The time has clearly come for common-sense media regulation. It has nothing to do with the First Amendment anymore. Now, it’s a matter of public safety.
Of course, I’m mocking the rhetoric of perennial advocates for gun control, who seem to relish every flurry of mass shootings as an excuse to mount their hobbyhorses again. Still, I’m not being entirely facetious.
In 1980, presidential candidate John Anderson took much abuse for supporting gun registration. As an Anderson fan, I was dismayed by that. I had grown up with firearms and never felt completely safe without one nearby, but I thought the American public could be trusted to regulate guns without imposing prohibitive restrictions on them.
The past two decades have demonstrated how wrong I was. In our increasingly urban and suburban society, most people know nothing about guns and regard them with the fear and hatred that ignorance always instills. In no other issue of public safety is attention diverted from the killer to the weapon. Truckers kill disproportionately on our highways, but no one even thinks of eliminating trucks. Distracted drivers killed more than eight times as many Americans in 2018 as died in mass shootings, but neither automobiles nor smartphones are targeted.
The zeal of progressives who want to eliminate guns from our society rivals that of Christians who hope to outlaw abortion. Like abortion proponents who attack any infringement of women’s freedom to end their pregnancies, equally libertarian gun owners oppose any further restrictions on firearms. Advocates of “commonsense gun control” warrant the most suspicion of all, because such disingenuous euphemisms disguise the extreme measures some might deem sensible. After all, how innocuous would “commonsense abortion regulation” sound to feminists?
Yet the increasing frequency of mass shootings does seem to call for some strategy to counteract the trend. Predictably, last week brought calls for still more gun regulation precisely because the U.S. has so many guns, and the knee-jerk liberals in our county delegation are salivating over legislation that will disarm only those who obey the law. The sheer number of guns precludes eliminating them, however, and none of the latest proposals would have prevented any of the recent shootings.
Chicago testifies to the ineffectiveness of the strictest gun laws in the nation. In that city 1,517 people had already been shot by July 27, including 293 fatalities, and this is a pretty light year. That slaughter has elicited no national press coverage. Neither was much attention paid to Boko Haram murdering at least 65 people in Abuja, Nigeria, on July 27. Meanwhile, it was impossible to miss the El Paso, Texas, incident, because that’s the type of story the American media chooses to spotlight. Then came the mayhem in Dayton, Ohio, where the killer went on his rampage immediately after posting observations about the flood of news from El Paso.
To reduce mass shootings, it might be more productive to start thinking beyond gun control and address other contributing factors. Televised news media exploit such tragedies shamelessly, in a cynical feeding frenzy directed mainly at the competition for ratings from viewers who love to wallow in grief and pity. Newspapers follow up in their own way. With mass shootings in particular, the extent of coverage seems to reflect the oft-denied factor of editorial politics at least as much as audience demand. Outlets of a more liberal slant pursue such stories in relentless detail, as though anxious to excite anti-gun fervor.
Whatever the medium, such intense attention helps to inspire still more lunatic gunmen. Four years ago, Sherry Towers, a researcher at Arizona State, deduced that mass shootings — like contagious diseases — occur in viral clusters. Jillian Peterson, a criminologist at the University of Minnesota, came to the same conclusion independently. Towers found that the likelihood of copycats increased in proportion to the extent of media attention. The El Paso gunman was demonstrably inspired by the killings in Christchurch, New Zealand, she noted.
It’s equally obvious that the Dayton killer took a cue from the news in El Paso, although he was a left-wing terrorist emulating a right-wing terrorist. El Paso and Dayton might both have escaped tragedy had Christchurch drawn as little coverage as that worse massacre in Abuja instead of being subjected to such persistent, spectacular scrutiny.
As both historian and journalist, I would object to any curtailment of the First Amendment, but the absence of voluntary journalistic restraint approaches what might be considered malpractice in other professions. Those who make it their business to report all the finger-pointing of the various factions in the gun-violence debate would do well to look in the mirror. The most diligently ignored aspect of gun violence is the deadly, unintended consequences of journalistic pandering to political agendas and the insatiable public appetite for pathos.
William Marvel lives in South Conway.