Mass Shootings Are Not the "Shock" or Aberration the U.S. Media Reports
July 23, 2013
The following are excerpts from Tim Diaz's new book, The Last Gun: How Changes in the Gun Industry are Killing Americans and What It Will Take to Stop It (The New Press, 2013):
Nobody knows what happened within Michael E. Hance’s interior life between 1978—his senior year of high school, when he was chosen Most Courteous because of his “consideration and good manners toward everyone”—and about eleven o’clock on the morning of Sunday, August 7, 2011, when he took deliberate aim with his recently-bought Hiâ€‘Point 45 caliber semiautomatic pistol and shot eleven-year-old Scott Dieter below the terrified boy’s right eye. Scott Dieter was the last of seven people whom Hance, armed with two handguns, calmly hunted down and shot to death in the archetypical white, middle-class suburb of Copley Township, Ohio. An eighth victim, Rebecca Dieter, Hance’s longtime girlfriend and Scott’s aunt, was severely wounded; she was hospitalized but survived. A policeman shot Hance dead moments after he killed young Scott Dieter. The entire episode from first shot to last took less than ten minutes.
“Unclear in all of this is the motive for these killings,” Summit County Prosecuting Attorney Sherri Bevan Walsh noted in her report clearing the police officer of wrongdoing in shooting Hance. What is not “unclear” is that in spite of Hance’s long-term and increasingly bizarre public behavior, his angry interactions with his neighbors, the judgment of several members of his family that he had severe mental illness, and a 2009 incident report by Akron police that concluded he was a “signal 43,” or, as a police lieutenant later explained, “basically . . . crazy,” Hance was easily and legally able to buy from a pawn shop the two handguns with which he fired more than twenty rounds at his fleeing family and neighbors. In addition to the Hiâ€‘Point pistol, which he bought five days earlier from Sydmor’s Jewelry, a pawn shop in neighboring Barberton, Hance used a .357 Magnum revolver that he bought in 2005 from the same store. He also bought several ammunition “reloaders” that he carried with him.
Events like that Sunday morning in Copley Township have become quintessentially American. They are damning proof that modern guns not only kill people, they kill many people quickly. Variously called a “shooting spree,”“shooting rampage,”“mass shooting,” “mass killing,” and “mass murder,” such carnage has become so common that a pattern of breathless but ultimately feckless ritual emerges from the news media’s reporting.
The ritual starts with a “breaking news” alert (that often misstates both the circumstances and the actual number of deaths and injuries).
“And, as we deliver the information to you, it is quite shocking,” said a CNN news reader on the afternoon of the mass shooting at Virginia Tech, in which thirty-two victims were shot dead and seventeen wounded. “Because, when we first started reporting this, this morning, it was simply a shooting on campus. We didn’t know if anyone had been injured.” After police gain control of the shooting scene, high-ranking police officials and politicians give interviews and press conferences, ostensibly to assure their constituencies that the event in question was an aberration, the horror is now over, and the community is safe. Mayor Buddy Dyer, for example, told reporters after a mass shooting in an Orlando, Florida, office building, “The gunman has been apprehended so the community is safe.”
Bill Campbell, then the mayor of Atlanta, “took an accustomed role Thursday after a shooting rampage left nine dead in two midtown office buildings, briefing the media and updating the city on the police‘s investigations in press conferences that were carried live nationally,” the Associated Press reported, adding that “Campbell took the role usually handled by at best a chief of police and normally just a normal spokesperson.”
Other events at this stage include such ironic gestures as both houses of the U.S. Congress observing a “moment of silence” after news broke of the slaughter at Virginia Tech—as if the Congress has in recent years been anything other than silent on gun deaths, gun injuries, and gun control. Perhaps even more bizarre was U.S. Representative J. Randy Forbes’s pronouncement to CNN on the afternoon of the Virginia Tech shooting that “the state [of Virginia] has done a wonderful job in terms of dispatching plenty of police officers, state troopers and other people to make sure everyone is [sic] there can have a degree of safety and feel safe while they are on campus.”
The presence of “plenty of police officers” after the gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, a student, had committed suicide, must have been small comfort to the thirtytwo other dead and seventeen wounded he left in his wake. Not incidentally, Forbes is a hard-liner on “gun rights.” He enjoys a coveted A rating from the NRA . In a press release announcing the gun lobby’s endorsement of Forbes, the NRA ’s chief lobbyist, Chris W. Cox, praised “Forbes’ unwavering commitment to preserving our Second Amendment rights.” Even before the numbers of dead and injured are confirmed, the media scramble for “color” in column inches and broadcast time through interviews of neighbors, survivors, and random acquaintances of the shooter or his victims. This reportage invariably includes statements of surprise that a mass shooting could happen in the community involved. “Well, we of course all see things happen on the news and think that we live in a safe and quiet community and nothing like that certainly would ever happen here,” a witness to a shooting in Binghamton, New York, told CNN after thirteen people were shot to death and four others wounded in a community center. “So everyone is shocked and amazed and still trying to grasp the whole import of it.”
There are also frequent observations that the shooter never seemed dangerous. “Mike was strange,” a neighbor told a reporter about Hance, but added, “I wouldn’t think he’d go to this extreme.” Judy Gren, described as a “longtime friend” of another mass shooter, Carey Hal Dyess, said he was “a very nice man, very kind. He loved animals. He helped you with anything you needed. We used to go horseback riding together.” This “nice man” Dyess shot to death his exâ€‘wife, her lawyer, and three of her friends, wounded another of her friends, and then shot himself to death.
The next ritual station is a ponderous exploration of “why?” This inquiry typically ignores almost entirely the looming significance
of the single objective fact that is common to all “shooting sprees”—the use of an easily available and almost always legally obtained gun, usually a handgun. Rather, the media pick speculatively through the mysterious lint of the shooter’s alleged, possible, potential “motivation” or likely mental illness. “Fighter Pilot Murder Mystery; Did Elite Navy Pilot Snap?” ABC’s Good Morning America asked after a navy pilot shot to death his roommate, the roommate’s sister, and an acquaintance of the two, then shot himself to death. What neither ABC in this case, nor other media in other cases, seriously address is whether the ubiquitous presence of guns makes a crucial difference in the outcome when someone like a highly trained, elite “Top Gun” pilot “snaps”—in this case, in a jealous rage.
In later stages of the ritual, 911 tapes are released and broadcast. It’s possible that these grisly moments are broadcast not simply for their shock value. But one is then left with the curious proposition that the media’s producers must think that the answer to the “puzzle” of why mass shootings happen might be found in the sound of terrified, frantic, and sometimes dying voices pleading for help.
The sad final act of the mass shooting ritual is a public event or makeshift memorial involving candles and teddy bears, to show “support” for the victims and help “bring closure” to the survivors. When CNN anchor Roland Martin asked Mayor Matthew Ryan of Binghamton, New York, to “give us a sense of the healing process in Binghamton tonight,” the mayor’s reply was typical. “Already churches around our city are having vigils. Tomorrow we’re going to plan a big vigil for our city. This is a city that really comes together in time of crisis."
Determinedly clutched throughout this ritual is the studied premise that the latest “gun rampage” is an aberration, something akin to the sudden appearance of a spaceship that spews death randomly for ten or fifteen minutes, and then just as suddenly disappears. But the cold fact is that mass shootings can no longer accurately be called aberrations in the United States. They are here, now, and everywhere—in our homes, our schools, our churches, our places of work, our shopping malls, and even our military bases.
Unfortunately, even if mass shootings were aberrations, even if they suddenly stopped happening entirely, the toll of ordinary Americans killed and injured by guns every single day would remain staggering, a bloodletting inconceivable in any other developed country in the world. Firearms are the second leading cause of traumatic death related to a consumer product in the United States and are the second most frequent cause of death overall for Americans ages fifteen to twenty-four. Since 1960, more than 1.3 million Americans have died in firearm suicides, homicides, and unintentional injuries.
This gory march of our daily gun dead, however, is virtually invisible. It is invisible because it is grossly underreported in the news media, suppressed and distorted by the gun lobby, and poorly documented by the federal government and most state governments. The news media glide around the elephant-inthe- room of guns as the common denominator of mass shootings. But they flat-out ignore tens of thousands of other, more “routine” gun deaths and injuries every year in the shooting gallery that America has become.
Published with permission from The New Press.