The Changing Cultural Narrative of American Gun Violence

This semester for our annual #FeatureWeek initiative, the Orator is featuring Matt Valentine and his thoughts on gun violence in America.

When I finally arrived last Saturday to a darkened meeting room in the Williamson Conference Center, there were only five or six people waiting for my presentation. I’d been invited to speak about campus carry at a regional Mensa convention. (I’m not a member, if you were wondering.) I apologized for my late arrival, and wondered aloud whether my tardiness had thinned the crowd.

“A lot of people are still at the petting zoo,” someone said. “They’re putting the animals away now.”

“They have a skunk,” another woman said. “It’s very soft.”

“And entirely edible,” offered an elf of a man in the second row.

Within a few moments, the room had filled with another dozen Mensans. One of them produced a small bottle of hand sanitizer from her purse and shared it among the people sitting near her. I introduced myself as an instructor of narrative writing at UT Austin.

“I thought this was the gun talk,” a woman complained.

As I’d been warned, the Mensans interrupted often, and I soon abandoned my prepared remarks to instead address their questions, which were mostly about mass shootings.

“There have only been four mass shootings on American college or university campuses in the current century,” I reminded everybody. “Mass shootings get a lot of attention, but they’re also really rare. Most of the policy steps we can take to lower the toll of gun violence have nothing to do with mass shootings.”

At this point, an organizer of the event interrupted with two announcements: first, there was a barbecue buffet downstairs in the lobby. Second, there had been another mass shooting during my talk—this time in Odessa.

I argued recently in a page-one story for The New Republic that the main consequence of campus carry policy—like all policies that expand access to guns—will be an increase in the number of completed suicides. But people don’t seem to care much, judging by the unremarkable splash that story made. The deaths of tens of thousands of Americans each year by suicide are easily ignored (or dismissed as unpreventable, despite substantial evidence to the contrary). To avoid the risk of contagion, many media outlets have adopted a policy not to report on suicides, further erasing them from public consciousness. In journalism, the topic of suicide typically appears only through the abstracting lens of epidemiology—we get numbers and perhaps a graph, but not an immersive and experiential story.

Other forms of gun violence—especially mass shootings but also particularly heinous murdersor particularly senseless accidents—receive more exhaustive media attention, often in compelling longform pieces, and are more likely to shape policy debates.

As an instructor of narrative technique, I understand why certain incidents, such as  mass shootings, capture public attention in a way that most gun deaths simply don’t. A mass shooting has a setting and characters and often something like a plot. It has a beginning and an end and, at least ostensibly, a precipitating motive. The story of a mass shooting sometimes has a hero, and always at least one villain.

Those storytelling tropes are problematic for journalists. For decades, the protagonist in nearly every mass-shooting story was its perpetrator. A typical account of the UT Tower shooting begins with Charles Whitman’s rifle training in the Marines and ends with his written request (discovered in the aftermath of the massacre) that his brain be preserved for science. Accounts of the Columbine shooting typically orbit the friendship between two outcast students who became mass murderers. Likewise, long-form narrative stories about Virginia Tech, Aurora, Newtown, Charleston and other major tragedies emphasize the biographies of the perpetrators, who subsequently became celebrities and inspirations to each successive shooter.

After their son Alex was murdered in the Aurora theater massacre, Tom and Caren Teves founded a movement called No Notoriety, which aims to change journalistic practices such that shooters aren’t elevated to celebrity status as a consequence of their crimes. The No Notoriety campaign advises media outlets on best practices for reporting on mass shootings. Don’t make the shooter the centerpiece of the story; avoid using their name more than once or twice to identify them; don’t publish their photo. Very slowly, over the span of a decade, the No Notoriety campaign has acquired practitioners, not only among the news media but also among law enforcement officials and political representatives, who have declined in many cases to publicly speak the names of shooters.

At a press conference last Sunday, Odessa Police Chief Michael Gerke made a point of avoiding the perpetrator’s name. “I refuse to,” Gerke said. “I am not going to give him any notoriety at all.”

As we consciously reshape the way we tell the stories of gun violence, there’s room as well to move different characters to center stage. And where notoriety once elevated shooters to greater influence, empathy has now empowered the survivors of gun violence with new political capital.

The most prominent examples are David Hogg and Emma González, survivors of a shooting at their school, Stoneman Douglass High in Parkland, Florida, who are now among the most politically influential voices of their generation (joining climate activist Greta Thunberg and Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai, who of course is also a victim of gun violence). But Hogg and Gonzalez are not the only survivors who have converted their gravitas into political influence. Consider Lucy McBath, mother of murdered teenager Jordan Davis (who was shot by a man who thought his music was too loud). Though she had never before held elected office, McBath ran for the U.S. House of Representatives last year in Georgia’s 6thCongressional District, and won a seat no Democrat has held since Newt Gingrich was elected in 1979. Similarly, Chris Hurst shared his story of loss and suffering in a successful campaign for the Virginia state legislature. (Hurst’s fiancé, television journalist Alison Parker, had been shot and killed in a horrific scene on live television.)  And in Colorado, Tom Sullivan, another Aurora parent who’s son was murdered in the theater shooting, won a state house seat last year, unseating an incumbent in a race dominated by debate about gun policy.

Of course, not every victim of gun violence is an advocate for gun control. Roger Williams, who represents Texas’s 25th congressional district, also tried recently to wield the gravitas of gun violence survivorship, to justify his vote against expanding background checks.When constituents at a town hall in February booed his declaration of unqualified support for the Second Amendment, Williams explained that his position was informed by personal experience.

“I speak from a little different viewpoint from most on this. I have been shot. I’ve had someone try to kill me. It’s hard to talk about, but I was shot twice in my leg here and so forth.” These remarks arrive around the 43-minute mark in this video.

In this case, though, the specific claim isn’t true. When initial reports mentioned that Williams had been hurt during an attack on the Congressional baseball team in 2017, his office put out a statement clarifying that he had suffered merely a sprained ankle. “Congressman Williams was not shot,” the statement reads. “However, a member of his staff was shot and is receiving medical attention.”

Though he wasn’t shot, Williams is a victim of gun violence. He was there. He easily could have been shot. So why exaggerate? Perhaps Congressman Williams realizes that a more accurate account of his experience doesn’t lend him any unique authority on the matter—he was merely terrorized by gun violence; he was merely at mortal risk—and that makes him just like any other American.



Categories: Domestic Affairs

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