Emblematic Narratives Are Hard to Find

Item 3 Marking the National Rifle Association’s 2015 Freedom Festival in Nashville


Yesterday, the U.S. Capitol was locked down because a gunshot was fired immediately outside its walls. Initial reports indicated only that the gunman had been “neutralized” by a “self-inflicted fatal gunshot.”

Putting aside the very odd language that authorities used to summarize what had occurred, once it was clear that this shooting was “only a suicide,” the story received very little further attention.

But if you consider the statistics that I presented in the second in this series of four posts, perhaps this story should have received much more attention—since almost two-thirds of the gun-related deaths that occur each year are suicides, and here was someone tragically illustrating that reality almost literally on the steps of the Capitol.

By the way, if one adds in the murder victims in murder-suicides, the number of gun-related deaths related to suicides is even higher. And, ironically, perhaps because it is less common, such an incident would have gotten much more attention if it had occurred just outside the Capitol.

Journalists, politicians, and activists all seem to be on the hunt for the emblematic narrative, but it is apparently not very easy to recognize the truly representative or illustrative story.

The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, seemed to provide an emblematic narrative about police targeting of and brutality toward African-American males. Although the shooting sparked genuine outrage in Ferguson and beyond, the intense media coverage very clearly stoked that social and political response. I am not blaming the media for doing its job, but I could not help but notice that once it was clear that the police officer who shot Michael Brown would not be indicted, the story quickly faded from focus. Never mind, that, at just about the same time, the report from the Department of Justice included the following, shocking statistic: that in Ferguson, a city of 21,000, some 70% of who are African-Americans, there were 16,000 outstanding arrest warrants.

We have seen much the same thing play out in the coverage of sexual assaults on our college and university campuses. Rolling Stone thought that it had found the emblematic narrative for that issue with the story about the alleged gang rape that occurred at a fraternity house on the University of Virginia campus. But then it turned out that many details of the story could not be verified by police investigators or substantiated by Rolling Stone itself. So, some commentators took the opportunity to wonder aloud whether the broader issues related to the reporting of and the handling of sexual assaults on our campuses might also be at least partly fabricated. What was missed in such post-mortems on Rolling Stones’s flawed reporting was that their story was never about a typical incident: that is, although fraternities have been identified as a contributing factor in the prevalence of sexual assaults on our campuses, no one has ever asserted that gang rapes at fraternities are commonplace or constitute some significant percentage of the cases.

But, getting back to the matter of gun-related deaths, each time there is a mass murder, gun-control activists believe that the public and politicians will finally feel compelled to do something about the proliferation of guns and gun violence. But, despite the increasing frequency of these shooting rampages, the mass murderer is almost always someone with a history of serious psychological issues or of radical political extremism. So it is very difficult for the public at large to see how any gun-control measures will help to prevent such horrific incidents, short of severely limiting handgun sales, and, likewise, it is very difficult for the public at large to connect such incidents either to themselves as gun owners or to the gun owners around them. And it is relatively easy for the “gun advocates” to argue that as tragic as any mass shooting is, it does not really tell us anything truly relevant about gun ownership.

It would be harder for the media to “sell” stories about the almost 20,000 people each year who commit suicide with guns, but if those stories were told forcefully and repeatedly, the public would connect to them and come to understand how some reasonable limitations on access to guns are necessary.

How does one know that this very well might be true? Because it is how the issue of suicides among veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq was finally brought to attention. Indeed, if the media attention to that issue had been even more sustained, those vets would almost certainly have access to even more support services than are now available to them.


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