In the wake of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting last year, I offered my fellow journalists some tips for writing about guns. One of the hardest things about being a journalist is that you’re expected to cover a wide variety of topics on short notice — and most journalists know almost nothing about guns and gun policy. So I pointed out some common errors as a friendly heads-up.
Unfortunately, the shooting in Aurora, Colo., has once again driven the subject of guns into the media spotlight. Here are five additional ways that journalists can avoid sounding stupid when they write about guns in the wake of tragic events.
1. Before declaring that gun control is the answer, think of a gun-control policy that actually could have made a difference.
A hat tip here to Ramesh Ponnuru, who pointed out that The New Yorker made this error immediately after the shooting. That distinguished publication wasn’t alone – countless writers and intellectuals immediately snapped into the “so, can we talk about gun control now?” mind-set.
When news arrives that a dangerous person was able to get a gun, many are understandably tempted to assume that bad gun laws are to blame. But that instinct does not constitute a solid basis for an article; you need facts to back it up. And there just aren’t many in this case.
James Holmes passed a background check — his worst prior infraction was a traffic ticket — and although some of his acquaintances found him “creepy,” there is no evidence that he was diagnosed with any mental illness. Further, while it’s true that one of Holmes’s guns was a so-called “assault weapon” similar to an AR-15, this gun does not differ from standard hunting rifles in most of the important ways. Holmes’s rifle fires at a semiautomatic rate — one bullet for each pull of the trigger, unlike a machine gun, which fires continuously when the trigger is held down — and uses .223-caliber ammo. This ammo is frequently found in “varmint rifles”; it is on the small side even for shooting deer.
Admittedly, one aspect of Holmes’s arsenal does depart from standard equipment: his high-capacity magazines, in particular a 100-round drum-style magazine for the rifle. (The 1994 assault-weapons ban, which has since expired, capped magazine size at ten rounds.) Mayor Bloomberg is wrong that these magazines have no legitimate purpose — I personally own an extended magazine for my 9mm pistol; it cuts down on loading time at the range if you fill a big magazine before leaving the house. But one can make the case, and many have, that high-capacity magazines make these kinds of shootings easier to pull off by decreasing the number of times that the shooter has to reload or change guns. Some shooters, including Jared Lee Loughner, have been tackled while reloading.
However, changing magazines can take less than a second — here is an extreme example of a fast change — and someone who takes as much time preparing as Holmes did will practice doing this. Further, Holmes’s choice of a drum magazine might have made him less effective — there are reports that the magazine jammed, as large magazines are known to do. He might have killed and injured even more people if he had brought many smaller magazines and changed them as necessary. And at any rate, Holmes’s proficiency with explosives is an indicator that he could have been incredibly lethal even with no access to guns at all.
2. Make sure the way your story is framed matches the information in it.
This piece of advice could have saved the New York Times from the embarrassment that was its leading next-day story about the massacre.
Under the surface, the story is actually fairly well reported. If anything, the sourcing leans to the right — Second Amendment scholars Eugene Volokh and David Kopel are quoted, as is a spokesman for the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners. Volokh notes that the shooter had “normal guns” and that virtually no gun-control policy could have stopped this particular man from buying them. The story also admits that Colorado’s concealed-carry law is similar to those found in about 40 other states.
Yet the story was given the title “Colorado Gun Laws Remain Lax, Despite Some Changes” — these would be the gun laws that earned Colorado a coveted top-15 place on the anti-gun Brady Campaign’s state rankings. And here is the third paragraph of the story:
[Despite numerous new gun-control laws], James Holmes, 24, the former neuroscience student believed to be the lone gunman in Friday’s shootings in Aurora, armed himself with an assault rifle, a shotgun and a handgun to allegedly kill 12 and wound 59 others, many critically. All were weapons that would probably be legal for him to possess.
The obvious implication here is that without “lax” gun laws, this wouldn’t have happened — even though information elsewhere in the story demolishes this theory.
3. Verify facts before reporting them.
Obviously, here I’m referring to ABC’s Brian Ross, who the day of the shooting speculated — without making any attempt to verify — that the “Jim Holmes” of Aurora, Colo., who had a Tea Party Patriots website, was the same person as the shooter. As we all now know, these are two different people.
I know the temptation to avoid making phone calls. Reporting is a huge pain. In fact, when I heard about Ross’s claim, I did some reporting myself — I tried to track down the Jim Holmes with the Tea Party website. I was quickly scooped by Breitbart.
I might as well have just slept in. I could have avoided getting yelled at by the assistant to one James Holmes in the area, who apparently misunderstood my message and thought I was accusing her boss of the shooting. But that’s what we sign up for as journalists.
4. Don’t forget: A law about where you can take your guns won’t stop a pre-planned massacre.
Colorado grants permits for concealed carry and allows loaded weapons in cars.
How are these facts relevant to the Aurora shooting? Well, they’re not, particularly. There’s no evidence that Holmes had a carry license, and at any rate, no law will stop a madman from bringing his guns to the site of his planned massacre. Further, the movie theater had a policy of not allowing guns, and apparently, no one else at the movie came armed — which raises the question of whether concealed carry could have stopped the massacre, if only the theater chain had allowed it to work. Instead, innocent movie patrons respected the chain’s right to ban guns on its property, while the killer ignored it.
In fairness, the Right was often wrong on this subject, too. Numerous writers have claimed that Aurora doesn’t allow concealed carry. In fact, the state of Colorado overrode local policies on concealed carry in 2003.
5. If you’ve heard an anti-gun talking point repeated a million times, look into it before publishing it.
No article about bad gun writing is complete without a few paragraphs on Gail Collins of the New York Times, but it’s hard to say anything insightful about her most recent column. She simply repeats a number of often-debunked talking points. She may know better, but many other writers do not.
Collins claims that semiautomatic assault weapons “allow crazy people to easily mow down a flock of victims in a couple of minutes”; in fact, as I explained above, they are basically hunting rifles with cosmetic features added. Collins claims that in some states it’s legal “to shoot someone you sort of suspect may intend to hurt you”; if she’s referring to Stand Your Ground, she simply doesn’t understand how the law works. She claims there’s a “loophole” that allows people to buy firearms at gun shows without a background check, but gun shows operate under the same laws that apply everywhere else. (Gun dealers need to conduct background checks, but private sellers do not.)
She also notes that people on the “terrorist watch list” are allowed to buy guns, as if that is self-evidently absurd. But the simple reality is that in America, due process is required before the government can take someone’s rights away. The terrorist watch list, which contains something like a million names, is just a list of people the government finds suspicious. These people have been convicted of no crime.
The underlying theme of so much Aurora coverage has been that we need to have an “honest conversation about guns.” Such a conversation would be easier to have if the media didn’t provide so much bad information.
— Robert VerBruggen is a deputy managing editor of National Review. Follow him on Twitter here.