A Reporter Explains Why Gun Coverage Is So Biased

Well, not intentionally. But Jim Ragsdale of the Minneapolis Star Tribune attended a conference in Chicago on covering gun issues, which he describes this way:

“Covering Guns” brought reporters with front-line experience covering mass shootings in Tucson, Ariz.; Aurora, Colo.; Newtown, Conn., and Red Lake, Minn., to meet with gun experts and advocates and gun trainers. Sponsored by the Poynter journalism center and funded by the McCormick Foundation of Chicago, we gathered in a city that witnessed 506 homicides last year.

The idea, I take it, was to educate reporters so they could do a better job of covering news stories about firearms:

A team led by Don Haworth, a Chicago private investigator and firearms trainer, explained the components of a round, the various sizes of ammunition magazines, even the spiral etching inside the barrel that spins the bullet for accuracy and leaves a ballistic fingerprint.

If the reporters who attended the event came away knowing what a magazine is, they are ahead of the game. But Ragsdale’s account shows what an uphill battle it is to educate reporters. He is endearingly candid in describing the trepidation with which he approached the firing range:

Then someone handed me a Glock.

There suddenly was only one overriding truth and it was exploding in my hands, like a tiny cannon. I held on as my kindly gun-range instructor urged me to breathe deeply and squeeze gently.

“Good, good,” he kept saying, but I felt like I was holding on for dear life. …

But I felt no sense of “gun control” — not much better than the member of our party who screamed and dropped the weapon on a table after it fired.

What a wonderful image! A reporter who covers news stories involving firearms actually fires a gun, presumably for the first time in his or her life, and responds by screaming and dropping the pistol. Priceless!

But the real problem isn’t that reporters are wimpy, it is that they let their biases interfere with accurately reporting the facts. Ragsdale comes across as a reasonably well-intentioned guy, but he is myopically unable to connect dots. He posits a tight relationship between gun rights and homicide rates. Ragsdale refers to “a Chicago Crime Lab bar chart of victims, in which the column for young African-American males spikes as tall as what they used to call the Sears Tower.” He continues:

But no one disputed the fact that some of our 270 million guns inevitably leak into Chicago and north Minneapolis and also into the hands of people who are the emotional opposite of Haworth and our coolheaded trainers. The Chicago Crime Lab’s numbers show that U.S. residents are no more crime-prone on non-gun measures than, say, Londoners. We lead the world in gun ownership, and England has few firearms in private hands. It’s difficult to get shot in the U.K.

But it’s easy to get stabbed.

I left Chicago wondering whether there is any middle ground — if we can have our Glocks and our ranges and our permits to carry without that Sears Tower of tragedy.

The key datum for Ragsdale is “the unavoidable fact that the U.S. homicide rate towers over those of other developed nations.” That, he thinks, confirms the ineluctable connection between gun rights and homicide. But he is wrong: as I wrote here, there is no correlation between legal gun ownership and murder rate. The homicide rate in the U.S. is around average. Russia’s homicide rate is four times ours; rates in Africa average around five times ours; the rate in Brazil is five times ours; Mexico, which has stringent gun control laws, has double our homicide rate; murder rates in the Caribbean approximate those in Africa. It is true that Western European countries in general have lower rates than we do, but that is mostly because African-Americans commit murders at eight times the rate of whites. The murder rate in Norway is very low, but it is indistinguishable from the rate among Norwegian-Americans. It is also noteworthy that the homicide rate in the U.S. today is only one-half what it was in the early 1990s. That decline, which has occurred during a time when gun laws have generally been liberalized, is never addressed by gun control advocates.

Ragsdale was correct to focus on the fact that murder in the United States occurs largely among young African-American males. That is where the problem lies, and where solutions, if there are any, must be found. But gun laws are irrelevant. Whether viewed internationally or from state to state, there is no correlation between firearms laws and murder rates. As has been pointed out many times, Chicago, with its sky-high homicide rate, has draconian gun control laws, and Illinois was the only state in the union with a blanket prohibition on concealed carry, until the courts ruled that law unconstitutional.

It is a good thing when reporters confront their fears and work up the courage to fire a gun. But it will be better when they confront their prejudices and have the courage to put their biases aside, and report the facts.

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