The pen is mightier than the sword. But neither can match the firepower of a gun. And when you try to use a pen to combat guns in this country, prepare for backlash. In December, the Journal-News in New York (the current manifestation of my hometown paper) published a map of people issued handgun permits in Westchester County -- some 33,000.
The national backlash was intense. The publisher had to hire armed guards because of threatening calls and emails to the paper's staff. Even the journalism community recoiled. The respected Poynter Institute, which for many journalists is the go-to place for best practices, said the paper didn't carefully weigh the permit holders' right to privacy against the public's right to know when it published street level information with little context. In other words, it ran something personally invasive, automatically inflammatory and did so in a superficial way.
In 2010, students in my investigative class read through every search warrant on file at the county courthouse and mapped out addresses. What we read in those warrants had all kinds of personal information about private individuals. We published the map in this paper, but without any identifying information. We weighed what we thought readers needed to know -- the frequency of searches in their neighborhoods -- against the privacy rights of homeowners. In some cases, we believed, the people searched might no longer live in those houses.
There are a number of things the Journal-News should have considered. Just because you have a permit to own a gun doesn't necessarily mean you actually own it. Just because someone used an address when he/she filed for a permit doesn't mean that person still lives at that address. The permit doesn't tell readers why the person needed the gun. It could be they were stalked and felt threatened. It could be they were the victims of violence and felt the need for protection. And meanwhile, if the map was supposed to put the horrible killings at Sandy Hook Elementary into some kind of context, the paper ended up comparing apples and oranges. The worry is high capacity rifles, not handguns. Still, maybe people deserve to know whether that yellow house with a white picket fence next door houses an arsenal.
John Bennett in this paper last week wrote about how guns are sexy. I think that's part of what makes them scary. Something that facilitates murder shouldn't be sexy. I think men are more comfortable with the connection between sex and violence than are women, since women are more often the victims as a result of that connection. I'd love to see a good survey of gun owners' reasons for purchasing guns. I'd bet a lot more women than men get guns out of fear, not for fun.
For journalists, just talking and writing about guns is scary. When you do your job as a journalist, you tend to anger about half your readers. People who own guns tend to get really angry when they read articles that counter their pro-gun views. Angry people who own guns are scary.
Too many media outlets, which masquerade as journalistic enterprises, broadcast or publish inflammatory and vitriolic interviews that stoke passions. They make it seem as if armed police will be at our doorsteps demanding that we hand over all our hunting rifles. That's why I liked the special coverage of guns in last week's issue of the Journal. The articles and columns did a nice job of provoking thought without inflaming passions. I liked many of the online comments too. One sent me to FBI stats which did show that rifles of any kind made up a small percentage of weapons used in murders compared to handguns. And the Journal pointed out that murders as a whole in this country have been steadily declining. That's noteworthy considering that fictional murders on TV and in the movies have increased exponentially in the same time period.
We should all agree on this: For an issue that affects us in so many complicated ways, we need to discuss it without anger or fear of reprisal. This shouldn't be a debate about whether the Second Amendment right to bear arms is more important than the First Amendment of freedom of speech or press.
I remember a time when cigarette smokers swore that you couldn't infringe on their right to smoke. But now most people recognize that children shouldn't be anywhere near cigarette smoke. At one time in California, motorcycle riders swore you'd never make them wear helmets. Auto drivers swore you couldn't make them wear seat belts. But over time we all recognized that a lot of people we loved were dying and we could prevent those types of deaths. Look. People are dying from gun violence -- including children. Maybe there are ways we can prevent those tragedies. But we need to feel comfortable talking about how to do this in ways people can accept.
We need to have a threat-free debate. Any threats made by gun owners against people who want to ban guns, well to me, that's a reason to ban guns.
If you can convince me that gun owners really just like fondling their guns in the privacy of their homes, and blasting them against rocks in the desert or old washing machines in the woods or in the safety and comfort of the local gun range, great.
But we live in a country where many of us are afraid to flip another driver other off on the road because we don't know if the guy who cut us off has a gun. We are afraid to complain to our neighbors about the trash that seems to travel from their yard to ours because we don't know how armed they might be. There are teachers who are afraid of angry parents and managers afraid of their employees.
Some gun owners argue that the Bill of Rights includes the right to bear arms so that we can protect ourselves against tyranny. But as a trade-off for the comfort of knowing we can protect ourselves against fascists or communists, we now live in fear of our neighbors or co-workers or employees.
Right now the gun lobby wants to focus the post-Sandy Hook discussions on mental health. If we are going to limit gun ownership, it wants us to do that only for crazy people. But that ignores the danger posed by people who are generally sane, but for some reason get really, really angry. Like someone who finds out his wife is sleeping with another man. Or someone just fired. Or some otherwise nice Niners fan who just saw his team lose the Super Bowl after consuming three shots of Red Label with a Red Bull chaser.
We need to have a discussion about guns that doesn't involve any threat of guns. And we can't have that national discussion without journalists feeling free to write about it. The National Rifle Association says let's focus on our mental health system and treat mentally disturbed people before they can shoot anyone. I say, yes! But I fear that most of us are mentally disturbed. And that's an awful lot of people to treat.
Marcy Burstiner is a professor of journalism and mass communication. It is safe to say that no one wants to see her armed.