Getting it Right When Covering the Gun Issue

Editors in one of the newsrooms I worked in often joked that we should sound a warning alarm when reporters start to do math. This was our way of poking fun at ourselves and a profession populated by liberal arts majors who are more comfortable with words than working with numbers. But plenty of good journos committed to getting the math right admit what they don’t know and figure it out, often with the help of experts.

We’re hoping to see a similar approach by journalists covering the gun debate that we’ve stepped into as a country  — specifically with the “bump-stock” term that is “trending” after Sunday’s shooting massacre of concertgoers in Las Vegas that killed 58 and left hundreds injured, and a nation still reeling in horror, I might add.

Images from the gunman's Las Vegas hotel room leaked to multiple news outlets, show a semi-automatic weapon at left with an apparent "bump stock" attached. (Image originally published by CNN, Daily Mail)

Images from the gunman’s Las Vegas hotel room leaked to multiple news outlets, show a semi-automatic weapon at left with an apparent “bump stock” attached. (Image originally published by CNN, Daily Mail)

The gunman reportedly used a “bump stock” device (seen at left in the image from the gunman’s Mandalay Bay hotel room) to mimic an automatic weapon in his killing spree.

Experts such as AWR Hawkins, who covers the Second Amendment right to bear arms and gun issues for says the devices “are add-on accessories that allow a gun owner to briefly mimic automatic fire but they do not convert the gun into an automatic weapon.”

But it does function like one, says Wayne LaPierre, the head of the National Rifle Association, which is why it’s likely to get a closer look at the rules that exist.

Hawkins writes that “in 2010–when bump stocks were approved–the ATF saw no need for additional regulations. Moreover, Rick Vasquez, former acting chief of the Firearms Technology Branch of the ATF, told USA Today that bump stocks were legalized because they are “an accessory, not a conversion device.” And the distinction between “accessory” and “conversion devices” could not be more important; it is the difference between allowing a semiautomatic to mimic automatic fire in short bursts verses actually converting a semiautomatic into an automatic rifle.

So this is what the NRA is calling for, he notes; not a specific piece of legislation banning the devices that Second Amendment supporters see as a slippery slope — but rather a revisit of the federal rules covering these devices.

Despite the fact the Obama administration approved the sale of the bump fire stocks on at least two occasions, writes the NRA’s statement on the issue, the NRA is “calling on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFF) to immediately review whether these devices comply with federal law.

“The NRA believes that devices designed to allow semi-automatic rifles to function like fully-automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations.”

Well, what does that mean? Likely a way to help the base navigate the issue outside of new laws about it.

The Washington Post said “the NRA’s announcement gave political cover to a growing number of Republicans who have indicated a willingness to consider regulating ‘bump stocks,’ devices that allow a legal semiautomatic rifle to mimic the rapid discharge of a fully automatic weapon. Less clear is whether the move signals an opening for further action on an issue that has divided the nation and produced virtually no new restrictions in recent years despite a steady stream of mass shootings.”

Although the president rightly avoided broaching the gun control debate roiling Congress at a time of paying respects during his and the First Lady’s visit to Las Vegas, Democrats are looking at this as a way to leverage further legislation on gun rights.  Republicans are also appear to be going wobbly as well.

The New York Times reported Thursday: “In the House, Representative Carlos Curbelo, Republican of Florida, said he was drafting bipartisan legislation banning the conversion kits. Representative Mark Meadows, the head of the conservative Freedom Caucus, also said he would be open to considering a bill, while Representative Bill Flores, Republican of Texas, called for an outright ban.

“I think they should be banned,” Mr. Flores told the newspaper The Hill. “There’s no reason for a typical gun owner to own anything that converts a semiautomatic to something that behaves like an automatic.”

Not noted in the NYTimes story, however, are how quiet Red State Democrats are about the issue and legislation, notably Sens. Joe Manchin of W. Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota,  Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Claire McCaskill of Missouri.

They may find they align with the WSJ’s Dan Henninger’s take on the issue:

“Gun control is by now the oldest, most sterile, wheel-spinning issue in American politics. It has nowhere to go, but it keeps coming back. Even Democratic politicians have concluded that trying to push gun control beyond federal legislation already on the books is a waste of the party’s energies.

“Nonetheless, on Monday night’s edition of ‘Democrats After Dark,’ virtually every comedian— Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert, James Corden, Seth Meyers, Trevor Noah —made pleas for more gun control.”

“…The chance that the American people will ever disarm remains zero. Spin on.”

And let’s not forget the brave new world of 3D printing, Congress, which would enable anyone to replicate a “bump-stock” device.

The Washington Post, meanwhile, has ginned up a tally sheet of Senate and House Republicans who have weighed in so far on the issue and potential legislation. For the most part, most of their statements are a lot of “we should be looking into this.”

They might also include a tally of the Red State Democrats’ statements on this as well, because as we have seen, on Second Amendment rights, everyone treads carefully, and, we hope, journalists covering gun issues with little experience or training on the weapons.




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