The cycle repeats. A news cycle. A mourning cycle. An outrage cycle. A vowing for action cycle. A cynical cycle. A hopelessness cycle.
By now, we have a deep and sickening knowledge of how it plays out. The nauseating gut punch of another news alert of a mass shooting. What? Where? How? How many? There is the searching for facts. Is it a school, again? Is the shooter still at large? Is he (and let’s be clear we can pretty much guess the gender with 100 percent accuracy) still alive? Did he act alone?
Does this shooting feel particularly close? Is it a place we know? Do we have friends or family in the area? Could we imagine having been there?
We know how the coverage will proceed. In the hours that follow the initial breaking news, the shooting will come into more context. The numbers of dead and wounded will have less of a margin of error. The killer will be identified. There will be speculation as to a motive or maybe even motives. Eventually those will come into greater clarity as well, except when they don’t.
There was a time, not that long ago when the memories of 9/11 were more fresh, that one of the first questions was whether it was “terrorism.” That was an understandable fear, but that mainly meant that the terror incited by mass shootings should carry a special designation due to the ethnicity, nationality, or religion of the shooter.
After the first day comes the next round of coverage. We learn about the victims, each photograph or biographical detail representing a web of family and friendships that will be marked forever by this tragedy. We get harrowing eye-witness accounts. We will see maps of other recent shootings. We will hear how we are the only country of a certain level of wealth that faces this level of gun violence —as in off the charts. We will hear a call for action —long overdue, popular with the public action— from some politicians. Others will offer their thoughts and prayers and say now is not the time to talk about gun control. There was a time when it was more difficult to sort these two reactions along political parties. Now, it is pretty much as clean a divide as with so much of what ails us.
When mass shootings were less frequent, it might have been more understandable that they were covered much like acts of nature, like wildfires and hurricanes (somewhat unpredictable yet accepted as an invariable part of life). They were part of the landscape of danger in our society. A country this big, with its history of guns, could expect a tragedy like this every so often. And at a time when there was more bipartisan problem-solving spirit on Capitol Hill you could maybe see a piece of legislation like the assault weapon ban passed in 1994 in response.
Those days don’t just feel long ago. They actually are. We need to see, and cover, the gun violence crisis in a new way. We need to see it alongside our other existential crises: climate change, COVID, racial justice, and the undermining of democracy. All of these are far more similar than they may first appear. These are systemic challenges that put the health and security of our nation at grave risk.
Just like we now see the frequency and severity of wildfires and hurricanes as tied in important ways with our warming planet, we need to see gun violence, not only the outbursts of mass shootings but the daily toll of shootings that barely make the headlines, as also linked to bigger forces. And we know what they are. As I said in the wake of the Indianapolis shooting:
We have one of our two major political parties that is at best allergic to facts and science and at worst cynical purveyors of propaganda and divisive rhetoric. This is not to absolve the Democrats, but we must guard against any attempt at false equivalence. These problems are complicated and we can and should be debating policy solutions. Perhaps the Democrats’ ideas aren’t wise, are too timid or too onerous. That’s a discussion worth having. But at least it is a discussion that would be taking place in reality.
Many in the press are already covering gun violence in this larger perspective, and I would encourage more of my peers to do so. Guns are often treated as a “cultural” issue, and there is some truth to that. But many responsible gun owners are horrified by what’s taking place. And whatever “culture” component exists around guns, so does public health, safety, and even the economic costs of this repeated violence. Politicians shouldn’t be able to hide or deflect from this framing.
In thinking of some analogies for how to cover these multiple crises facing us, I think back to the Cold War. Unlike a hot war where you can trace the movements of armies and navies and report on the daily news of battles, the Cold War often had stretches of very little activity that was new, and thus newsy. And yet, the Soviet Union was covered as an ongoing existential threat. Every action, from a regional war to sports competitions to our educational system was seen through that lens.
The dangers we face today are more diffuse and diverse than the Cold War. Much of it comes from within our country. But we are failing to put it in the proper context if we limit our coverage to a shooting-by-shooting basis, or even a gun control context. This is about the abdication of responsibility of our leaders to keep us safe and to respond to the needs of the people. Not only are many of them not doing anything, they are actively promoting efforts that will increase the danger —like an open carry law for handgun owners in Texas without a permit. It’s as dangerous as a new Soviet missile deployment.
We are trained in the news business to report on the latest development. That often leads to jumping from story to story. But the Cold War showed that there is a way to cover an ongoing threat. Gun violence certainly falls in that category. And the press should find every means to treat it as such.