On Journalism and Speculation after a Tragedy

by Jim Geraghty

Making the click-through worthwhile: Why speculation after a horrible event is natural and not all that harmful at all, an update on that report of a mysterious woman seemingly warning about the coming attack, and the outlook for that “common sense gun legislation.”

Who Exactly Is Harmed When People Speculate After a Terrible Event?

Quite a few times on Monday, various scolds on Twitter told us not to speculate about the motivation behind the abominable mass shooting in Las Vegas.

And in the realm of journalism, discussing an unproven theory on camera or in print is, well, bad journalism, because it can easily be misconstrued as reported fact. It assumes facts not in evidence, jumps to conclusions, and can point the finger of blame in a particular direction that could very well be the wrong one.

And yet, when human beings are confronted with something shocking, horrifying, and not easily explained, they speculate. They search for answers based upon what little they know. When the talking heads and experts finish not speculating on camera, they speculate too, floating theories, attempting to examine the few clues and details we know and arrange a narrative that explains them. This is one of those times where Twitter’s role in the journalism realm isn’t quite clear. Does a Tweet from a journalist count as a publication, with all of the weight and responsibility that suggests? Or is it the equivalent of off-the-cuff water-cooler talk? If a journalist says, “I think the shooter did it because X,” is that dangerous baseless speculation, or is it just saying what he thinks?

A few folks flipped out about David French’s Corner post from yesterday, accusing David of feeding conspiracy theories. All he did was point out that based upon what we know of past mass shootings, the Las Vegas shooter is quite incongruous. While many mass shooters use more than one firearm, this shooter had 23 guns (!) in his hotel room.

The shooter’s brother described the shooter as “not an avid gun guy at all”; perhaps that comment is best explained as the siblings simply not knowing each other well or shock. Still, but no one else noticed anything odd about the aspiring mass-murderer in the weeks and days leading to the attack? He left no manifesto, no screed, no litany of grievances?

The killer has no criminal record, and no known mental-health record. As far as we know, no one who knew him saw this coming.

Even more bizarrely, this wasn’t just a sudden burst of rage. Add up the purchase price of the guns, the ammunition, and the cost of the hotel room and you have a sizable sum of money. His brother described him as a multi-millionaire.

The selection of the hotel room provided the shooter with a small, locked, secure location overlooking a large crowd, a location where return fire from the ground was impossible or impossibly dangerous. Yesterday I rubbed some people the wrong way with this observation, so I’ll try to articulate it more clearly now: At this time, the authorities have no evidence that this shooter was connected to any terror group. But this is precisely the sort of thing a terror group would like to do, and we should be on alert for attempts to copy these methods. (How many hotels overlook large gathering spaces like parks, plazas, public squares, stadiums?)

This was no spree; this was a meticulously planned monstrous crime.  And now since David’s post, we’ve learned that the shooter had ammonium nitrate in his car, a substance that can be used to build a bomb.

Returning to the maligned notion of speculation . . .  what exactly are we worried about here? That we’ll smear the name of a mass murderer? That public speculation will lead the police authorities in the wrong direction? Come on, give the authorities credit. The Las Vegas police and FBI are professionals, they’re not going to refocus their investigation on a theory just because it’s popular on social media.

Could speculation inadvertently feed into false rumors and conspiracy theories that flourish after an event like this? Perhaps, and no honorable American should be spreading around nonsense and lies designed to make people more fearful and suspicious of their fellow citizens. That’s Russia’s job. But even there, the problem stems from believing the speculative theory in the face of contrary evidence, not with speculation itself.

Author Thomas Wictor examines what is known about the shooter’s father, an infamous bank robber once on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, and points out some other oddities in the details of the shooter’s life, at least as currently reported.  The shooter allegedly had multiple residences, moved frequently and with little warning, consistent gambling winnings to finance a luxurious lifestyle, took very few photographs (when was the last time you saw the news media use a photo of a person with his eyes closed?) and a large personal arsenal of guns. The shooter may not have had a criminal record, but in light of all this how certain can we be this is the first time he committed a violent crime?

One Mystery, Sort-Of Solved

Over at Hot Air, Allahpundit looks at the strange report that a woman approached concertgoers 45 minutes before the shooting started and told them, “you’re all going to die tonight.” Obviously, that mysterious anecdote stirred questions about whether someone knew what the shooter was planning.

But a subsequent report in the Daily Mail makes the mysterious woman’s comments seem less prophetic and more mentally-unstable.

Hendricks never mentions the detail about the woman acting crazy and playing with people’s hair or babbling about “them” being “all around us” in the interview with the reporter below. That makes it sound like the mystery woman was off her nut, possibly high on God knows what drug (it’s Vegas, after all), and paranoid. If she was annoying people by harassing them and they started yelling for security to kick her out, she might have gotten angry and threatened them. It really might have been nothing more than an amazing coincidence.

According to Hendricks, security officers did come and escort the woman out. Assuming they’ve already been interviewed by police, which is a safe assumption, what are we to make of the fact that Las Vegas police hasn’t issued a BOLO for a Hispanic couple matching Hendricks’s description? They must have concluded it was a coincidence too.

Reality is mysterious enough.

The Chimerical ‘Common Sense Gun-Control Legislation’

You’re going to hear a lot of calls for “common sense gun-control legislation” in the coming days and weeks. Last night, all of the late-night talk show hosts sang from the same songbook.

What “common sense gun-control legislation” would have stopped this? As noted above, the shooter had no criminal record and no history of mental illness, so all of his gun purchases were legal.

Hillary Clinton immediately tweeted about the danger from “silencers” — more accurately called suppressors — that were not used in the shooting. Gun experts doubt the presence of suppressors would have made any difference in Las Vegas, between the sound of the concert, the echoes of the gunshots, and the fact that suppressors usually only work for the initial shots.

You may see more discussion of banning “bump stocks” and other tools that allow a person to fire a semiautomatic weapon at a much faster rate, akin to an automatic weapon. It’s easier to picture this proposal getting some real legislative traction. The ban on automatic weapons is constitutionally sound, and the laws banning the conversion of semi-automatic weapons to automatic weapons is also surviving legal challenges, so it seems likely that the courts would look sympathetically upon banning tools designed to work around a constitutionally-approved restriction. Unlike silencers, the Las Vegas gunman reportedly did use at least one bump stock.

Yesterday, talk-show host Andy Cohen asked, “How about we ban machine guns?” Quite a few people pointed out to him that they have been banned since 1986.

After being corrected, Cohen just altered his goal:  “Great news. How bout semi-automatics?”

PolitiFact is reasonably accurate and clear on this:

In simplest terms, “semi-automatic” refers to any firearm designed to fire one bullet with one trigger squeeze, then automatically reload the chamber with a cartridge from a magazine and be ready to fire again.

The term applies to a whole range of modern firearms, from hunting and target rifles all the way up to so-called black rifles that look like what a soldier would carry. Gun control arguments often focus often focus on the black rifles, but the differences between those and any other semi-automatic rifle often are only cosmetic. Semi-automatic guns all largely operate the same way.

Automatic weapons, which are often described as machine guns, are different, in that squeezing the trigger once fires cartridges repeatedly until the shooter releases it.

While semi-automatic rifles are widely available, fully automatic weapons are not. You can still buy an automatic weapon, but their sale and ownership is highly regulated and exceptionally expensive.

Banning semiautomatics would ban the vast majority of guns in private hands today. Enforcement would be quite challenging; the same people who believe that the government could never round up all illegal immigrants seem to believe the government could quickly and peaceably seize millions of firearms from millions of otherwise law-abiding Americans.

Any semiautomatic ban would be challenged in court for violating the Second Amendment, and there is a good chance the Supreme Court, at least as currently constituted, would strike down a semiautomatic ban as unconstitutional.

If Democrats want to campaign on repealing the Second Amendment — and let’s face it, most of them actually believe that the amendment is an outdated menace — no conservative will stand in their way.

ADDENDA: Not all is dark in the world. The Major League Baseball playoffs begin tonight, and the league must be thrilled. The four most-populated cities in the country have a team in the mix: the New York Yankees, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Chicago Cubs, and the Houston Astros. There’s a classic feel with the presence of legendary franchises like the Yankees, Cubs, Dodgers, Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, and Minnesota Twins. And then there are new or relatively new powerhouses like the Washington Nationals, Arizona Diamondbacks, and Colorado Rockies.

The Morning Jolt

By Jim Geraghty