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Sandy Hook: The Corrections Begin

I noted here that the news media’s performance on the Sandy Hook elementary school murders has been terrible, with news outlets committing one factual error after another. Yet in all the calls for “soul searching” that have followed Adam Lanza’s rampage, I haven’t seen a single one suggesting that reporters and editors should reflect on their own conduct, either in publicizing (and thereby encouraging) mass murderers like Lanza, or in making sure they have their facts straight before going public with information.

So it will be interesting to watch media outlets issue corrections to their Sandy Hook coverage over the coming days. This morning the New York Times published a series of corrections to its Sandy Hook coverage:

* An article on Saturday about the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children and 8 adults dead, using information from the authorities, misstated the way in which the gunman managed to enter the Sandy Hook Elementary School. The gunman, Adam Lanza, shot his way in, defeating the security system that required visitors to be buzzed in; the school’s principal did not allow him to go through the security system after recognizing him. The article also referred incorrectly to the gunman’s mother, Nancy, whom he killed in the house they shared not far from the school. She was never a teacher at the school.

* An article on Sunday about the way in which the gunman in the Connecticut school shooting blasted his way into the building on Friday and shot his victims multiple times misstated, in some editions, the caliber of two handguns found at the school. The guns were a 10-millimeter Glock and a 9-millimeter Sig Sauer — not .10-millimeter and .9-millimeter.

* An article on Monday about President Obama’s remarks at a memorial service in Newtown, Conn., for shooting victims quoted incorrectly from comments by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, who criticized Mr. Obama for inaction on gun control. Mr. Bloomberg, appearing on the NBC program “Meet the Press,” said that if Mr. Obama “does nothing during his second term something like 48,000 Americans will be killed with illegal guns.” He did not say that is the number that would be killed in the next year.

* An article in the New York pages on Monday about past resistance to tightening gun rules in Newtown, Conn., misspelled the surname of an owner of a gun range on High Rock Road. He is Scott Ostrosky, not Ostrovsky.

The first correction relates to two garden-variety factual errors. The assertion that Nancy Lanza was a teacher at Sandy Hook, and that she had been shot there, was a staple of the early coverage by nearly every news outlet.

The second correction reflects the ignorance of firearms, and mathematics, that dogs “mainstream” reporting on gun issues. Have the Times’s reporters and editors seriously never heard of a 9 millimeter pistol? And do they really not understand how microscopic a .9 millimeter bullet would be? When people know so little about firearms, how do they presume to lecture the rest of us on public policy relating to guns?

The third item corrects the newspaper’s misquotation of Michael Bloomberg, New York’s busybody mayor. What Bloomberg actually said was that in the next four years–not the next one year–”48,000 Americans will be killed with illegal guns.” But Bloomberg’s statement, quoted correctly, is wrong. FBI statistics indicate that in 2010, there were 8,775 homicides using firearms, not 12,000, and the number is steadily dropping. Moreover, that is the total number of homicides that involve all guns, not “illegal guns.” There are very few illegal guns–i.e., guns which it is illegal to sell–in the United States. Bloomberg makes clear what he actually means on his web site, where he says:

…12,000 innocent people killed each year with guns, many of them possessed illegally.

During the next President’s term, if we do nothing, 48,000 people will be murdered with guns….

So when Bloomberg said on Meet the Press that “48,000 Americans will be killed with illegal guns,” he both got the number wrong and gratuitously inserted the reference to “illegal” guns. I have seen no data on the number of homicides involving guns that are possessed illegally.

It is noteworthy that the rate of homicides that involve guns moves with the murder rate generally. Between 2006 and 2010, FBI data indicate that the number of homicides committed with firearms declined by 14%. Over the same time period, homicides in which the weapon was a blunt instrument declined by 13%; homicides in which the weapon was a knife declined by 7%; and homicides in which no weapon was used (i.e., fists) declined by 11%. This suggests that rather than talking about reducing gun violence, we should focus on reducing violence, period. Whatever factors have been reducing the murder rate in recent years apply to gun violence just as they do to other forms of homicide.

In the wake of Sandy Hook, much attention, all of it negative, has been focused on the Bushmaster rifle that Adam Lanza apparently used to commit his murders (news accounts on this point have varied over time). The rifle is commonly, if meaninglessly, referred to as an “assault weapon.” But homicides using rifles of any sort are rare, as well as declining. In 2010 there were only 358 homicides involving rifles, compared with 1,704 in which knives were used, 540 that involved blunt objects, and 745 in which the victims were simply beaten to death. So the idea that there is some kind of epidemic of violence involving semiautomatic rifles, or any other sort of rifle, is nonsense.

As for the Times’s story on guns in Newtown that was published on Sunday and was the source of today’s final correction, I suspect there was more amiss than the spelling of Scott Ostrosky’s name. The article says:

The owner of one, Scott Ostrosky, said he and his friends had been shooting automatic weapons since he bought the 23-acre property more than 12 years ago. It is safe, he said, because his land is sandwiched between two other gun ranges, the 123-acre Pequot hunting club and the 500-acre Fairfield club.

It is possible that Ostrosky and his friends own automatic weapons. They could have filled out this form and gotten permission from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to buy automatic weapons, based on a showing that they had a “reasonable necessity to possess the machinegun, short-barreled rifle, short-barreled shotgun, or destructive device described on this application” and on an endorsement from local law enforcement, or they might have obtained automatic weapons illegally or in some other fashion. But I seriously doubt it.

Be that as it may, my guess is that more corrections are yet to come.

PAUL ADDS: John is spot on about this. I should add, however, that Charles Lane of the Washington Post took the media to task for its atrocious Sandy Hook coverage in an op-ed published this morning. In the print edition the op-ed is called “Rapid-fire falsehoods.”

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