A Surprising Conversation Between Journalists About Guns

A Surprising Conversation Between Journalists About Guns

If you’re like most gun owners, you probably roll your eyes or simply turn off the television when the anchors start talking about gun issues (and gun control in particular). Hearing a supposed journalist somberly discuss “fully automatic assault clips” and describe bans on commonly owned firearms as merely “gun safety regulations” is like nails on a chalkboard, only worse. Nobody was ever influenced to back a new piece of legislation because of that screeching sound, but the same can’t be said of a talking head on CNN or CBS.

While that may be one of the biggest issues in media coverage for gun owners, it was a minor consideration for the journalists who took part in a webinar hosted by the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma and the Columbia Journalism Review on Tuesday afternoon, which sought to examine how the issue of guns and “gun violence” is covered in this country.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the opportunity to watch the entire two-hour event, but I did spend some time in the webinar, and while there was an acknowledgement that many newsrooms are staffed with reporters who don’t know the first thing about firearms, gun control laws, or gun owners themselves, there were times when the webinar seemed to border between “how can we be better reporters on these issues” and “how can we be better influencers“?

Considering the vast majority of reporters and editors around the country seem to be fully on board with all kinds of new restrictions on the right to keep and bear arms, gun owners and Second Amendment supporters have reason to be wary of the media, even when the industry attempts to “do better.”

However, in the midst of the webinar, I heard a few things that really struck me as valuable. Abené Clayton of The Guardian noted that the media rarely focuses on the work of violence prevention activists, instead choosing to devote the vast majority of their time and attention to the political debates over gun control measures. Clayton hinted at something very important that most of the media, politicians, and anti-gun organizations don’t realize or (in some cases) don’t want to admit: gun control is not synonymous with gun violence prevention. By ignoring the daily work being done to influence and change the lives of the actual individuals who are both inflicting and receiving violence in favor of hopping on a gun ban bandwagon, the media is helping to steer us in the wrong direction.

Alain Stephens, a reporter for the Michael Bloomberg-funded The Trace also hinted at at the difference between the gun control movement and the violence prevention movement.

Abené Clayton expounded on this theme recently with her Guardian colleague Lois Beckett, in a piece entitled “Everything about America’s gun debate is wrong- here’s why,” which is worth reading (and quoting) in its entirety. Since I can’t quote the whole thing, I’ll limit myself to two of Clayton and Beckett’s arguments.

The “solutions” offered today would do little to stem the daily death toll. The assault rifle bans and universal background checks reflexively supported by progressives will do little to decrease the bulk of shooting incidents: suicides and community violence. Approaches that have stronger evidence of saving lives, like intensive city-level support programs for the men and boys most at risk of being shot or becoming shooters, hospital-based violence intervention programs, or even more effective policing strategies, rarely get discussed on a national level. Even Democrats seem to prefer fighting a high-profile, losing battle with Republicans over gun control laws, rather than devoting time and focus to less partisan prevention efforts.

The intense focus on the National Rifle Association (NRA) is missing the point. After more than a two years of bitter infighting, lawsuits and financial turmoil, the NRA is not in great shape. And still, Republican lawmakers’ fierce opposition to passing any gun control bills, or the deep ideological belief in gun rights among millions of Americans, has remained unchanged. There’s still plenty to criticize about the NRA’s political advocacy, but media attention and Democrats’ attacks only inflate its importance.

I don’t think either of these reporters would call themselves Second Amendment supporters, but I’m in complete and utter agreement with both of them, and I suspect quite a few gun owners I know feel the same. Could it be that this is the common ground that we’ve been looking for? Is the answer simply to focus on stopping violence, rather than argue about how to stop gun ownership?

The media is driving the conversation, and the media loves conflict. It needs a storyline with heroes and villains, and in the debate over guns and “gun violence” the NRA wears the black hat. The media feeds off of this narrative, and it’s particularly awful on television and online, which is where we get most of our news. What’s more interesting to watch; a talking head panel that turns into a raging argument or one where a consensus is reached? Now, which one is more productive to addressing a problem?

All of want to see a reduction in violence in this country. The argument is over how best to do it, and it seems to me that those of us who believe that slapping another gun control on the books is the wrong way (whether it’s because we believe they’re ineffective, racist, unconstitutional, or all of the above) are natural allies. Yet it’s the gun control movement that’s trying to partner with violence prevention groups, and not Second Amendment supporters (generally speaking). I think that’s a mistake on our part. As long as the agenda is violence prevention, and not gun control, there’s work that we can do together; and the efforts would be far more productive that trying to ban or arrest our way to safety.

As for me, I’m going to extend an invitation to both Alain Stephens and Abené Clayton to join me on a future episode of Bearing Arms’ Cam & Co. in the hopes of exploring these potential areas of agreement.


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