Public Outrage Over Mass Shootings Is Running On Empty

When it comes to gun violence, we've become numb. Blame the media, blame Trump, blame "compassion fatigue."
Alyssa Spatola/HuffPost

The deadliest mass shooting of the year took place just days ago, but you probably didn’t hear about it.

A man clad in body armor and armed with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, 9mm handgun and a .308 rifle killed his ex-girlfriend and three others outside a car wash in Pennsylvania. He then shot himself in the head and later died. The incident, which happened on Sunday, barely made cable news that day ― there were no mentions of it on CNN and MSNBC. Fox News ran a short segment.

Gun violence no longer seems to hold the public or the media’s attention.

But shootings are happening with stunning frequency: In January, more than 1,170 people were killed by guns. Nearly double that number were wounded, according to data collected by the Gun Violence Archive and provided to HuffPost on Tuesday.

There have been at least seven school shootings this year that caused death or injury, and 22 incidents across the country where four or more people suffered gunshot wounds. On Jan. 23, a 15-year-old boy walked into his Kentucky high school and sprayed bullets into 16 students, killing two of them. Cable news dedicated just 16 minutes to the attack that day, according to a Media Matters for America analysis.

That’s one minute per victim.

While not a perfect comparison, almost 20 years ago, it took two weeks before the New York Times went to print without a story on the Columbine High School massacre on page one.

Once rare, mass shootings have become commonplace, accepted as part of contemporary American life. They do not inspire protests, or command wall-to-wall media coverage.

“There’s a sense of helplessness and hopelessness,” said Dave Cullen, the author of “Columbine,” a comprehensive account of the 1999 shooting in Colorado and its aftermath.

Part of the reason is desensitization, he said. The public is numb. Most Americans can now tick off a handful of mass shootings in recent memory, the horror of the event conjured up by simply stating their locations: Newtown. Aurora. San Bernardino. Orlando. Las Vegas. Sutherland Springs.

In the past, high-profile shootings created a temporary bump in support for stricter gun laws. But the most recent mass shooting in Las Vegas ― which left 58 people dead and more than 800 injured ― brought no significant spike in a call for gun control, according to HuffPost polling.

In another HuffPost poll conducted days after the massacre at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in which Americans were asked which two national issues were most important to them, only 13 percent picked gun policies.

“I think we finally reached a point where we stopped being shocked,” Cullen said, adding even he suffers from “compassion fatigue.” He recalled being in a car with a friend when he heard about the church shooting in Texas. They spoke about it for a minute, and then he changed the subject.

“I hate to admit this but I don’t have anything left in my tank,” he said. “I think that’s where the public is. We don’t know what to say or feel or think anymore.”

The lack of political will to address gun violence contributes to the sense of apathy, he said.

“There’s a feeling that the one way out of this is to do something about guns,” he said. “But our politicians don’t have the backbone to do that, and so we are kind of stuck.”

Nicole Smith Dahmen, associate professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon, said part of the issue is how the media covers mass shootings.

“It’s so routine, and follows a predictable pattern,” she said. “Readers get the sense that nothing can be done, we’ve seen this story before.”

She urged reporters covering gun violence to move beyond the “who, what and where” of breaking news, and focus on the “why and how.” For example, she said media should ask how the young Kentucky student procured the firearms that he used to shoot his peers.

According to a 2004 report on school shooters, over two-thirds of attackers acquired the gun used in their attacks from their own home or that of a relative. Kentucky does not require that guns be safely stored in the home when they are not in use.

Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, agreed on the need for more comprehensive reporting. “It is very difficult to be outraged, and to address the crisis when you aren’t told what is causing it,” she said.

She pointed to the current 24-hour news cycle, dominated by President Donald Trump’s tweets, as one reason why gun violence fades so quickly from view. Even the largest stories get very little air time. Trump’s own reticence to speak about gun violence plays a role too, she said.

At his first State of the Union address on Tuesday, Trump didn’t address gun control. He made a passing reference to the Las Vegas massacre, but by lumping the shooting in with “floods and fires and storms,” he left the impression that all were inevitable tragedies.

“Unlike President [Barack] Obama, he is not going to have a press conference about horrific incidents of gun violence,” Watts said. “In fact, he is going to do everything he can to avoid talking about it.”

But Watts took offense with the idea that Americans have grown numb to gun violence. If anything, they’re angry, she said, pointing to the dozens of strong gun violence prevention laws that have been passed at the state level in recent years.

On Thursday, a Massachusetts law takes effect that bans possession of bump stocks and other accessories that make a gun fire faster. The state is the first to enact such a statute, but similar measures are pending elsewhere.

“We are facing a very strong oppositional force, and yet, look at the headway we are making,” she said.

Watts implored the public and the media not to turn away from gun violence, no matter how fatigued they become.

“Silence about gun violence is exactly why we have a crisis,” she said. “Legislators are willing to vote for stronger gun laws, but only after their constituents prove that they care.”

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