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Thursday Night Special



It is only Monday, but already I find myself repressing the urge to shop at Walmart Thursday night. The store will open at 6. That gives me time to clear the dishes if I can get everyone seated at the table early enough. And I never shop at Walmart.

That urge comes from newspaper stories and blogs and magazines and TV and radio news and ads. Black Friday and CyberMonday are now almost as big as the Super Bowl, and that's only super big because of the commercials.

Unexplainable non-hormonal urges are media driven. It is hard to grasp because our media is so fragmented these days that we don't know where we get our information. We might check out a news story on the web for two seconds because of a link from Facebook or Twitter or catch half a commercial as we fast forward through the football game. We don't even think about it. But when the same message comes to us indirectly from many sources, we process it as something we simply know. Walter Lippman told us that back in 1922 in a book called Public Opinion.

Right now, the news and entertainment industries send us two unified messages: We must shop and we must fear. The combination is powerful, because when you find yourself fearful, you feel the need to buy something. If the solution to a problem can't be found in a store, it seems unsolvable. That's how we feel about climate change and contagious disease. And that's why our answer to gun violence is to go out and buy ourselves guns and make sure the government can't stop us from doing it.

To understand unified messages, imagine the news and entertainment industries sending us an alternate message over the Christmas season: Don't shop. Stay home. Keep your wallet closed.

Have you read or heard or seen that message in any news story or a TV show or movie? Has it been the basis of any story plot? And you won't see this message: Don't fear.

To test my theory, I plugged "Ebola" into Google News to find any reassuring stories on that front. To my surprise I did. ABC News just reported that Liberia would be Ebola-free by Christmas, according to the Liberian government. But at the same time ABC News also had this headline: "US Looking Past Ebola to Prepare for Next Outbreak."

While we see news story after news story about cops shooting kids and kids shooting kids, we don't see this unified message: Don't buy guns. Instead you can find them specially priced for Christmas. And our movies and TV shows make those guns so sexy. I watch a lot of British TV. I find myself screaming at the cops in those shows, "Where is your gun, you idiot?!" And I'm a gun law advocate.

Last year in Great Britain, 11 police officers died on duty, all in car or helicopter crashes. In California last year, almost three times as many were killed by gunshots in the line of duty, with another two killed in accidental shootings.

A few years ago, I was at the playground at the Arcata Community Center, watching my kid climb like a monkey when I saw a car drive up with a mom and some kids. When they piled out of the car, she opened the trunk and handed each kid what looked like a military grade weapon. My heart skipped a beat until I realized they were water pistols. Then I pictured the kids chasing each other and a police officer coming upon one of them at the wrong time. What would he see? A kid with an automatic weapon pointed at a playground filled with children. The mom seemed like someone just like me. To this day I think: What was she thinking? To all you people who are going to Walmart or logging onto Amazon to buy your kid a water pistol or a BB gun, what are you thinking?

But you aren't. It takes enormous mental strength these days to fight off the combined power of the unified messages. Fear, shop, fear, shop. Solutions are on sale. Protection for purchase. Guns are sexy. Guns are fun.

This year it seems that the Christmas season began the day after Halloween. I wonder how many people will gift-wrap a toy Uzi 9mm submachine gun ($8.23 on Amazon) or a toy AK-47 rifle ($18.88 on Amazon) to put under the tree. Both qualify for free shipping on orders over $35. You can't buy those at Walmart, but you can get some pretty scary-ass BB guns.

This week began with the shooting death by police in Cleveland of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who had been holding an Airsoft replica BB gun. Closer to home, Tommy McClain won't be sitting at a Thanksgiving table this year with friends or family. He was shot to death Sept. 17 on his front lawn after a birthday celebration by Eureka cops who thought he was reaching for a gun. He had a replica BB gun in his front waistband.

We are having conversations on college campuses and schools about preventing shooting deaths by arming teachers and letting students carry their own guns as protection. The more of our friends and neighbors and classmates and teachers have guns, the more compelled we feel to buy our own. We need to purchase our own protection. We react to tragedy and fear by reaching for the quick solution, one we see repeated in movies and on TV.

Don't think. Reach for the gun. But to reach for the gun you first have to reach for the wallet. You might as well do it now, while it is on sale and in time for Christmas.

Plus there's the free shipping. Who can resist that?

— Marcy Burstiner

Marcy Burstiner is chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Humboldt State University. If you want to comment on this story or let her know of some media coverage or issue you'd like her to look into, email her.

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