What a week in Alaska journalism, and it’s only Thursday.
First we get the KTVA cowboys staking out an aggressive mama moose on the Glenn Highway bike path for more than an hour so they can finally ride to the rescue of the unknowing cyclist they’ve been hoping would come along.
The moose startles him. He falls off his bike. The KTVA SUV storms onto the scene like something out of a promo for “action news.” It’s all caught on camera.
And the television station then pats itself on the back with “KTVA saves the day after this bicyclist gets charged by a moose while LIVE on Facebook.”
Yes indeed, LIVE on Facebook!
We’re from the media, and we’re here to help you.
Instead of chasing the late Princess Diana’s limo so as to be first on the scene to pull her out of the wreckage to claim fame, the local paparazzi wait for someone to run into an obviously belligerent mama moose so they can be heroes.
Fortunately, the heroes got lucky. They didn’t hit the moose or either of her calves when they went four-wheeling off the highway up onto the bike trail, and they didn’t spook the moose or the calves into a highway busy with 65 mph traffic.
Wouldn’t that have been pretty.
But wait, there’s more. The moose rodeo was only Monday.
The Anchorage Daily News weighed in on Wednesday with a provocative story about Fairbanks photographer Kate Wool’s art. There is nothing wrong with provocative, and Wool’s art is certainly that.
The art is photos of children wearing targets on their chests. For anyone schooled in fundamental gun safety, especially for those who have had the first rule of gun-safety beaten into their heads since childhood – “never point a gun at anything you don’t intend to shoot” – the mixed message inherent in the photos is disturbing.
But it’s art. There’s a long history of art that disturbs and offends, and in a democracy it’s important to maintain the freedom to disturb and, yes, even offend.
It is, however, equally important, probably a lot more so, that journalists be honest, and there the ADN wanders off into the woods. Wool, in the view of the ADN, is a “gun-safety advocate” who the newspaper/ website goes on to describe this way:
“Alaska has a high rate of gun ownership, and she stressed that she isn’t advocating for gun control, but instead she wants more gun safety, such as encouraging people to lock up guns in homes with kids, encouraging parents to ask other parents if guns are secured before children come over to play, and a bill that stalled in the Legislature that would have allowed police to temporarily confiscate the guns of people who were likely to harm themselves or others.”
“There are many things lawmakers can do to make our communities safer. They can require training, licenses and gun locks for everyone that purchases a gun, similar steps to obtaining a driver’s license. This can slow down the process of buying a gun, and improve gun safety by education alone. They can make background checks stricter and ban known and convicted criminals and domestic violence offenders from owning guns. You can also limit gun ownership for people with mental health issues. You can ban assault rifles and all of the gadgets that go with them, or at least make the cost astronomical.”
Wool might now call herself a “gun-safety advocate,” as the ADN labeled her. She might even believe she is a gun-safety advocate. But the reality is that she is an advocate for gun control.
There is nothing wrong with that. People are entitled to their views. But licensing gun owners and banning the “assault rifle” – a weapon for which it is hard to come up with a definition – are the cornerstones of gun control.
And much of the rest of what is on Wool’s list – guns locks required of everyone who purchases a gun, longer waiting periods, stricter background checks, more restrictions on access to guns for people with possible mental health issues – are on the gun-control checklist, though there is no evidence to support the idea that many of them really work that well.
Everyone can now make their own guess as to why the ADN misidentified Wool as a gun-safety advocate. Nobody could spell G-O-O-G-L-E?
Everyone can also guess about why ADN did the story at all. Click trolling online? Trying to state an opinion on gun control without stating an opinion? The newspaper thought there was merit to a story of no substance even though the substance does have merit?
Wool has some ideas on gun control. Maybe they actually deserve some discussion and some thought. Let’s see:
There are gun locks. You could certainly make someone buy a gun lock with their gun, but you can’t make them use the gun lock. OK, next.
You can also make someone wait longer to buy a gun, but if the recent school shootings are any indication, that might just provide a mass shooter more time to invest in a misguided fantasy of what he plans to do.
What would appear to help, given what is known about the most recent mass shootings, is constant vigilance by friends and family, and a willingness to act when it appears someone might be a threat to themselves or others.
So a state law that would give the police the power to temporarily confiscate guns (governed by proper judicial oversight) might indeed be a good idea. So to actual safety training, not because it eliminates gun violence but because it helps eliminate accidental shootings of which there are too many in this state.
The National Rifle Association has been pushing gun safety training for decades. The NRA on its website declares its devotion to safety training:
“The NRA is recognized nationally as the gold standard for safe firearm training, developing millions of safe, ethical, responsible shooters and instructors. Whether you’re a new gun owner in search of training, or an experienced marksman looking to support others, the NRA has a course for you.”
I am neither a supporter nor a member of the NRA. I don’t join organizations other than those devoted to shopping like Costco and REI. It’s a journalist thing.
But I would encourage everyone to consider one of the NRA gun safety courses if you have not yet been trained in firearms safety. Guns are everywhere in the 49th state, and you don’t have to spend more than a few minutes around people with guns here to witness a lot of unsafe gun handling.
Wool and the NRA might well share common ground on gun safety, but it’s hard to believe her photos will help them reach it. Her art isn’t about thought and discussion, let alone common ground.
It’s about emotion and confrontation. It’s meant to vilify guns, to make it appear the guns themselves go looking for targets.
They don’t. People do. People with problems. People deep in the worst of human fantasies.
That’s the creepy part of Wool’s art. Its easy to imagine one of the deeply disturbed focusing on her images as targets. We know now that those who commit mass violence usually work up to it.
Parkland, Fla., school shooter Nickolas Cruz was obsessed with violence for years before he went on his rampage. He once put a gun to his mother’s head. After her death from pneumonia, he moved in with a woman who reported his fixation with guns and violence to the police. He “researched” the Columbine (Colo.) High School mass shooting online in the lead up to his own attack, the Miami Herald reported.
The latest shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, sounds frighteningly similar. The shooter there outlined his plan in his journal. Then he took his father’s .38 caliber revolver and a Remington 870, 12-gauge pump shotgun to school and killed eight fellow student and two teachers with “firearms that even gun-control advocates generally regard as utilitarian,” the Chicago Tribune later reported.
“The reality that weapons not included in proposed assault-rifle bans can still exact a double-digit death toll further complicates a wrenching national debate about how to prevent future tragedies.”
This is where we are at today.
The Chicago Tribune worries that an obvious weapon of choice for a mass killing complicates the gun debate (it was so simple when assault rifles were the only danger), and the ADN claims photos of children holding targets over their chests are about “gun safety.”
There was a time when journalism tried to bring substance to discussions of public policy. Yes, that sometimes still happens, but less and less and less. Now, journalists would rather become the story by riding to the rescue of a downed cyclist when they could have just pulled over on the side of the highway, opened the rear door of their SUV and told him to get in.
But hey, the visuals wouldn’t have been nearly as good.
Or they want to write about someone’s tasteless art as if it were something of a good thing without ever saying why it could be a good thing. Hint: the only good thing that could come out of that art is further gun control.
The media heralds the meaningless and the tasteless , and frets over how a weapon well known for its lethal, close-quarters killing power can be as deadly as an assault rifle with its threatening appearance. And then the media types wonder why Americans hold such a low opinion of most of us in the journalism business.
Like a rational human couldn’t imagine a standard hunting firearm being involved in a school shooting in this country? Like some teenager was incapable of discovering that “few close-combat weapons are as devastating as the combat shotgun,” as Leroy Thomspon writes in the first line of the introduction to his history of “U.S. Combat Shotguns.”
The only thing surprising about the Santa Fe shooting is that some troubled kid didn’t figure this out sooner. But now that information is out there for the next kid, what do we do?
Do journalists devote weeks to covering protesting school children, the sages of these times, calling for a ban on pump shotguns? Or double-down on the demand government just do something, anything?
There are a lot of people in that camp. Here’s Wool in her own words again:
“To all of the lawmakers, locally and nationally, you are out of step with the majority of your constituents. We want you to do something, or try something, instead of doing absolutely nothing.”
But what if nothing is the only sensible thing to do? “Primum non nocere” as it goes in the Hippocratic oath.
What if all the attention only fuels more mass shooters, a phenomenon researchers discovered when they took a close look at suicide clusters.
How about before anyone does anything, we have a real discussion about what actually might work? Is it possible this is as much about us as about guns? Could it be we could make a difference if we each shouldered the burden of that old cliché that says the price of freedom is constant vigilance?
Maybe the price of safety is the same.
And maybe the media could help by returning to the important role of furthering the discussion instead of promoting ideologies and obfuscating the facts in the process.
None of this, it must be added, should be taken as a criticism of Wool. It’s easy to understand where she is coming from as it is easy to understand the view of all gun-control advocates. They are afraid. It’s easy to be afraid. It happens to all of us.
It not as easy to understand where the ADN is coming from. The first rule of journalism is simple: Just be honest.
Doing otherwise only damages journalism going forward.
Wool is a gun-control advocate. She created some art to try to promote gun control. It’s her right. Why try to dress her up as a “gun-safety” advocate even if that’s what she wants to be called?
Her idea of gun safety is gun control. Few other people equate the two.
And it is possible Wool has the right idea. It’s possible that if we banned all multiple-round, repeating weapons – revolvers, pump-actions, lever-actions and semi-automatic shotguns, rifles and handguns – (they’re all potential assault weapons) we might be able to put a small dent in firearms deaths someday. If not now, sometime in the future.
But a such a gun ban probably isn’t realistic, especially in Alaska where a fair number of people still depend on firearms to help feed themselves.