Still Missing From The Aurora Coverage: Gun Violence Context

It's been one week since the former medical student-turned-gunman opened fire inside an Aurora, CO movie theater, shooting 70 people and killing 12. News of the massacre continues to generate enormous amounts of press coverage, most of which has been accurate and helpful.

However, what's been often lacking has been useful context about gun violence in America and the disturbing truth that the Aurora rampage represents the latest chapter in a long, active line of U.S. shooting sprees. And that far from happening in a vacuum created an isolated villain, the mass murder was connected to a sweeping cultural and criminal problem, one that gun proponents and conservatives don't want to address.

In 2009, in the wake of a rash of deadly shooting sprees, I noted how gun rampages no longer seemed to generate interest from the press and that the news media treated them as though they were isolated incidents and there was no public policy issue that tied them together. The press essentially had embraced the lazy NRA mantra: Guns don't kill people. People do.

Worse, the press often covered shooting sprees the way it covered killer tornadoes: One-day stories that were acts of nature, and that all people could really do is try to stay out of the way.

I will say that in the wake of the Aurora massacre there was clearly a rejuvenated debate about gun control and the press did raise the obvious connection between free and easy access to guns (including assault weapons) and the specter of more shooting sprees. Additionally, leading gun control advocates such as New York's mayor Michael Bloomberg were given high-profile platforms to urge changes in firearm laws.

All of that marks an improvement over recent rampage coverage. However, crucial gaps persist. For instance, each year roughly 30,000 Americans die from gun violence, or 300,000 over the last decade. That's a staggering statistic and one that helps put into context the entrenched epidemic of gun violence that America faces. By comparison, since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, approximately 4,300 Americans have died in that conflict.

As Forbes' Rob Waters noted, from the period between 2000 to 2009, “If you exclude natural causes of death and consider only deaths caused by injury, [gun violence] is the second-leading cause of death over that time span; only car accidents (417,000) killed more people.”

That 30,000 figure represents an eye-opening detail that helps tell the larger, disturbing story about gun violence in America. But it's one that has rarely been cited by the U.S. news media over the last seven days. A search of Nexis finds very few mentions of the statistic in news articles or television discussions about the Aurora massacre.  And some of the only U.S. newspaper references to the 30,000 figure that have appeared in the last week have been from opinion pieces about gun control, including essays in the New York TimesBoston Globe and the Raleigh News & Observer. 

But why is that statistic not regularly cited in news articles? Is it considered controversial to simply report, in the wake of a senseless gun rampage, how many people die from gun violence each year in the United States?

CNN, for instance, has aired nearly 100 reports or discussions about the Aurora killings, according to Nexis. But during only a handful of those segments has the 30,000-fatality figure been mentioned.

In terms of the amount of coverage, the last shooting spree that generated as much media attention as the Aurora massacre came in January 2011, when an Arizona gunman opened fire on a meet-and-greet event hosted by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords at a local shopping center parking lot. Six people were killed that day out of the 18 victims who were shot. Because a member of Congress was targeted in the killing, the media response was enormous, much like with the Batman shooting. And justifiably so, given the horrific toll the tragedies took on the local communities.

However, the sad truth is that in the 18 months between the Giffords shooting spree and the Aurora shooting spree, America witnessed a steady stream of wild gun rampages, most of which were in and out of the national headlines in less than 24 hours.

  • July 17, 2012: A gunman stood outside of a crowded downtown bar in Tuscaloosa, AL and opened fire, injuring at least 17 people.
  • May 30, 2012: After killing four people in a café and then another during a carjacking, a Seattle gunman killed himself as police officers approached him. 
  • April 2, 2012: Seven people were killed and three others wounded in a shooting rampage at an Asian religious vocational school in Oakland, CA.
  • March 8, 2012: Two people were killed and seven wounded when a man opened fire inside a clinic at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
  • Feb. 21, 2012: Five people were killed in a murder-suicide attack at a spa in Norcross, GA.
  • Oct 12, 2011: Eight people were killed in a mass shooting at a Seal Beach, CA, nail salon.
  • Oct. 5, 2011: A disgruntled worker opened fire at a Northern California cement plant killing three and wounding seven.
  • Sept. 6, 2011: A gunman opened fire, killing three people and then himself at an IHOP in Carson City, NV.
  • July 7, 2011: A man shot and killed himself following his shooting rampage in Grand Rapids, MI that left seven dead and two others wounded.

On and on the epidemic rolls, fueled by gun saturation in America. When the sad rampage chapters play out, the press shouldn't shy away from putting the string of connected events into context, nor should it refuse to detail the sweeping size of our nation's gun violence crisis.