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’talone – 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.