How Do You Cover The Gun “Debate” When One Side Spouts Nonsense?

Last week's depressingly predictable news from Oregon about another American gun massacre triggered what's now become a morose tradition of news coverage, not only about the mindless murders themselves, but also about the permanent stain of domestic gun violence. (This morning brought news of yet another campus shooting.) With a presidential campaign underway, the Oregon coverage inevitably crossed over into political and campaign analysis. That meant high-profile Republican candidates weighed in on the issue and often tried to wave off as unfixable the epidemic of gun violence in America, where approximately 290 people are shot every day.

Thanks to a string of truly bizarre ("stuff happens") and thoughtless comments from several GOP candidates, including one that seemed to place some blame on the Umpqua Community College victims for being shot, the so-called gun debate has managed to become even more baseless.

In other words, the Republican field is once again highlighting just how radical the party has become on key issues. And that poses a growing challenge for journalists.

“Rather than engaging in an honest effort to address gun violence and prevent more senseless carnage, practically every G.O.P. candidate has been reduced to repeating a mantra that many of them, surely, cannot fully believe,” wrote The New Yorker's John Cassidy this week.

The question becomes how does the press cover the unfolding Republican gun spectacle? And when do reporters and pundits step forward and point out that one side of the gun 'debate' has not only lost touch with reality, but at times has lost touch with common decency? That query goes to the heart of informative political reporting.

Earlier this year, I posed a similar question about the campaign press: How do journalists deal with a lineup of Republican candidates who, ignoring an avalanche of scientific findings, cling to the outdated idea that humans don't contribute to climate change? Do journalists simply tell the truth and acknowledge the obvious holes in their arguments, or do they help carve out a new political space for climate deniers that allows their views to be seen as mainstream?

One example of the shameful Republican gun massacre commentary came from Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. After the deadly campus rampage, the GOP candidate disparaged the father of the dead gunman. “He's a complete failure as a father, he should be embarrassed to even show his face in public. He's the problem here,” wrote Jindal.

Meanwhile Donald Trump invented facts and claimed these sorts of public shooting sprees have “taken place forever.” Trump insisted there's nothing we can do in America to stop them: “But no matter what you do you will have problems and that's the way the world goes.”

But it was Ben Carson who unleashed a stunning barrage of ignorant and insensitive comments while Oregon families still grieved.

Carson on gun rights: “There is no doubt that this senseless violence is breathtaking -- but I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away.”

On the victims: “I would not just stand there and let him shoot me. I would say: 'Hey, guys, everybody attack him. He may shoot me, but he can't get us all.'”

On arming teachers: “If the [kindergarten] teacher was trained in the use of that weapon and had access to it, I would be much more comfortable if they had one than if they didn't.”

On traveling to Oregon as president to console the victims' families: “I mean, I would probably have so many things on my agenda that I would go to the next one.”

It's true that Carson's string of baffling comments drew lots of press attention and condemnation. (Especially when he later told a story about how he had once been held at gunpoint at a Popeyes restaurant and directed the gunman to the employee behind the counter.) But I'd suggest too much of it from the political press corps was restrained in a way that would be inconceivable if, for instance, a leading Democratic candidate had callously placed blame on victims in the wake of a terror attack on American soil.

From The New York Times [emphasis added]:

Like many Republican presidential candidates who have sought to express sympathy for victims while maintaining support for gun rights, Mr. Carson has struggled to address the issue with sensitivity.

NBC News added that Carson had “made a number of eyebrow raising comments since the shooting last Thursday.”

Raised eyebrows? Struggled with sensitivity? I don't think that comes close to capturing the imprudence of Carson's remarks. Fact is, I'm not sure journalists know how to deal with a presidential candidate who seemingly places some of the blame on the victims of a mass murder.

Another example of the press not yet able to come to terms with Republican dismissiveness came when scores of journalists rushed to Jeb Bush's defense last week after he suggested “stuff happens,” and that the government shouldn't always respond aggressively to crises, including mass murders.  

As reported by the Washington Post, Bush said:

“We're in a difficult time in our country and I don't think that more government is necessarily the answer to this,” he said. “I think we need to reconnect ourselves with everybody else. It's just, it's very sad to see. But I resist the notion -- and I did, I had this, this challenge as governor, because we have, look, stuff happens, there's always a crisis and the impulse is always to do something and it's not necessarily the right thing to do.”

Certain Bush had simply been "inartful" and that he'd never cavalierly dismiss a mass murder as “stuff happens,” many in the press played defense and suggested the quote was taken out of context. But it wasn't. After his “stuff happens” comments, Bush was asked if he had misspoken and he emphatically denied he had: “No, it wasn't a mistake. I said exactly what I said. Why would you explain to me what I said was wrong? Things happen all the time -- things -- is that better?”

According to the Washington Post, Bush then elaborated, likening mass shooting to kids drowning in pools: “Things happen all the time. A child drowns in a pool and the impulse is to pass a law that puts fencing around a pool,” he said. “The cumulative effect of this is that in some cases, you don't solve the problem by passing the law and you're imposing on large numbers of people burdens that make it harder for our economy to grow, make it harder to protect liberty.” (Gawker noted that Bush did actually sign a Florida law requiring pool fences after a child in the state nearly drowned.)

“Stuff happens” meant exactly what Bush wanted it to mean: There's nothing the government can do about mass shootings because there's nothing the government can, or should do, about gun ownership. (As governor of Florida, Bush received an “A+” rating from the NRA.)

The kneejerk desire to protect Bush from his own words suggests many journalists haven't come to grips with the idea that Republicans, as a matter of policy, are unwilling to reduce the number of guns in America. And that the shoulder shrug response to the Oregon tragedy indicates they're not going to try.

Journalists should stop shying away from relaying that troubling truth.