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Media bias and the gun control debate

August 1, 2019, at The Washington Times

By John R. Lott, Jr.


Media bias has a huge impact on the gun control debate. The entire debate would be dramatically different if at least three points about mass public shootings ever got coverage: Shootings keep occurring in places where civilians are banned from having guns, almost any modern firearm can be used to inflict mass casualties and armed citizens prevent many attacks from becoming mass public shootings. 

The horrible attack that left three dead in Gilroy, California, on Sunday was a major focus of the Democratic presidential debates this week. The shooting occurred in yet another place where the victims weren’t allowed to be armed. Although the media consistently noted that people had to pass through metal detectors and that the killer had to cut his way through a back fence, there was no explicit acknowledgement this was a “gun-free zone.” Virtually all mass public shootings occur in gun-free zones.

In Gilroy the police were nearby, but this isn’t usually the case and even in this case the attacker was still able to harm many people before the police could help. Killers wait until there are no police in the immediate vicinity. Even if an officer is in the right place at the right time, his uniform is a neon sign saying, “Shoot me first.” 

Consider the extreme measures taken to establish security within Capitol Hill buildings: Two armed guards at every pedestrian and vehicle entrance, X-rays and metal detectors, stone walls on buildings, snipers on roof-tops, armed guards inside and out, and congressmen can have firearms in their offices. Obviously, no one proposes to replicate this level of security for every public venue or workplace.

As Ron Noble, who served as Interpol secretary general for 15 years noted, there are two ways to protect people from mass shootings: "One is to say we want an armed citizenry; you can see the reason for that. Another is to say the enclaves [should be] so secure that in order to get into the soft target you're going to have to pass through extraordinary security."

In the last few years, law-abiding concealed handgun carriers have stopped dozens of shootings that would have become mass public shootings. Law enforcement officers have even attested to the fact that there would have been many fatalities if not for the armed citizens’ actions. Legal carriers of concealed handguns save so many lives, and don’t accidentally harm innocent bystanders. 

Unfortunately, law-abiding Californians are disarmed by bureaucracy even more so than by metal detectors and gun-free-zone signs. In Santa Clara County, where the attack occurred, just 113 people had concealed handgun permits — that is only one permit for every 14,300 adults. In the states outside of California and New York, about one in 11 adults nationwide possess permits.

Even in the unlikely event that the national news media covers an attack that was stopped by a permit holder, that critical part of the story gets left out. Only the local news media got the story right when, last October, a concealed handgun permit holder stopped a racist attacker who was shooting black shoppers at a Kroger grocery store in Louisville, Kentucky.

National media outlets such as ABC, CNN and NBC noted that the alleged gunman told another white man: “Whites don’t kill whites.” It sounded as if the gunman was merely assuring a white bystander of his safety. But that bystander was a permit holder who was pointing a gun at the killer. What the killer actually said was: “Don’t shoot me. I won’t shoot you. Whites don’t shoot whites.” The national media got the story backward.

The wrong lesson to take from the Gilroy attack is that a ban on a type of gun would make people safer. The killer got around California’s ban on certain semi-automatic rifles by buying his gun legally in Nevada. This led California Gov. Gavin Newsom to blame Republicans for not supporting a national ban on “assault rifles.” All the Democratic presidential candidates also support such a ban. But the vast majority of guns sold in the United States, including most handguns, are semi-automatics, and they can fire just as quickly as these so-called “assault rifles.” In fact, even a rudimentary shotgun fires more than one projectile with a single pull of the trigger, and simple revolvers can fire six shots as quickly as a semi-automatic handgun.

Banning a specific type of gun is an unserious solution that ignores reality. Virtually any gun sold today can be used to inflict mass casualties. Attacks become massacres when there’s no one to fight back. Policy makers should acknowledge that mass public shooters seek out so called gun-free zones and the only practical way to protect the public is to allow citizens the tools to protect themselves until police can respond.

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