Reactions to Shooting Reveal Biases
by Ari Armstrong, February 20, 2002
On the afternoon of February 19, I read a story in the Rocky Mountain News by Dick Foster, page 8A, that began, "Jeremiah Santiago's neighbors expressed shock Monday after the 13-year-old boy was accidentally shot and killed by his father over the weekend."
My initial reaction was one of sadness, just as we become sad any time we hear about a person who is killed.
My secondary reaction was prompted by a quote in the second paragraph from the boy's neighbor, "It was a gun thing. I'm scared to death of them." Here we go again, I thought. Blame the gun. I could almost hear the anti-gun lobby citing this case as a pretext to pass yet more counter-productive disarmament laws.
Clearly, the neighbor's comment is irrational. Each of the approximately 600 unintentional firearms deaths every year is tragic. But equally tragic is each of the 3,600 burning deaths, 3,900 drowning deaths, and 12,100 poisoning deaths the National Safety Council recorded for the year 2000. When the papers report on deaths involving matches, water, poison, or automobiles, if they report on those deaths at all, we never see quotes like, "It was a match thing. I'm scared to death of them." The News reported on page 19A that a "35-year-old woman... was found dead Saturday after being beaten with a bat..." Yet no one would think to express fear about bats.
Another reason it makes no sense to be "scared to death" of guns is that guns save lives and reduce crime. As Gary Kleck writes in the 2001 book Armed: New Perspectives on Gun Control, "The results of nineteen consecutive surveys unanimously indicate that each year huge numbers of Americans (700,000 or more) use guns for self-protection" (270). Unfortunately, newspapers rarely report stories involving defensive uses of firearms.
It irked me that Foster selected precisely this quote to begin his second paragraph. Was it really necessary to bring an anti-gun perspective to the story? I was so irked, in fact, that I fired off a short article by e-mail in which I accused Foster of "flagrantly biased and propagandistic 'journalism'." I continue to believe his use of the quote was inappropriate. But a reader noted to me that the anti-gun bias Foster reported in fact exists among some members of the populace.
If it's true that anti-gun activists have trained themselves to be hyper-sensitive to all ills involving guns (relative to their interest in other, more significant harms), it is also true that sometimes self-defense advocates get a little defensive. It's easy to get defensive, though, when we're always getting attacked. That said, I thought it appropriate to revisit my previous article and present a more reflective point of view.
While Foster was presenting a real event -- the neighbor (presumably) actually said the line Foster reported -- it remains the case that reporters select what they deem is relevant to the story. I'm sure the neighbor said a lot of things to Foster, most of which was not reported. Is a neighbor's anti-gun perspective really a significant part of the story? Would Foster have quoted a neighbor who made irrational comments about something other than firearms? If not, then why did Foster select the irrational comment about guns in the context of his events story?
I can think of four possible reasons Foster selected the quote ("It was a gun thing. I'm scared to death of them"). First, he also harbors an irrational fear of guns, and he wanted to inject the story with that perspective (without, of course, recognizing or granting the fear is irrational). Second, he is interested in guns, and so he wanted to point out the neighbor's comment with the hope that others would learn about others' irrational views. I find this to be implausible. Third, he may have included the quote precisely because he knew it would be of interest to the "gun debate." This doesn't strike me as a very good reason to include a quote.
Fourth, Foster may simply have been in a hurry and he included the quote without thinking much about it. That's what the neighbor blurted out, so that's what went into the story. Yet if that's what happened, it's pretty clear the neighbor was influenced by anti-gun sentiments.
Unfortunately, media and activist groups are stuck in a codependent relationship. Because a significant minority of people favor the abolition or severe restriction of firearms, newspapers tend to focus on stories involving the harms of firearms in a sensationalistic way. For some, this reinforces their prior biases, leading to even more skewed reporting. Those of us who defend the right of self-defense and the right to bear arms get caught up in this whirlpool also. After all, I am spending an inordinate amount of time discussing a newspaper story about an unintentional shooting.
Is the quote even important? On one level, it seems like a trivial concern. "It was a gun thing. I'm scared to death of them." Yet the quote suggests the primary reason for the death is the gun and guns are to be intensely feared. Ultimately, this says something about the neighbor's views of people who choose to own and use guns.
At root, it isn't "a gun thing" at all. It's a responsibility thing. Indeed, the National Safety Council has stopped talking about "accidental deaths" and now uses the term "unintentional deaths." The boy's death resulted from a disregard of the basic rules of firearms safety. Foster reports, "[T]he father was in a back bedroom, handling a loaded pistol, when it discharged, striking his son in the head." Always keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction. Always check whether a gun is loaded, and always handle a gun as though it's loaded. Always keep your finger off the trigger until you're ready to shoot. Analogous safety rules apply to matches, poisons, water, and automobiles. Of course, after-the-fact criticism hardly alleviates the family's pain, but it might prevent another family from suffering the same pain.
But regardless of the neighbor's errors, isn't Foster's job to report the news, whatever it may be? My sense is that the only time it's appropriate for news writers to introduce political opinions is in the context of a more analytical story that evaluates attitudes and offers a balanced view of opposing viewpoints. This clearly is not the type of article Foster was trying to write.
But I've spent far too many words discussing an eleven-words quote. Newspapers should strive to report the dangers of guns compared with other objects, as well as the benefits of guns, more objectively. Those with an irrational fear of guns should learn more about them. And gun-rights activists should be more reflective and less defensive about their beliefs.