Remedial Journalism 100
Today, class, we are going to explore why it’s necessary for journalists/reporters to get facts right. I’ll also address some very simple techniques for accomplishing that.
Let’s start with a bad example of student journalism, and see if we can improve it a little.
COLUMN: Columbine should’ve changed everything
With the 20th anniversary of the Columbine shooting coming up on Saturday, it is time to reflect on how far our nation has and has not come with gun reform.
First, this column did something right: it is properly labeled as “opinion,” not news.
[After GCA ’68] Only three others laws were passed that influenced the gun reform movement before Columbine.
And there’s the first hard error. I’ll work up to that.
Firearm Owners Protection Act in 1986 which prohibited a national registry of deal records.
Dealer records; specifically ATF form 4473. That was needed because, without any Congressional authorization, the ATF was collecting those records. However, Hilycord misses other important provisions. FOPA also “guaranteed” safe passage for honest gun owners when transporting firearm through other states. New and New Jersey still routinely violate that.
The other biggie was the ban on civilian possession of machineguns imported or manufactured after May 1986. Since such are pretty much never used in crime (I can document 3 cases of lawfully possessed machineguns used in crimes since 1934), it had no effect on crime, but instantly drove the prices of transferables through the roof.
Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993, which was signed by then-President Bill Clinton, required background checks of manufacturers, importers or dealers before the purchase of a gun.
No, it didn’t. Manufacturers et al get their background checks when they apply for FFLs. The Brady law required background checks on retail customers. It also included a waiting period until NICS was ready.
Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, or the assault weapons ban, on Sept. 13, 1994, which “prohibited the manufacture for civilian use of semi-automatic firearms and large-capacity ammunition magazines.”
No. Some semiautomatic firearms, based on cosmetic features having nothing to do with function, and standard capacity magazines, and other arbitrary items. It flopped in reducing crime, because such were rarely used in crime before or after the law.
Despite Clinton enacting this law, the school shooting still took place.
Yes, it did. If Hilycord had properly researched her subject, she would have discovered that the murdering scum bypassed restrictions on purchasing by obtaining their firearms through unlawful straw purchases and black market transactions.
“The “assault weapon ban” didn’t stop them because they didn’t use firearms classified as “assault weapons” in the ’94 law, except for a DC-9 grandfathered under the law.
It’s also worth noting that the National Firearms Act of 1934, which heavily regulates short-barrel shotguns, didn’t prevent the killer using an illegal short-barrel shotgun.
Their improvised explosive and incendiary devices were similarly regulated under ignored law.
Although the assault weapons ban was approved by Presidents Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, and was planned to last 10 years, it was not renewed in 2004.
1994 to 2004 is 10 years. It was not renewed because it was a useless violation of rights. It didn’t help reduce crime.
Basically, because Hilycord neglected to do research, she misunderstood what the laws were intended to do. The laws of which she was aware. She thinks there were only three between the GCA and Columbine. Let’s look at what she missed
The Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988: passed in reaction to an imaginary movie gun with no real world counterpart, its sole effect has been to hamper technological developments,
Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990: ruled unconstitutional.
Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994: “fixed” the constitutional flaws called out by the Supreme Court. Hilycord should have noticed that this one failed to erect a gun-repelling force field around the high school at Columbine. Or Parkland, Santa Fe…
Domestic Violence Offender Gun Ban of 1997: retroactively made anyone convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence a prohibited person. An ex post facto law.
Even President Trump signed a Bump Stock Ban, which officially began March 26…
Details matter, Hilycord. Trump did not sign the ban. AG Barr did (“ratifying” after the legally dubious signing by acting AG Whitaker). That matters, because they bypassed Congress to rewrite law.
…that addressed the scrutiny after it was notably used by the shooter in the Las Vegas mass shooting in 2017.
A point raised in federal court, which went uncontested by DOJ lawyers, was that no investigative report says that bump-fire stocks were used. Only present. And the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and the ATF even disagree on how many were present.
As it happens, Hilycord missed some more laws.
The reminder that 20 years have passed since Columbine, and nothing has been done to prevent the growing number of needless deaths, is astounding.
Specifically, the NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007, which was a reaction to the Virginia Tech shooter obtaining guns because, although he was a prohibited person, the state hadn’t bothered to report him to NICS. Thus he got away with lying on his 4473 and “passed” a background check.
Hilycord bemoans the lack of gun control, and wants “something” done. But her failure to study the subject before opining means she lacks the data to analyze the effectiveness of any particular policy or law. Thus…
Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh; Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida; a music festival held in Las Vegas; Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida; Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina; Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut; and earlier on, Virginia Tech.
The laws didn’t stop the Tree of Life shooter, because his record was clean.
Parkland: Despite a history of violence and destruction and death threats, 40+ encounters with law enforcement, and multiple specific reports to local law enforcement and the FBI no one ever arrested or Baker Acted him.
Pulse: The shooter had been under federal investigation for possible terrorist ties, but the FBI abruptly closed it, leaving him on the street.
Emanuel AME: the shooter “passed” his background check despite being a prohibited person. The authorities didn’t notice until weeks after the killings.
Sandy Hook: Killer bypassed checks (which he would have passed, having a clean record) by killing his mother and using her guns.
Virginia Tech: See above, prohibited person who “passed” NICS through the state’s inaction.
You cannot analyze the effectiveness of current laws, if you don’t know what they are.
You cannot propose effective laws if you don’t know how well laws work. Or don’t.
You cannot solve the problem of “gun violence” (as if no other sort exists) if your laws are directed at the wrong target. Approximately 96% of firearms used in crime are obtained through unlawful channels that evade background checks, waiting periods, age limits, prohibited person restrictions (about 60% of murderers using firearms are prior convicted felons, more prohibited for other reasons); more restrictions on lawful channels ignore the black market sources.
Now that I’ve critiqued Hilycord, what could she have done to improve her column?
1. Research: A few simple web searches would have informed her on the subject. Useful search terms include “current gun laws,” “US Code,” “prohibited person,” “gun control,” “common-sense gun laws,” “bump-fire,” “NICS,” “NFA.”
I recommend foregoing the use of Google, as it has some odd search biases (and serious privacy problems). DuckDuckGo is more effective.
One should be wary of relying only one class of advocacy group for information. If you only use Everytown for a source, you may never learn that much of their data is questionable. Their school shooting list alone runs 30-70% wrong, including incidents that don’t meet their own expansive definition, incidents that were not shootings, and at least one “incident” that seemingly never occurred at all. As they do not provide source links, you have to manually search for incidents in the news to confirm or deny their version.
2. Contacts: Get to know people who know something about topics you may someday address. I have an obscure/antique weapons expert on tap, lawyers specializing in firearms law, an expert on NFA, and other subjects. If I don’t know something, or I need to check my understanding, my contacts are a phone call or email away.
3. Logic: This is hard for many people whose education was focused on social justice rather than facts. You have to set aside your personal opinions and preconceptions long enough to evaluate data as is.
Did a police spokesman say a perp had a submachinegun? Where are the charges (including NFA) for that violation?
If told that an AR-15 is a military weapon of war, ask what country generally issues semi-automatic rifles to its regular troops (none, for decades).
If you hear that US temperatures are higher than ever before, ask what happened to the Dust Bowl period.
When evaluating any proposed law, ask how it will work, how it will be implemented. Don’t settle for “We’ll ban this.” Ask how they’ll successfully impose the ban.
If you hear that 90+% of Americans want universal background checks, ask why — in any state that has put it to a general vote — it usually fails, and even the states that passed it never did so by more than 61%. Ask where the other third of “supporters” went.
Always apply cost/benefit analysis to any proposal. If waiting periods save some lives, what about people like Carol Bowne, who was killed while awaiting her defensive firearm?
If you see a gun control survey indicating that a majority of 14 million NRA members want background checks, ask why the NRA says they only have 5 million members.
Logic. Learn to spot and question contradictions, and shortcomings.
Then you may learn to be a journalist or reporter, and not merely a biased activist inspiring laughter at your ridiculously wrong “facts.”