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What reporters should keep in mind when writing about America’s epidemic of gun violence

What reporters should keep in mind when writing about America’s epidemic of gun violence

Picture of Kellie  Schmitt
Getty Images
Getty Images

When motor vehicle deaths were climbing in the 1960s, public health and safety officials took a new approach, spurring changes to cars and roadways that led to dramatically lower death rates.

Instead of focusing on just the driver, officials called for barriers and guardrails on roadways. Vehicles were built with new safety features, such as energy-absorbing steering wheels and shatter-resistant windshields.

That same public health approach could be used with gun violence, said David Hemenway, a professor of health policy at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. “If we’re going to have to have lots of guns, we’ve going to have to learn to live with them,” he said. That means making it harder for people to make mistakes and easier for people to stay safe.  

Viewing gun violence through a broader public health lens shifts the debate, panelists said in a Center for Health Journalism webinar earlier this week. Hemenway was joined Dr. Garen J. Wintemute, a professor of emergency medicine and the director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, and Lois Beckett, a senior reporter for the Guardian who covers gun policy, criminal justice and the far right in the United States.

While the string of recent mass shootings in places such as Parkland, Florida and Las Vegas, Nevada have thrust gun violence into the national spotlight repeatedly in recent months, the problem is far broader in scale and time.

“In the most recent 10 years for which we have data, or any recent 10-year period you care to mention, we have lost more civilians in the United States to firearm violence — suicide or homicide — than we had combat fatalities in World War II. That ranks this as a significant problem,” Wintemute said.

What does a public health approach mean?

In simple terms, a public health approach to gun violence centers around harm reduction and prevention, said Hemenway. It’s about stepping back and examining what is causing the injuries and deaths, rather than “spreading falsehoods.”

To do that, we need more data to understand the circumstances surrounding gun deaths and injuries. He pointed to the figures documenting the number of children who accidentally shoot themselves or other children. Why not create childproof guns? Hemenway asked. Similarly, design changes could be made that prevent a gun from firing when the magazine is removed.

Looking at the statistics on gun suicides can lead to other possible prevention strategies. Although it’s not widely known, data shows that having a gun in the home is a huge risk factor for suicide. Public health campaigns could make it a social norm to take away someone’s gun when they’re showing signs of suicidal thoughts or behavior, similar to the drunk driving prevention campaign “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk.”

“If a friend is going through a rough time, babysit his gun for awhile,” Hemenway said.

Looking at recent school shootings through a broader statistical lens also makes it evident that arming teachers isn’t a smart approach, in Hemenway’s view. Gun violence has occurred at a very small fraction of the country’s total schools. The risk of bringing guns into classrooms, combined with the huge financial cost of training teachers and the unlikelihood that an armed teacher could effectively stop an armored shooter with a semi-automatic weapon, makes the policy proposal a non-starter for Hemenway.

Four policies for addressing the gun violence crisis

Wintemute, a pioneer in the field of injury epidemiology and the prevention of firearm violence, outlined four promising interventions that address gun violence using data and research.

Background checks for firearm purchases are beneficial, although they “are only as good as the data they’re run on,” he said.  Since much of the reporting is voluntary, there are often gaps in the databases used for gun background checks. Those inadequate records can allow people with felony convictions or other “red flags” to purchase firearms.  

Another approach is to expand the denial criteria for those seeking to buy a firearm. For example, such rules might bar those convicted of misdemeanor violent crimes or someone with a documented history of alcohol abuse.

Another policy option — which Wintemute believes could have prevented the recent Parkland shooting — is gun violence restraining orders. These would allow law enforcement or family members to make a case before a judge that an individual poses an imminent threat of gun violence. The courts could then issue an order temporarily removing firearms from that person.

And, finally, Wintemute pointed to the practice of seizing firearms from people who bought a firearm legally but whose subsequent conviction would now prohibit them owning a gun, something he said “makes intuitive sense.”

Drawing on data from states such as California that have already enacted some of these measures could spur story ideas in other states weighing such measures, he added.

Tips for telling stories of gun violence

The emotions and grief associated with mass shootings are intense and potential policy solutions are often technical and hard to understand, said Beckett, the Guardian journalist.  That creates a big tension for reporters who have to explain small interventions and changes in policies in a way that resonates with people.

Finding good data to back up the story isn’t easy either. Even though the amount of data in the National Violent Death Reporting System is increasing, there are still significant gaps. For example, the system only pulls data from 40 states.

Beckett suggested reporters look at how public health experts and suicide prevention experts are working with gun owners to find common ground and save people’s lives. Reporters could also take a look at a region that’s seen gun violence decline and explore what it takes to save lives at the local o r regional level.

She urged reporters to venture where journalists are often hesitant to go, such as gun shows, and broaden their source lists. On that note, she recommended following Stephen Gutowski, a conservative reporter for the Washington Free Beacon, who is helpful in deepening reporting perspectives and improving accuracy when writing about gun technicalities.

Beckett also cautioned reporters against only quoting white male experts in their reporting. One way to get more voices from people of color in the story is to interview sources from the Community Justice Reform Coalition, a national advocacy coalition to prevent gun violence.

Keeping disparities in mind also means paying attention to where most gun violence occurs. As the nation — and the media — focuses on making schools safer, children across the country still face a much higher risk of being shot in their homes and neighborhoods, Beckett said.

“We are having a national conversation on how to make schools safe,” she said. “We are fortifying American schools while they are being shot at home.”


Watch the full presentation here:


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