Hailing from all over the country and all types of media, we chipped away at a very real problem: journalists writing about guns and gun violence that barely know anything first-hand about either.
Guns aren’t the only topic wherein media with the most influence have the least personal experience—more men than women write in papers and talk on news shows about reproductive health, for example—but since Newtown, of course, the situation has gotten much more heated. Now more than ever, guns in America is a topic that needs more light than heat, as they say.
So after hosting a sold-out workshop in Chicago, the Poynter Institute recently organized another conference at the University of Maryland, College Park. We spent our lecture days listening (and sometimes debating) in the fancy new Knight Hall and a long, exhausting and frankly exhilarating afternoon at a Maryland shooting range, where we learned how to operate and shoot pistols, semi-automatic rifles, a 12-gauge shotgun and an M-16.
Turns out, I’m a pretty solid shooter, and had a lot of fun—and some anxiety—while taking aim and pulling the triggers. We shot at stick-men outlines with rounded rectangles representing heads and hearts. They were only paper victims, of course, and the point of learning to shoot was to learn about guns in the contexts of recreation and self-defense. But we were acutely aware that we were all, as journalists and as Americans, also awaiting the verdict in the George Zimmerman case throughout the conference.
We heard perspectives from both sides of the aisle, but mostly the information was just a straightforward review guns and law. We heard from Robyn Thomas, an attorney who leads a pro-gun control non-profit called Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Based in San Francisco, the group was founded twenty years ago after a gunman opened fire in a law firm in San Francisco on July 1, 1993, killing eight lawyers before dying himself.
Thomas gave us an overview of state and federal laws on the horizon and the policies that regulate gun ownership. One of the more surprising facts we learned was that before 2008, the Supreme Court of the United States hadn’t address guns since 1939. We discussed the Second Amendment and the legal scaffolding of landmark Heller and McDonald rulings, and kind of marveled at how often we read misrepresentations of the law in mainstream stories (and Facebook posts from old high school friends). Not to mention the fact, startling to many, that of the three types of death by gunfire—homicide, suicide and accident—suicide is the most common.
The second day, we heard from David Fallis, investigative reporter for the Washington Post and co-author of the award-winning series The Secret Life of the Gun. He rattled off figures about trafficking and sales and gave us notebooks full of reporting ideas that I look forward to exploring here in Philadelphia.
We learned about an ATF report in 2000 that revealed that 57% of crime guns nationwide were sold by 1.2% of dealers—and how the backlash to those findings led directly to the Tiahrt Amendment, which “blacks out” that information from public view and protects retailers from lawsuits.
Perhaps the most riveting workshop featured Linda Lutton, a badass education reporter based in Chicago. Lutton reported this amazing, brutal piece for WBEZ radio after hearing about a high school principal who had to attend too many student funerals. Her reporting inspired this expanded exploration of life at Harper High for This American Life.
Lutton relayed an anecdote that’ll stick with me about the danger of making assumptions when reporting on cultures and neighborhoods: When school got out, the kids at Harper High walked down the middle of the street, making it hard for cars to drive by. Lutton says everyone, even longtime Harper High teachers, assumed the kids were just being kids—basically, getting obnoxious and taking up space just because they feel like it. But when asked, the students said they walked in the middle of the street instead of the sidewalks so that they could keep their eyes on what they call “gangways” in Chicago—those crevices between buildings where anyone can, and someone often is, waiting, ready to leap out and attack a perceived enemy.
“The fact is if you are a young black boy in that neighborhood, it is so dangerous, it is shockingly dangerous,” explained Lutton, whose face fell when re-listening with us to her tape of a mother’s wailing over the casket of her son.
We got technical, too, talking ballistics, firearm tracing and exploring all types of guns with the help of–we’ll just say impressive private collection of unloaded demonstration guns. Some guns look right out of a vintage Western, some were cool, and a few looked suitable keeping on hand just in case we run into some kind of awful Godzilla apocalypse scenario.
We discussed, of course, mental health and gun violence: According to Dr. Merrill Rotter, best estimates indicate that only 4% of violence is committed by people with mental illness. A myriad of factors–like socioeconomic status, substance abuse and family structure—cumulatively dwarf mental illness as a predictor in violence. Mental illness, however, provides a simpler narrative.
Myths serve special interests much better than facts. – Butch Ward, Poynter
Photos and video provided by Tara Murtha.