Nearly three years ago, I decided to live in a bulletproof vest for a week as part of a journalism project to find out about guns, fear, mass shootings and more. (Photo by T.R. Gleason)
Over the past two weeks, the country has suffered two mass shootings: A gunman killed 10 people at a King Soopers grocery store in Boulder, Colorado and another killed eight people at three spas in Atlanta, Georgia.
News coverage of these events have examined the motives, the shooters and the “next steps” elements of this in a way that has become all too common in the United States. For me to do so here would be redundant at best, so feel free to Google these incidents and read all about the various elements of these crimes.
A few years back, in the wake of several mass shootings, I decided to take on a project where I dug into things that went beyond what you read in the horse-race coverage after a mass shooting or the political grandstanding that comes with gun-related violence of this nature. Instead of going out to people we normally talk to in the wake of these events, I wanted to talk to people who had specific angles on the various facets of the issue and then just shut up and listen to them.
The project that had been rattling around in my head for three years. After one of my friends noted that her university had become a concealed-carry campus, she expressed concern about what this meant for her safety. After several colleagues weighed in on potential ways to deal with the situation, all to no avail, I made a simple suggestion:
In other words, if you couldn’t play offense, play defense. A bulletproof vest might get people talking about the issue in a different way. She didn’t go that route, but I thought it was worth taking a chance. What followed was a week of personal participation reporting, several months of reporting and eventually a six-part series I called “First-Person Target.”
Here is the link to the main site for that project and all six pieces if you are interested.
After these more recent shootings, I went back and reread what I wrote during that time and found a few minor epiphanies that I thought might be worth sharing. I wanted to note that these are only my opinions based on looking back at what I wrote back then. I wish I had better answers to the bigger questions, but here’s what little I do have:
FEAR IS A COMMON THREAD: We often talk about guns as an issue of Constitutional rights or personal freedom or safety. What we don’t talk about, but is embedded in all of these topics and more is the concept of fear.
On a basic level, we do talk about the fear of someone deciding to unleash an internal fury upon a group of unsuspecting people in a seemingly random act of violence. I doubt people who entered a spa or a grocery store earlier this month in Georgia or Colorado thought to themselves, “I’m putting myself in harm’s way by going to this place right now.”
However, once these killers opened fire, many more of us now think about how it could happen to us at any time, in any place. For most of us, the fear will eventually subside when the story is no longer leading the nightly news or filling our news feeds with updates. Then, when the next attack occurs, our fears will be stoked once again.
Beyond that, however, I found that fear is at the heart of every action or lack thereof regarding the gun issue. People who dislike armed citizens fear the havoc guns can create. People who arm themselves do so for fear of not being able to protect themselves. People who oppose legislation that would limit access to firearms fear losing rights they see as sacrosanct. People who could propose legislation to limit access to guns fear the backlash from gun owners and lobbying groups as a result of trying to move the needle.
When I tried to get this project off the ground, fear was right at the forefront. I asked the UWO police chief if he knew where I could borrow a bulletproof vest to wear. He offered me instead a dose of reality:
I’m sure you could purchase a vest for yourself, however I do not know of any police outfitter that would loan out this type of equipment. In fact, if you started inquiring about borrowing a vest it could cause some concern from these vendors on your motives. As you stated people have a heightened awareness because of these mass casualty events. Sorry I couldn’t be of more help to you.
When I sought people associated with firearms to help me understand a topic I really lacked knowledge in, I found fear as well. When I asked the folks in my community for someone to talk to about sales and gun registration and so forth, they all pointed me to one person in Omro, who owned a gun shop. I reached out to him and got an initial response, but after that, all I got was silence.
In talking to other people who knew this guy, the answer was simple and common: “He’s afraid to talk about this.”
Of all the people I talked to during my project, only one really told me they acknowledged the fear that comes from all of this, and it was Tracy Everbach, the professorial colleague of mine from the University of North Texas whose initial concerns helped spawn the project:
“I don’t spend a lot of time wondering if someone in my classroom is carrying a gun anymore or thinking, ‘Are they going to pull it out and shoot you with that?’”
“It’s just a personal thing to me,” she added. “I’ve chosen not to be afraid of it. I figure I’m as likely to have that happen as a car accident or whatever. Anything can happen to anyone at any time.”
WE ARE NOT SIDES OF A COIN, BUT FACETS OF A GEM: Journalism always talks about getting “both sides” of a story, as a way of avoiding bias. If someone is pro-X, we need to find someone who is anti-X. When we do, we quote them both and we’re done.
While some stories, like those on sporting events, do follow that pattern, most stories are much more complex than that. Even more, the people behind those stories are far more complex than many of us care to know.
When I started this project, I didn’t want archetypes or the “usual suspects.” I didn’t want a press release from the head of the NRA that spoke in platitudes. I didn’t want a “thoughts and prayers” statement from a politician. I didn’t want to collect soundbites that I could repeat in my sleep and move on.
I wanted real people who could help me understand their lives and interests and positions without fear of judgment or reprisal. I wanted to look into the heart of the issue through their window and see what they saw, whether I agreed with what they were seeing or not.
What I found is that reality isn’t what we see playing out in the wake of shootings on the news or at protests or elsewhere. I didn’t find “gun people” and “anti-gun people,” but rather people that saw their lives intersect with firearms in a variety of ways and how those intersections shaped them in some fashion.
UWO police officer Chance Duenkel carries a gun every day as part of his job, and yet knows that the weapon and his protective gear might not keep him safe in certain situations. In referring to a fallen officer he knew, he explained:
“He had all the equipment, he had the experience dealing with these types of firearms and weapons calls and the cards, unfortunately, weren’t in his favor.”
Nate Nelson, who trains people how to use firearms safely and is an avid hunter, carries a gun as well. He knows better than most the importance of training, safety and respect for weapons of this kind as well as the ramifications of choosing to carry one:
“If you draw that gun you’re probably going to spend six figures in legal defense,” he said. “People need to take that portion seriously on top of the fact of you might end up taking somebody’s life and it might be the assailant that’s bothering you or it might be somebody else that’s innocent because of where those bullets go beyond that.”
Joseph Peterson, a professor at UWO, owns a gun and works with the FBI to help people better understand mass shootings. Peterson was wounded when a gunman entered his classroom at Northern Illinois University in 2008 and opened fire. The shooter killed six and wounded 17 more.
Peterson spent time learning a great deal about guns and what he refers to as “gun culture,” and found both the fallacies associated with the law and the nuanced nature of people with whom he interacted:
“Gun laws don’t prevent anything,” he said. “Absolutely. Laws don’t prevent anything. It’s that most people agree with them and people agree not to break them. Safety comes from having more good people than bad people.”
“I think I’ve been in this kind of journey that I’ve been trying to put myself through on this,” he added. “In learning more about gun culture, learning more about firearms and learning to appreciate them for what they are, demystified a bit, I’m learning that there is a lot more middle ground covered. It’s the extreme views that muddy these waters and that’s what’s keeping things from getting done.”
LISTENING VERSUS WAITING TO TALK: During one interview, a source (I can’t remember who said it) stopping abruptly to tell me that they found themselves talking way more than they ever have on the topic. The reason, the person explained, was that I hadn’t said almost anything during the interview.
A similar thing happened when I was talking to Nate Nelson. At one point, about a half hour in, he asked, “Are you getting what you wanted from this?”
My answer was honest: “I really didn’t have anything I wanted to get. I just wanted to listen.”
In many cases, we know what we “want to get” from a source. We have questions that need answers and quotes that need to be gathered. I have done it dozens of times, asking the “How do you feel about X?” question to get the “I’m proud, happy and thrilled” answer. I don’t say this with any great level of pride in my reporting acumen, but rather to explain that experienced reporters and experienced sources know how to do the dance.
In this case, I went the completely opposite way. I had questions, sure, but they were more of a “Tell me a story” variety than a “Give me an answer” form. I also came in with as much of a blank slate as I possibly could. My goal wasn’t to poke back at people, but rather just hear what they wanted to tell me. Could they have been blowing smoke up my rear end? Sure, but that goes back to the earlier point about whom I chose and whom I avoided.
In several interviews, I got the sense that the people with whom I spoke weren’t used to people who listened. They were used to people who were waiting to talk.
I understand that passions can be loud and strong around life-and-death issues and that not everyone had the luxury I had in trying to just sit back and let information envelop me. However, when we aren’t listening, we are simply waiting to tell the other people why they’re wrong, and that’s not going to get us anywhere anyway.
In listening, I got to hear important points that made a lot of sense:
- If people are going to say that mental health concerns are more to blame than guns for mass shootings, they need to be willing to put forth the money, research and resources to deal with that. They also need to be willing to look beyond that issue if this issue becomes a definitive red herring in the issue of mass shootings.
- We’re often looking at the wrong thing when it comes to guns and death. Although the mass shootings draw the most attention and an ever-increasing body count continues to work people into a media frenzy, guns do far more damage in far less public ways. Gun statistics demonstrate that more than half of the gun deaths in the United States are suicides. Homicides account for another third of those deaths, with the majority of the deaths coming at the hands of people who knew their attackers, as in the case of domestic violence. Less than one-fifth of one percent of the gun deaths in the U.S. come from mass shootings.
- People who don’t know a lot about guns actually talk the most about guns. Joe Peterson mentioned in an interview that shortly after the NIU shooting, he found himself talking a lot about the topic of guns and mass shootings while knowing much about either. He then did the academic thing and really researched the topic like a scholar would: Open the aperture on the lens, see the full picture and come to some provable conclusions. Nate Nelson mentioned that people get freaked out by the AR-15 because of its look and misunderstandings about the reason the gun is preferred in some legitimate circles. He noted the light weight and limited recoil make it valuable for hunters like his son. I also dug around after our interview to find that he was right about its role in mass shootings: Most mass shootings were committed with weapons OTHER than an AR-15. (For example the shooter at Virginia Tech killed 32 people with a pair of handguns. The shooter at NIU employed a shotgun and a handgun as well.) However, if all you see are social media posts, memes and news clips, you might be left with the impression that banning the AR-15 would solve all of our shooting problems.
I figured out a lot more along the way as well and I find myself pushing back at a lot of things I might have otherwise accepted as gospel before this project. I also figured out that I can understand a lot of things people believe without completely agreeing with them, and vice versa.
WE SUSTAIN MENTAL SCARS THAT NEVER COMPLETELY FADE: Of all the things I heard in doing this project, the one that stuck with me the most came from Chase Cook, a reporter at the Annapolis Capital Gazette. In 2018, a man with a long-standing feud against the paper came to the newsroom armed with a shotgun. He killed six of Cook’s colleagues.
Cook was off that day, but upon hearing of the attack, he went to the office where he began to report on the events of the day. The work of Cook and the fellow survivors earned national honors and praise, including a spot as Time’s “People of the Year.”
As the incident faded from the collective consciousness, Cook continued to deal with the aftermath of his experiences.
“I have a hard time in movie theaters now,” he said. “I get anxious when the lights go out, which is a bummer because I love going to the movies. I think about it a lot when I’m in really crowded places… That fear factor has kind of permeated through everything. I’m at work, I’m in danger. I’m at school, I’m in danger. I’m at church, I’m in danger. I have to convince myself that I’m not because while mass shootings are a problem in the country and they’re up, they’re still a rare crime.”
I haven’t spoken to Cook for at least a year now, but I often think about him when a shooting occurs. I wonder if he reads the news coverage. I wonder if he’s been able to enjoy movies again. I wonder if he is OK.
In talking to Kelly Furnas, the former adviser of the Collegiate Times at Virginia Tech, I found he also had residual mental scars after dealing with a mass shooting. He mentioned to me simple things, like noticing how certain door handles were replaced because the campus shooter had chained the doors of a building to prevent escape. He mentioned trying to be more aware of certain things but not letting fear dominate his life.
As a newshound of sorts, however, he also found difficulty when it came to reading about each subsequent shooting that occurred in the U.S.:
“Quite frankly when I hear about a mass shooting I read the headline and I mention it to my wife and that’s about it,” he added. “That’s about all I can handle at this point. It’s obviously overwhelmingly sad and it’s frustrating and it makes you angry and upset but it’s also just like not where my energy can be. I think every single time that happens I think back to my students and what they went through and maybe that’s part of it.”
Joe Peterson, who was wounded in a mass shooting, talked about therapy and life changes and other major issues he dealt with. He also discussed minor things like seeking out exits in movie theaters and not being able to sit with his back to the door at a restaurant for a long time. In explaining his experiences, he told me that a lot of those personal difficulties were shared among people who had gone through situations like he had:
“With every one of these tragedies there are more and more survivors,” he said. “We are all members of a club we don’t want to be a member of and we don’t want any more members in it.”
If there was a single thing I think everyone I spoke with would agree on, it would be that.