A Uniquely American Tragedy by Donald McCarthy

There’s a shooting. There are multiple fatalities, most of them children. You’re in the media. Or perhaps you’re a politician. What do you do? What if you’re part of an organization that calls for as much gun legalization as possible, or maybe just an average citizen who isn’t too well-informed on current events? What do you do? If you answered “act sensibly” to any of these scenarios then you’re not playing your part.

Let’s start with the media. After hearing about the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut I turned on the television to WABC. There was still confusion as to how many people had been killed and no one yet knew who the killer was. In an effort to appear like they were providing new information rather than repeating themselves, WABC brought on a law enforcement official via telephone. He was from Nassau County, Long Island, which is where I live. I’m not sure why I decided to listen to him, a person who had no more knowledge about the shooting than I did, but I did. What followed made me gasp—the man began saying that we might want to look into gun control when it comes to assault weapons, and one of the newscasters immediately cut him off. You could hear the fear in her voice as she tried to get him to stop. Eventually, she said that they had new information and would be cutting away to that. He stopped talking, his call was ended, and… no new information. The woman had lied. She or, more likely, her producers, were worried about appearing to be proponents of gun control. Sure, children had just been massacred with assault weapons, but bringing up gun control? Perish the thought.

I can’t blame WABC, though. They just provided a perfect example of the overall problem. Fox News, for instance, actually had commentator Mike Huckabee, a former candidate for President, say that the reason shootings in schools happen is because God has been taken out of the classroom. I know; I threw up in my mouth a little, too.

Just as outrageous was the media’s handling of the shooter’s identity. The police made a mistake in believing that the shooter was Ryan Lanza, who was, instead, the shooter’s brother. Mistakes happen during an investigation and the police have nothing to apologize for—the media does. They ran with the false lead, and plastered Ryan’s and whatever picture they could find everywhere. This led to at least one (unrelated) Ryan Lanza being harassed on Twitter. Think about that for a second. People were harassing the twitter of a man they believed had killed himself earlier that day. That’s a special level of absurdity.

If the media hadn’t been so eager to make a mass murderer famous, they wouldn’t have had egg on their face shortly thereafter when it was revealed that Ryan Lanza was not the name of the shooter. Why did the media even feel the need to give a name? Doesn’t it just lead others to believe if they commit mass murder that they, too, will be famous? Obviously, the name will come out in some fashion but there’s no reason to make the murderer a household name just because you can—especially in the early hours of an investigation when leads are so tenuous. The names of the people whose lives ended prematurely should be the ones we see.

But, hey, the television networks were too busy interviewing young children who had survived the shooting to confirm minor details like the killer’s real name. In an effort to fill airspace and garner ratings, the media took advantage of children who will be suffering from post traumatic stress disorder by asking them to recount what they experienced. And they’ll make the kids do it on camera, too. Networks defended this by saying they did not put any child on air unless they had the permission of the parent. That’s nonsense reasoning. How are parents who have just learned that their child survived a mass shooting in the right frame of mind to deal with the media badgering them and their children?

In times of crisis we need to count on two things: accurate news coverage and guidance from our political leaders. The first was nowhere to be found after the shooting. The second? Well, it wasn’t quite as bad. No politician stuck their foot in their mouth, and Obama’s speech was moving, but none of them said anything of substance. When White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was asked about gun control he said it wasn’t the time to talk about it. He’s right. The time to talk about it was before these shootings occurred.

It’d be an error to blame Carney, though. He’s a mouthpiece for the Obama administration and the Obama administration has refused to do anything about gun control, even after the Aurora shooting this past summer. Why didn’t he broach it after Aurora? Because gun control is a touchy topic and Obama was involved in a battle with Mitt Romney, a man who would lie about the identity of his mother if he thought it’d get him one extra vote. If Romney managed to target Obama on guns he would have gone hog wild. Politically, it was a smart move for Obama to steer clear of gun control. Ethically? I’ll leave that up to you.

But there is another reason for the Obama administration’s reticence to embrace gun control. The National Rifle Association is usually linked to the Republican Party as they give Republican politicians a disgusting amount of money. However, the Democrats receive money from the NRA for various candidates as well. If Obama annoys the NRA enough, many Democrats will lose funding. After all, the NRA has a history of holding politicians hostage when it comes to gun control. Take even a slightly positive stance on gun control, and the NRA is at your door. There’s simply no way politicians are going to act responsibly on the gun control issue when the NRA has such lobbying power, power that they are not going to give up no matter how many people are shot.

Some of the blame must go to the voting public, though, as gun laws are obviously not an issue for them. The amount of ignorance concerning just this recent shooting is staggering. It’s best shown in an anecdote that involves, you guessed it, Twitter.

Shortly after the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, a hashtag appeared on Twitter which read #PrayForNewton. Quick readers will note that the hashtag has a misspelling in it. This hashtag trended on Twitter for most of the day—the correct spelling only began to trend at night. It’s a small error, almost one not worthy of being noted until you recall that Twitter does not decide what the hashtags are; users do. So thousands and thousands of users typed in the hashtag #PrayForNewton, not noticing that there was a misspelling. Let me assure you that Newtown was spelled correctly on the news and on news websites. Every time a person saw Newtown it was spelled correctly unless they saw it on Twitter. This means that the most these users knew about the shootings came from a Twitter hashtag. It’s very easy to put up a post about how sad a shooting is but it takes far too much effort to look into what actually happened, apparently.

It’s quite the house of cards we have here. There’s a news media so obsessed with ratings that they’ll exploit the shooting, yet too afraid of offending viewers to bring up any real questions. There are politicians too scared to pass legislation lest they lose money. There’s a gun organization which takes extreme positions so it can retain as much political power as it can. And then there’s an uninformed populace, one that shows little interest in becoming aware of the real issues at hand.

And the cycle is all too familiar. Nothing has changed since the Aurora shooting. Nothing has changed since the Virginia Tech shooting. Nothing has changed since Columbine. This means that we’re going to see massacres again unless something changes now yet it appears that no one is particularly interested in that. The next time something like this happens we will not have the right to act surprised.


Donald McCarthy is a freelance writer and fiction writer.