, of course, a foregone conclusion. But the Gregory incident brought forth howls of outrage on the right, as detractors demanded that charges be brought against the NBC newsman, that journalists are not above the law, that Gregory should be behind bars.

How exactly that would have made this a safer country was never clear. Even the District’s attorney general says Gregory was exercising his First Amendment rights. What he did was something of a stunt, and yes, it is illegal in D.C. to possess such magazines, even if they contain no bullets. And NBC did virtually nothing to explain what had happened. But I’d rather see the cops go after those who might fire off such rounds than a guy trying to make a visual point on television.

Gregory’s sitdown with NRA executive Wayne LaPierre was a garden party compared with the screaming match that erupted on Piers Morgan’s program last week. The CNN host booked Alex Jones, a hard-edged conservative talk-show host who was in the forefront of a drive to deport the British journalist for his advocacy of gun control.

Practically frothing at the mouth, Jones worked himself up: “Hitler took the guns, Stalin took the guns, Mao took the guns. Fidel Castro took the guns. Chávez took the guns, and I’m here to tell you, 1776 will commence again if you try to take our firearms.”

Morgan, staying calm, let Jones work himself into a frenzy. And even when the host tried to interrupt, such as asking about the murder rate in Britain, Jones kept shouting over him.

Why give Jones that kind of platform? The fight “trended worldwide and on Twitter for 48 hours,” Morgan told CBS’s Gayle King, and has been viewed on YouTube 5 million times. In Morgan’s view, such confrontations ensure that “the arguments against gun control are laid bare for what they are, which in my view is a dangerous farce.”

Well, maybe. But the spectacle also brought enormous attention to Morgan, as he undoubtedly knew it would.

Speaking of farces, Morgan will not be deported under the petition to the White House that never had any legal basis in the first place. But it’s sobering that more than 100,000 people signed an online document to kick him out of the country because they don’t like his views on gun control.

The coverage turned more serious last week when Joe Biden began his task-force meetings on guns and made sure to invite the cameras in. By including not just gun-control advocates but the NRA and videogame executives, the vice president kick-started a broader conversation about violence.

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But Biden uttered one sentence that gave gun-rights activists a very big target, saying the White House was studying what President Obama could do through executive orders.

“What you’re witnessing here is an out of control, and arrogant, and unconstitutional executive power grab,” Sean Hannity said on Fox News.

Yet there is some precedent here. In 1989, after a mass school shooting in Stockton, Calif., George H.W. Bush used an executive order to ban the shipment of some assault weapons unless they were utilized for sporting purposes. In 1998, Bill Clinton used such authority to tighten that policy by banning the importation of nearly 60 other types of assault weapons.

Still, for all the talk of Hitler, the big-ticket items on Obama’s agenda, such as closing the gun-show loophole for background checks, require congressional approval. The idea that the president could order some mass confiscation of guns is just lunacy.

Much of the chatter on cable seems to generate more heat than light. “The left in America has embarked on a ferocious antigun campaign, basically telling every Democrat, ‘Hey, you better support gun control or else,’” says Bill O’Reilly.

Chris Matthews speaks of the “cousins of the grassy-knoll folks” who, he says, “believe that any limit on the wide-open market for guns and ammo threatens their own hardware.”

The same old partisan warfare isn’t likely to get us anywhere in the gun debate. But it’s better than silence.

Even with all the invective and name-calling on the air, the media are still talking about guns—unlike after Columbine and Virginia Tech and Tucson and Aurora, when the issue quickly faded. Newtown was different. Twenty little kids dead. Nobody is ready to move on.

Without pushing an agenda, journalists have a responsibility to keep the question of guns and violence front and center, regardless of what politicians do or fail to do. And that shouldn’t be limited to the aftermath of mass atrocities.

Just after New Year’s, The New York Times ran a front-page story leading with Chicago’s 471st homicide of 2012—the fatal shooting of a 21-year-old man that took place outside a funeral for victim No. 463. That kind of routine urban violence too often is relegated to the back pages, even of the hometown dailies.

Newtown is forcing all of us to pay more attention to guns and violence. Even with all the hyperventilating and grandstanding, it is the tragedy’s one silver lining.