Last week I highlighted a lengthy news series by Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporter John Diedrich called “Behind the Gun”, which I found to be one of the rare instances of mainstream media coverage on firearms and gun owners that’s actually worth reading. On today’s Bearing Arms Cam & Co, Diedrich sat down with me to discuss his multi-part series and the nuanced approach it takes when looking at gun-involved deaths in Wisconsin.
For far too many outlets (and individual reporters), any coverage of the issue is going to start with an implied (or maybe even explicit) premise that the only “real” way to combat gun-involved deaths is reducing the number of guns and gun owners in our society. From the outset, Diedrich says he and his editors wanted to take a different approach.
“The question became could we say something different and important that reveals something,” Diedrich mused.
“So, my editor George Stanley, who’s now retired, it was his idea for this story. He’s a hunter, he actually in our poll that we came out with, he’s sort of a classic [gun owner]. He owns five guns, which puts him kind of in the heartland of our survey… and he just said ‘I think if you go out and talk to gun owners I think you’ll find a different threat and a different narrative.’ And so that sent me on this journey.”
Diedrich says an early interview with John Roman, the director of the Center on Public Safety and Justice at the University of Chicago, also informed his approach to the series. Diedrich wrote about this in his reporter’s notebook piece accompanying the rest of his series, and I highlighted it in my review of the series as well.
“I’m gonna get my liberal progressive card pulled for saying some of these things, but that’s OK,” Roman said. “What’s interesting, what never gets taught, is how many people buy a gun, and then nothing happens. It doesn’t go off accidentally. It’s not used in a suicide. It doesn’t get lost or stolen or sold and becomes a crime gun. Hundreds of millions of guns fit into that category, and I’m really interested in what we can learn about that, to help us improve public safety in a gun-owning world. What are these people doing?”
If Diedrich didn’t start with the premise that gun ownership is a) widespread and b) not going to disappear anytime soon, as opposed to treating gun ownership as an inherent social ill that must be eradicated, he quickly realized that’s where the story was taking him when he started talking to gun owners themselves. ‘Behind the Gun’ avoids calling for any specific legislative agenda to combat gun-involved homicides, suicides, or accidental deaths, in part because as Diedrich was working on the series it became evident to him that the issues he’s covering are too complex for easy fixes.
“I guess what we leaned into is when you see simple narratives, you know, beware. It’s more complicated, and the world is more complicated than those little soundbites. And you know, social media does that really well. It simplifies things. It flattens people too. It flattens people’s stories and doesn’t show the complexity within them.”
Arguably even a 1,500-word story isn’t enough to fully flesh out the gun owners that Diedrich spoke with for Behind the Gun, but the profiles to date do present a more nuanced picture of gun owners than what we’re used to seeing in the media. Frankly, one of the biggest differences that I noticed is that Diedrich approaches them as people first, instead of making their gun ownership their entire identity. All too often, when I read mainstream media accounts of gun owners it reminds me of an anthropologist describing their first encounter with a band of primates or a tribe of indigenous people; something strange and unusual to be studied, but a phenomena that can ever be fully understood.
Diedrich’s reporting, on the other hand, brings the humanity of his subjects front and center. Instead of being treated like some foreign creature to be investigated or callous individuals indifferent to suffering who should be demonized, men like gun store owner Dan Macron and women like new gun owner Emily Schmuki are presented as, well, normal. That alone is a breath of fresh air, and as I told Diedrich during our conversation, I hope that other reporters around the country follow his lead.
But Diedrich isn’t just showcasing the wide variety of gun owners in our society. He’s also shining a light on efforts by gun owners to reduce suicides, homicides, and accidents involving firearms, which rarely get the kind of media attention they deserve. Whether it’s Mike Sodinia of Walk the Talk America encouraging mental care for gun owners to gun store owners like Chuck Lovelace who are offering gun owners a place to temporarily store their firearms if need be, Diedrich is helping his audience understand that these are issues that gun owners care about. Yes, we care about protecting our right to keep and bear arms, but we also care about the people exercising that right.
You can check out the entire conversation with reporter John Diedrich in the video window below, and you can read the fourteen pieces in Behind the Gun that have been published to date here. Diedrich says there are more stories slated for the new year, and I’m looking forward to having him back on the show to continue the conversation in the very near future.