Where is the gun reform debate after Atlanta?

Last Tuesday morning, I wrote in this newsletter about a recent NPR series that used the case of the Capital Gazette, in Annapolis, Maryland, to illuminate the inadequacy of the news cycle that typically follows mass shootings in America: messy breaking news, followed by “thoughts and prayers,” coverage of vigils, stories about the victims and survivors, then, all too quickly, silence. By Tuesday night, the cycle had started again: a gunman murdered eight people at three spas in the Atlanta area; six of the victims were Asian women. This time, though, the cycle felt different, or at least slowed down. As I wrote on Friday, we had, to that point, learned astonishingly little about the Asian victims, in particular—four of them had yet to be named officially; observers apportioned blame, too, to newsrooms’ lack of diversity and consequent inability to adequately cover communities across language and cultural barriers. Since then, we have learned more: officials identified the remaining victims as Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, and Yong Ae Yue, and major national outlets finally published more details about some of the victims’ lives, as well as interviews with loved ones. Still, though, there are gaps—and we knew much more, much sooner, about the gunman than his victims.

The post-Atlanta news cycle has differed from past shooting stories in another important respect: the emphasis placed on subsequent calls for gun reform. There have been some stories in that direction. We learned about the weapon the gunman apparently used (a nine-millimeter handgun) and how he obtained it: legally, at a store, just hours before the shootings. Some commentators pointed out that there are greater delays involved in registering to vote and having an abortion in Georgia than in buying a firearm; as Slate’s Christina Cauterucci put it, “There are few clearer statements of a society’s values than this: We place more trust in the self-knowledge and decision-making skills of a would-be mass murderer than we do in a pregnant woman.” Gun-control advocates called for change in Washington, as did some media commentators. The satirical site The Onion ran the same headline that it always runs after mass shootings: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” (The Onion satirized policeand, by extension, media—credulousness in a separate headline: “Atlanta Police Rule Out Mass Shooting As Cause Of Death After Suspect Says He Didn’t Shoot Anyone.”)

Related: Hesitant coverage of the hateful Atlanta shootings

In general, though, such stories have not added up to anything approaching a focused, national-level debate about America’s gun laws. Across the agenda-setting Sunday shows yesterday, gun reform was mentioned only in passing on NBC’s Meet the Press and Fox News Sunday, and not at all on ABC’s This Week, CBS’s Face the Nation, or CNN’s State of the Union, where the word “weapon” was used only to refer to the Senate filibuster; of the first ten articles that appeared in a quick Google News search for “gun control” this morning, six were not at all tied to Atlanta, and two of the other four were right-wing writeups of comments that the Democratic Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock made on Meet the Press. This absence is especially curious given that the gun debate has otherwise been in the news of late. Five days before the Atlanta shootings, the House of Representatives passed a pair of measures that would broaden and stiffen background checks for gun purchases. These appear doomed in the Senate unless Democrats move to abolish the filibuster—but this is a story in its own right, and in any case, the broader debate is not yet dead. As BuzzFeed reported on Friday, prominent Democrats are mulling more limited proposals in the hope of attracting some bipartisan support.

There are numerous possible reasons why Atlanta has not accelerated this debate. President Biden has not set the agenda from the top; more justifiably, conversations about anti-Asian racism and inadequate hate-crime laws have gained momentum in the press, even if the coverage has often been hesitant or otherwise flawed. Centering hate, however, need not come at the expense of a conversation about guns—not just because the news media should be able to interweave divergent threads of big stories, but because hate laws and firearms laws speak with equal urgency to different parts of the crime; as the gun-reform advocate Kris Brown told The Guardian, “Hate exists everywhere in the world and America’s unfettered access to weapons makes that hate lethal.” In August 2019, racism and gun reform shared the media spotlight to a greater extent after a gunman murdered twenty-three people, the vast majority of them Hispanic, at a Walmart in El Paso. In that case, a racist screed written by the El Paso gunman and a near-simultaneous shooting in Dayton, Ohio, added obvious fuel to these respective components of the news cycle—and even then, the coverage of both was very far from perfect. The New York Times’s headline “Trump urges unity vs. racism” was widely criticized, as was its second effort, “Assailing hate but not guns.” (The latter, at the very least, channeled a duality of focus.)

Both these focuses pretty quickly faded, both in Washington and in the press. Those two spheres are, of course, connected: journalists are generally much better at reacting to the movements of politicians than using their agenda-setting power to keep intractable problems front-of-mind for the nation. In the wake of the Atlanta shootings, there are plenty of contingent reasons for the lack of focus on gun laws, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that both apathy and cynicism about the prospects for change have played a central role. Normalization probably has, too; in different senses, normalization has also hamstrung coverage of anti-Asian racism, and of the victims. As NPR’s Capital Gazette podcast showed, the typical mass-shooting news cycle is profoundly inadequate, but in the case of Atlanta, it’s arguably its absence that feels most jarring. When it comes to guns, we can’t prolong policy debates beyond the aftermath of a tragedy if those debates never start.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.