The past month has been a tough one for the city of Los Angeles. The LA Times lists details about the 36 homicides in Los Angeles in October, 2013. LA has had roughly 220 murders to date in 2013.
If these tragedies don’t look familiar to you, don’t feel bad. To my knowledge, not a single one of these deaths by gunshot made it to the national media. I googled several of the names of the victims. For some, I could not find a single news story about them, other than the record of the death. For others, I found a few news stories on local Los Angeles outlets. But none made national headlines.
However, one recent death in Los Angeles did make it to the national consciousness. A person entered Los Angeles International Airport with a rifle and shot and killed a TSA agent, tragically taking the life of Gerardo I. Hernandez. Others were severely injured. Within moments of the story, breaking news headlines blared with headlines that a gunman was on the loose at LAX. A Google News search for “LAX Shooting” yielded 250,000+ results. This dominated the news cycle for an entire day.
Whenever the media goes on red alert for a shooting, I find myself asking the same question–why do some deaths result in widespread media coverage, and others do not?
My research into the phenomenon of “shootings” attempts to understand why certain deaths pierce the national zeitgeist, while others (the ones I mentioned above, for example) don’t even make a dent. Of course sympathy for the victims is a primary cause, but this sympathy is selective. Some victims receive much more sympathy than others. Why? I don’t know the answer, but I have a few hypotheses (that only raise more questions).
First, all of the shootings that raise to the national level of consciousness happen in places where well-to-do people can find themselves: airports, schools, college campuses, movie theaters, supermarkets, etc. These are places that can be related to. Oh, I went to College. Oh, my kid goes to school. Oh, I’m at the airport. When several people are shot in wrong part of town, there isn’t much notice. Take a look at some of the neighborhoods in Los Angeles above. For example, did anyone hear about the time when 46 people were killed in Chicago during a 72-hour period, on the six-month anniversary of Sandy Hook? (And yes, there is a critical race angle here that I will explore).
Even when ultimately only a single, or two people are killed in these kinds of places, as soon as the news gets out that there is a “shooting” in one of these popular places, the media goes code red. For example, on August 13, 2012, my birthday, and my first day of teaching, as I went to class I saw a news blast about a gunman on the loose at Texas A&M. That rumor provided false, as there were three fatalities “near” the campus. But the mere fact that someone in some newsroom thought it was a shooting at a college campus triggered the news blasts. Had the same deaths been 10 miles off campus, no one would have ever sent out alerts.
Second, and related to the first, is that the potential victims (if any) are like well-to-do people. The death of a child at a school triggers gut wrenching emotions. The death of a child in a drug-deal gone bad will not illicit the same reaction. Again, same critical racial angle here. There is actually something a phenomenon called “Missing White Women Syndrome,” which shows that the media overwhelming covers missing white girls but not black girls. I suspect similar traits apply to deaths. Though, with gun deaths, I the location of the fatality is likely more determinative than the race.
Third, complicit in this phenomenon is a media (by and large) committed to gun control. I find it appalling how the media goes wall-to-wall with absolutely no information about these shootings, panicking millions. Usually by the time the media knows about the incident, the threat has been contained. Further, before we even know anything about what happened, the media is using these tragedies as a platform to promote gun control. Even if the shooting happened notwithstanding VAST amounts of gun control.
I should note that the shooting occurred in California (a state with some of the strictest gun control laws around), in Los Angeles (one of the strictest cities in California), inside an airport (one of the most heavily secured, fortified areas anywhere, where absolutely no guns are allowed). What more can be done, short of banning these guns altogether. Which brings me to the next point.
Fourth, politicians bolster their cases for gun control by sensationalizing these shootings. Dianne Feinstein has already done so.
Finally, I fear part of this concern, unfortunately, is something of a morbid curiosity, not too different from the reason why people watch car accidents. I don’t think anyone would ever admit it, but this is may be an undercurrent. And the media, like the Gladiator-filled Coliseums of old, gladly broadcast information about this bloodshed.
This last conclusion, I’m sure, made you uncomfortable. I’d rather not even write it, but people have messed up subconsciousness. We watch violent movies. We enjoy violent sports. People are drawn into gory, graphic video games that involve killing lots of people (like reading the Brothers Grimm, according to the Supreme Court). The reasons behind this hardwired morbid curiosity are beyond my ken, but I suspect there is something deeper in the human psyche here to help explain the phenomenon of fascination of mass shootings.
The Connecticut Law Review is hosting a symposium on the Second Amendment on November 15. I was invited to talk on a panel titled, “Tragedy and Gun Control: The Legislative Response.” This is a very disconcerting conversation because it is so painful, and so politicized. I will be talking about this topic, and much more.