The New York subway shooting, crime, and guns

Yesterday, during the morning rush hour in New York City, a man on a subway train in Brooklyn put on a gas mask, set off a pair of smoke grenades, and opened fire on other passengers. Eyewitnesses—including at least two media workers—described a scene of pandemonium and confusion, with people in the car containing the shooter trying to escape into an adjacent car before the train pulled into 36th Street station, in the Sunset Park neighborhood, and disgorged passengers onto the platform. Derek French, a photojournalist, told CNN that he walked down the platform through a haze of smoke and came across wounded people and pools of blood. He took some photos—one of which, a gruesome image showing several victims, would go viral after he tweeted it—before using his windbreaker as a makeshift tourniquet on an injured passenger’s leg. “I essentially just snapped into first-aid mode,” he told ABC.

Other journalists and TV crews quickly flocked to the scene, or the ground above it. Initially, details were scarce; we later learned that more than two dozen people had been hurt in the attack, five of them critically, though none of their injuries were thought to be life-threatening. The gunman, meanwhile, remained at large. Yesterday evening, police officials named a person of interest in the attack, saying that they’d found a credit card in his name at the scene as well as the key to a U-Haul van that had been rented in Philadelphia and was later found abandoned. A “person of interest” is not a suspect, though some coverage that I saw blurred the boundaries; the man’s mug shot quickly circulated in the media, alongside numerous stories featuring interviews with people close to him—a neighbor told the New York Times that he was “gruff and standoffish”—and references to offensive videos that he had posted online, in which, also per the Times, he “riffed off news events in long, vitriolic rants.” This morning, just after this newsletter was posted online, Eric Adams, New York’s mayor, said that the man is now formally a suspect.

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Last night, Fox News hosts predicted that liberal media would soon lose interest in the story, with Tucker Carlson suggesting that it would be treated as “just another mass shooting in a big city,” because we “know” that the shooter “was not a white supremacist.” (The suspect is Black.) At least for now, “the media” is very much still covering the shooting: it was a big story across major outlets and liberal cable news yesterday, and topped the nightly newscasts on ABC, CBS, and NBC as well. As the coverage unfolded, some journalists were critical of aspects of it, including the widespread sharing of photos that identified victims. A CBS segment relaying a police claim that the shooting did not look like “classic terrorism” came in for some scrutiny; the reporter quickly clarified that “for the people who were down in the subway, it certainly was a terrifying morning,” but did not interrogate the undertones of the phrase, as several prominent Muslim journalists pointed out. (“What on earth is ‘classic terrorism’?” MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan asked. “Is it kind of like a classic wine from a particular region of France? Or is ‘classic terrorism’ really the kind of terrorism perpetrated by, y’know, the brown dudes with the big beards?”)

Other observers criticized outlets, not least the Times, for being hasty to slot the shooting into a longer-term narrative about rising crime in New York, even before the full facts of the attack were known. In response to the headline “Shooting in subway station heightens simmering fears about public safety,” Defector’s Barry Petchesky wrote, “Imagine thinking the operative action of this breaking news story is the heightening of simmering fears.” Rising crime, ultimately, can be a limiting lens, not to mention a distorting one.

It’s hard to say, at this point, how or when the story might start to fade in the news cycle; the answer will surely have much to do with how quickly the gunman is found. Already, though, the incident has attracted more topline mainstream-media attention than any other mass shooting that I can remember this year, even though, by the Gun Violence Archive’s widely cited count, there have been at least a hundred and thirty others. Some of these have attracted significant coverage—not least a shooting in Sacramento that killed six people last weekend, and a spate of shootings nationwide across a single weekend in March, one of which took the life of Sierra Jenkins, a twenty-five-year-old journalist in Virginia—though that’s far from the case for all of them. This is not to say that shooting stories should be flattened into a uniform standard of equal engagement; stories about the loss and endangerment of human life deserve more thought than that. Nor is it to say, though, that reasons for differing levels of urgency are equally legitimate.

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The subway shooting came a day after President Biden held a press event in the White House Rose Garden at which he nominated a new leader for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, and announced a clampdown on ghost guns, or firearm parts that lack traceable serial numbers even though they are often sold in kits for home assembly. (“You buy a couch you have to assemble, it’s still a couch,” Biden said.) Again, the event attracted no little media coverage, but it hardly drove Monday’s news cycle, coming in, for example, way down the running order on the network newscasts; yesterday, numerous articles about the shooting mentioned a link to Biden’s action, but the references I saw were all in passing. (As far as I can tell, the Times’ coverage didn’t make the Rose Garden link at all.) There is still a lot that we don’t know about the subway shooter; we do know, per early reports, that he did not use a ghost gun. But those are a growing problem in New Yorkone is believed to have been used in the killing of Angellyh Yambo, a sixteen-year-old, outside a Bronx high school last week—and Biden’s event was about gun reform generally; if his proposals were limited, it’s because more expansive gun reform is stalled in Congress.

The crisis of gun violence in America is, ultimately, an expansive story that we should always cover expansively, regardless of a given president’s agenda and its prospects for passage and implementation. Metrics of media attention—including the running order on nightly news shows—are crude; there are a lot of big stories demanding our attention right now, and we have to cover them in one order or another. That many of these crises are new, though, is not a good enough reason to cover familiar crises with less urgency, and despite some good recent coverage, it’s hard to conclude, across the breadth of the media, that gun reform feels like a priority issue right now. A manhunt is more liable to drive attention than the frustrating, slow business of continuing to center a policy issue after it seems to stall out in Washington.

Below, more on New York, mass shootings, and guns:

  • Biden’s event: Robin Givhan, the Washington Post’s critic-at-large, assessed the unusual visual symbolism of Biden holding up ghost-gun components in the Rose Garden on Monday. “He held the gun in a way that politicians rarely do: with a modicum of disgust,” Givhan wrote. “The culture has become accustomed to seeing politicians who hold a gun in one hand while waving a flag in the other. There were flags in the Rose Garden, of course. But they were at a distance, not center stage. Possessing guns isn’t an act of patriotism. And regulating them isn’t an assault on it.”
  • Tabloid fodder: For Curbed, Nick Pinto makes the case that recent political wrangling over bail reform in New York has been a “tabloid mirage”—a fight “as much about the stories being told about public safety as it has been about actual public safety.” As opponents of the reforms, which date to 2019, made their case—despite a paucity of evidence linking the reforms to an uptick in crime—a “parallel campaign played out in neighborhoods across New York City. Law-enforcement officials toured community meetings. Tabloids beat a steady drum about a city in mayhem. For the opponents of bail reform to succeed—a campaign that is very much alive—the public would have to be made to feel afraid in their homes, on their blocks, in subways and parks. The very experience of living in New York City had to be transformed into one of ambient danger.”
  • A new book: Mark Follman, a national affairs editor at Mother Jones, is out with a new book, Trigger Point, about the mission to stop mass shootings in the US. The book “explores behavioral threat assessment, an emerging prevention method whereby mental health and law enforcement experts work together to intervene with people who are planning violence,” he writes. “By treating mental health problems and improving would-be attackers’ educational, employment, or living circumstances, threat assessment teams have prevented dozens of potential shootings at schools and workplaces throughout the country.” (Follman also discussed the book with CNN’s Brian Stelter.)
  • “The Inevitable News”: A little over a year ago, following mass shootings in Atlanta and Boulder, CJR and the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma convened a summit to discuss how the press could better cover guns. We also placed news boxes around New York featuring broadsheet papers, called The Invisible News, featuring fourteen pages of identical, fill-in-the-blank news stories about mass shootings in which only the victims’ names and locations had been changed. You can read more about the initiative here.

Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: Photo by: NDZ/STAR MAX/IPx 2022 4/12/22 Members of the media outside the 36th Street subway station in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn on April 12, 2022 in New York.