Tag Archives: Newtown

Sandy Hook’s hidden story

TraceLaw and news nerd that I am, I find great satisfaction in discovering new angles to litigation stories that others have missed. Last February, I did that for The Trace in a preview of the coming fight over the legal claims made by the families of the Sandy Hook mass shooting victims. Now that the judge has ruled, I revisited the topic with this analysis, published today.

The remarkable thing to me is that no news reports that I saw ever homed in on the same issue that drew my attention. That’s probably because it’s hard to explain to a lay audience in terms that are both accurate and understandable. It’s just as hard for a layman like me to grasp it in the first place, but that’s the kind of challenge that first drew me to covering the law and that still excites me. As I said, I’m a big old nerd.

I won’t repeat what’s explained in both stories, but I will try to summarize what issue I’m talking about (this is yet another test of my explanatory abilities). The lawsuit filed by the victims’ families against the maker and sellers of the gun that Adam Lanza used, a Bushmaster AR-15 style rifle, faces the same obstacle that any case against the gun industry does, thanks to Congress’ passage in 2005 of a law granting broad legal immunity to the industry. The law allows some lawsuits that fit limited exceptions. All the coverage of the Sandy Hook case focused on just one of the exceptions claimed in this lawsuit — a claim that by marketing military-style weapons to civilians, the industry has committed “negligent entrustment,” which means giving a dangerous thing to someone who shouldn’t have it — but that was the more far-fetched of the two. The other one, which I focused on thanks to an article I ran across and then my conversation with its law-professor author, allows lawsuits that allege actions that violate laws concerning the sale of guns. How the Sandy Hook plaintiffs’ lawyers made that argument, and how the judge reacted to it, were the untold story about this lawsuit.

Who cares? Well, I submit anyone who cares about this lawsuit or about the ongoing debate to repeal the immunity law should care, because the argument I wrote about came closer to keeping the Sandy Hook case alive than the negligent entrustment claim. Closer, but not close enough, as the judge has now narrowly but decisively agreed to throw the case out.

I’m glad The Trace provided me with a platform to tell that story, nerdy though it may have been.

A new client, with strings attached

TraceOne of the bright spots in the journalism business has been the growth of digital-only publications that pay writers reasonably well — unlike so many that pay insultingly low rates (and pretty much get what they pay for). Some of these quality outfits are nonprofits by design, others by circumstances, and some even make money. They have taken up some of the slack left by shrinking print publication budgets.

One quality nonprofit I have been happy to write for is The Trace, which covers gun policy with intelligent original reporting and that pays its freelance writers enough to make it worthwhile to take on challenging topics such as these. On my “recent work” page, I link to two stories I wrote for The Trace last September on “stand your ground” laws. Now I have a new story up on the site, this time on the Newtown victims’ families’ lawsuit against the manufacturer and sellers of Adam Lanza’s preferred weapon, the Bushmaster AR-15. The issues in the lawsuit focus on the provisions of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), the federal law granting immunity — with some exceptions — to the gun industry from lawsuits over injury and death from gun violence. This is the first in what my editor and I plan to be a regular string of stories on a variety of gun-law topics.

That’s all on the positive side of the ledger: a reporting challenge, an important policy matter, a potentially landmark case, and more stories to come. The negative, though, is that when working for anyone — nonprofits or for-profits — a writer must be aware of a publisher’s agenda and of its inherent biases. Ideally, the agenda is the same as mine as a journalist: to tell important stories that are true to the facts. That, indeed, has been my experience with The Trace, where my editor doesn’t expect or want stories to arrive at a predetermined conclusion. In fact, he bends over backward to avoid the appearance that a story favors one side or the other. The appearance of bias, however, is inevitable, given that some of The Trace’s startup funding came from Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund. Everytown is, in turn, funded in large part by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and both he and Everytown advocate tougher gun regulations. It’s inevitable, then, that on this hopelessly contentious issue, some will see any work appearing at The Trace as hack journalism. At the very least, it makes it harder to get some calls returned.

I can’t help that. I can only do my job with integrity, letting the facts lead me to honest conclusions, or simply telling factual stories that readers can then use to form their own conclusions. I look forward to writing more for The Trace in coming months — and hoping that my stories speak for themselves.

When certain victims count for more

At Slate, Laura Smith describes in detail the architectural process to replace Sandy Hook Elementary School with a new school, one that reflects “a physical manifestation of a town’s response to tragedy.” It reflects something else as well: how selective our sense of compassion is to victims of violent crime.

Besides its $50 million price tag for a school that currently teaches fewer than 400 children, the planned school’s elaborate design process shows a level of caring that is a model of communal concern on a par with, say, the attention paid to detail at lower Manhattan’s ground zero. From the approaching driveway to the security-minded design flourishes to the very decision to rebuild from scratch, the plans speak to priorities that go far beyond utility. Smith writes:

It is an optimistic look at the future, one which seeks to encourage children to play and learn outside, to embrace life and the place they live—and it is a rejection of fear. It is slated to open in the fall of 2016, and then the design and the town’s vision of the future will be tested.

When I look at the cost and thorough planning of the school replacement in the context of the national response to that tragedy — more than $28 million in charitable donations, not to mention massive infusions of government aid — I’m left to wonder what exactly sets these murders apart from the tens of thousands of others that have been committed in the two years since.

I mean no disrespect to the Newtown victims, survivors, and those who genuinely care for their well-being. The survivors deserve anything and everything we can provide to them. Many of the parents have distinguished themselves through their selfless public advocacy to prevent future crimes. And I’m not blind to the obvious: The special horrors of Newtown set it apart for entirely rational reasons.

But we should use this as an occasion to question the factors that drive our charitable, media, and policy responses to crimes of violence. Are the victims of other murders — from mass murders and school shootings to everyday violence on the streets and in homes — any less lost? Are their survivors any less traumatized? In our coldest actuarial moments, when we weigh the relative innocence of each victim, can we really say that Newtown’s were so disproportionately deserving that they justly get so much when others get so little, or simply nothing?

I read the Slate story just before reading this Washington Post post-mortem on Homicide Watch, the innovative Washington, D.C., journalism experiment that showed what it means to care equally for every victim — even those, perhaps especially those, who otherwise would disappear without a trace.

That kind of perfect egalitarianism would never be sustainable if we expected it from all journalists covering murder, much less from donors to charity and policymakers reacting to crises. In fact, it wasn’t even sustainable (financially speaking) as a Washington-only journalism response.

But, when we allow our charity, our journalism, and our public policy to skew so extremely toward some victims and away from others — whether based on common sense (mass murder of young children at school) or on something uglier (race, wealth, media savvy) — we at least ought to recognize it when it happens, even if we know that we’re bound to keep doing it.

In defense of Newtown reporting

It would be mighty difficult today to find anyone willing to advocate for putting reporters on the ground in Newtown, Connecticut. I certainly don’t quarrel with the town’s plea for journalists to stay away on the anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. But what bothers me about this episode is the implication that journalism equates to exploitation; that victims never deserve or want what journalists do after a tragedy; that if we journalists simply shut up and went away, the healing could begin.

Perhaps it’s inevitable that so many believe this, considering most people get their news in short, frantic bursts from cable and network television. Reporting means big satellite trucks clogging a small town’s streets, microphones shoved in faces, cameras stalking stunned survivors.

Let’s not forget that on-the-ground reporting, instead, can mean a journalist like The New York Times‘ Michael Wilson, who skillfully and sensitively paints this portrait in today’s paper of what it meant to live in Newtown this past year. If he had not walked those streets and talked to those people in quiet moments, out of the glare of the cameras, we would be denied the understanding we get from his gathering and presenting of facts.

There have been countless other examples in the past year, in all media (yes, including television). On Twitter and on this blog, I have attempted to call attention to them as they happened (that’s not all you’ll find in posts under the Newtown tag, but scroll down and you’ll see other memorable examples, such as Lisa Miller’s story in New York magazine, Eli Saslow’s in The Washington Post, a pair of stories by CBS’s Norah O’Donnell, Rachel Aviv’s feature in The New Yorker, and others).

Whenever I hear anyone begin a sentence with “The media ….” I know what’s coming: a generalization, based often on the worst extremes. Don’t forget that quality exists. You just have to look for it. It only can exist when journalists earn the trust of those whose stories they must tell. These stories honor and help the victims and survivors. And they help us all. To understand and learn from what happened, we rely on professionals who will go to the place, talk to the people (often over the course of weeks or months), and tell stories that matter. I’m grateful that some managed to do that well in the past year, and I hope they will continue.

“Successful suffering” for Newtown

In a thoughtful and illuminating interview on NPR’s Here & Now show, Newtown, Connecticut, psychiatrist John Woodall shares insights into why the town opted out of a ceremony to mark the first anniversary of the school massacre. Without using the term “post-traumatic growth,” he’s taking about a similar phenomenon to the one I wrote about last summer in Pacific Standard magazine: that trauma, including the kind that affects a small town after a violent attack, can be used as a force for positive change in a person.

Rather than simply running from the pain, Woodall says:

We really felt that the town experienced this as a town. There are concentric circles that radiate out from this horror, obviously in the center of that circle are the families themselves. So our thought also is that we don’t look at grief as something you heal from like it’s an illness, like it’s a cold for instance. We use that language a lot, you know ‘have you recovered’ or ‘have you healed from your grief?’ And we thought, really, what grief is is a form of love, but with the loved one gone, so it’s really the heartbreak of separation from the loved one. So the work of grief is to find a new form for that love, to find a new expression for it, a new commitment, a way to honor the love. And so, again, we came back to this idea that a commitment to transform that anguish into a commitment to compassion and kindness, that’s where we wanted to keep the focus. And that’s something that goes beyond a day. It’s something that we want to be part of the culture of the town….

There’s a ‘26 days of kindness’ going on right now, actually, in the run-up to the anniversary where people are posting on Facebook and different social media acts of kindness. So I think it’s kind of a race, actually, to make sure these positive forces win in the end—that we have successfully suffered.”

As I noted at some length in my story, the research into post-traumatic growth supports this approach. It’s something we’ve seen in the activism some parents have engaged in since last December, as they promote positive change as a response to the loss they’ve suffered. It’s unclear from the Here & Now interview if Woodall et al. are aware of this field of study or just came to it intuitively. Either way, they deserve encouragement on their journey.

Lanza report’s bleakest message

Does the official report on the Newtown school massacre released yesterday by the Connecticut state’s attorney lead to the conclusion that there is no systemic solution to prevent mass shootings of the sort that Adam Lanza committed? That’s the key take-away that one of the most quoted experts on mass shootings, Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox, writes in his regular Boston Globe column. He closes it with this bleak message:

When tragedy strikes, we invariably look to assign blame, and consider all those who may have played a role. And when the perpetrator is dead, we often look for other places to release our collective anger. In this case, Adam Lanza is the culprit, not his mother, not video games, not drugs, not bullying, not lax gun laws. While we might look for strategies that will help dispirited and lonely souls among us, there is, unfortunately, not much that can do in our free society to prevent this rare but uniquely frightening crime.

Fox writes often about the mass panic we suffer after mass shootings. He routinely cites statistics on the fairly constant pace of these horror shows over the years, despite perceptions to the contrary, and often attacks the notion that these are completely senseless, spontaneous events. Rampage killers, he reminds us, usually plot their attacks meticulously (negating the definition of criminal insanity and debunking the myth that they simply “snapped”).

While one might read the Connecticut report and come to different conclusions — about, say, the mental-health or gun-access mistakes that contributed to Lanza’s crimes — I find Fox’s main underlying argument compelling: that we fool ourselves by taking any one crime, or a recent spate of them, and rush to fix what’s broken through policy solutions. It’s in our nature to try to learn from tragedies and mistakes. That’s a virtue, usually. And it’s nearly impossible — especially when we think of these victims and their devastated families — to accept such attacks as inevitable. But, if Fox is as right as I fear he is that not every such crime reveals a tidy solution, it’s a critical idea that journalists, for one, should wrestle with more often. Our work can inflame passions and fears when it ignores evidence of patterns from the past and shuns the notion that some problems lack solutions.

Again, I am not arguing that we have a perfect system. I suspect Fox isn’t either. What I do strongly suspect is that we deepen the trauma, and deprive victims of effective help, when we lurch from one crisis to another searching to blame something or someone other than the obvious — the criminal and his warped mind — and pretending that if we only close this loophole or that we’ll prevent more tragedy. Perhaps the most effective response is to commit ourselves to healing victims and ourselves as best we can.

At 11 months, snapshots of pain

20131111Sixty-three thousand seven hundred and eighty teddy bears. That detail — one of many about donations to flood Newtown, Connecticut, in the months since its tragedy last December — jumps out of the lede of Lisa Miller’s feature on the aftermath of school massacre in the November 11 issue of New York magazine. Getting the jump on the coming deluge of anniversary stories, the story focuses on what are, to me, the most intriguing questions coming out of this and many other violent tragedies: When do public reactions, driven by emotion and grief, help victims and survivors? And when do they do the opposite, or at least miss the target?

With so many gifts, and outright cash donations ($22 million, by the state attorney general’s count), the struggle in Newtown that Miller movingly documents is the impossible task of measuring degrees of victimhood in the small town. As I wrote last August when commenting on Jim Oliphant’s National Journal story on a related topic, however difficult and invasive it seems to pry into victims’ families’ pain, it serves the public interest to ask hard questions about the systems in place to compensate and console them. Miller’s story performs that task ably, though I wish it had given more words and thought to the equally engaging question of what the rest of us should do with this knowledge. If all those teddy bears are a waste, and if the money only makes people fight, then what?

In this Pacific Standard magazine story I wrote, and a companion blog post, I suggested one answer: turning inward, to transform our anger and grief as bystanders into something constructive, even if that something is small-bore and private. After reading of sad Newtown 11 months later, that still seems right. But it doesn’t address what happens to the directly affected victims. For them, all this story offers is a glimpse of their daily struggle. That makes it a valuable piece of journalism — we need to see this and think about it, now that most of us have moved on — but it leaves those larger questions unanswered, and probably unanswerable.

Remembrance of crimes past

I’m a little late to this piece from The Washington Post‘s Paul Farhi last week, but it deserves some attention, given my interest in how we as a society (including but not just journalists) respond to mass shootings. Farhi marvels at our ability to modulate our sympathy outpourings: a little for the Navy Yard victims, a lot for the Newtown victims. He writes:

… [N]ot all senseless, horrendous crimes are equal in the national consciousness. It’s as though the events of Monday morning, after the first breathless reports, failed to jog the media’s central nervous system and, by extension, the public’s, into a sustained response.

President Obama yesterday placed this topic in the context of gun control, when in his remarks at a memorial service for the Navy Yard victims he argued it is not enough to mourn. Instead, he said, we show we care by getting mad enough to take action.

Whether we’re focused on journalists (and I could argue the coverage is as much a reflection of public sentiment as it is a catalyst) or policy, it is indeed curious and worrisome that lost lives or maimed bodies fail to stir us in equal proportions. But of course it’s also natural and probably necessary. To live at a sustained level of alarm and outrage is impossible for anyone but cable-news commentators. And look at how unappealing they become as a result.

So what do we do with the reality that we journalists and our audience will pay widely varying degrees of attention to victims and crimes? Does it necessarily dishonor each victim — whether of an ordinary street crime or a nationally televised mass shooting — if his or her loss does not provoke Newtown-level grieving and remembrance? Are we simply fickle or callous because we don’t surround each case with a consistent number of ribbons, plaques, telethons, and ceremonies? What good does that really do for them anyway? Is it defeatist to accept that murder and tragedy are part of life, no matter how earnest our expressions of sorrow and our attempts at prevention?

When a death becomes news, or a writer can tell a meaningful story even about a death that didn’t generate headlines, that process is by definition selective. We want to believe it’s not entirely arbitrary, but there’s always some of that, too. Combine that with our human need to live with losses behind us and we have a system that might seem random and cruel and biased but is, in many ways, just our nature. If we allow our inclination for rules to override that, we’ll frustrate ourselves without gaining much beyond a false sense of consistency.

As a storyteller focused on violent crime, I look at a crime like last December’s attack on West Webster firefighters and wonder what point to make to a national audience, which long ago forgot about a crime that holds natural and sustained interest locally. I want my work to make a meaningful point, something longer-lasting than just to say “this happened” or to touch readers with a sad, tragic story, but touched only on the surface: they have a moment, and then they move on.

I don’t quite know how to do that. But I do know that remembering removes some sense that we have betrayed the victims and their loved ones. It solves the problem that bothered Farhi, one story and one crime at a time. Perhaps that’s all we can do.

Why survivors’ stories matter

One week after I marveled at Eli Saslow’s storytelling skills, here he is again, in a story I couldn’t have avoided if I tried. Bombarded on Facebook and Twitter by demands that I read Saslow’s Washington Post Sunday story on two Newtown parents, I finally got to it this morning. The story ripped my heart out. Through the power of the scenes and dialog that he witnessed and recreated, Saslow makes us experience — for a blessedly short time — the horror that occupies every moment of the lives of one set of Newtown parents. Mark and Jackie Barden, parents of Daniel, one of the 26 victims at Sandy Hook Elementary, bravely allowed Saslow the access that he used to tell the story of what their lives are like now, nearly six months after losing the youngest of their three children. The portrait Saslow paints is so sensitive, vivid, and emotional, it’s safe to predict that it will forever rank as one of the literary high points in the coverage of the Newtown tragedy.

What do we get from this? More important, what do the Bardens get? Many who imagine being in their situation would find it impossible to see why a journalist’s prying eyes and questions could lead to anything constructive. And many readers seeking to avoid having their hearts broken all over again could not fathom why they should subject themselves to more pain and tears. Those assumptions fail to appreciate the necessity of grappling emotionally with the real meaning of a tragedy like Newtown. It’s the old journalism rule of show-don’t-tell: You can tell me what the Bardens and all of us lost on December 14, and you can tell me how hard it is for them now as they face the challenge of making sense of their lives and loss, but until a writer of Saslow’s talent shows that to me, I don’t really know the truth.

Early in the story, Saslow poses a question that haunts the Bardens as reality sinks in: What if Newtown turns out not to be transformative for the nation? What if it’s just another town suffering from just another mass shooting? The question has a narrow context, in the work the Bardens do with Sandy Hook Promise advocating for gun legislation. But its broader context matters at an even deeper level, and gets answered by the story’s power. Journalism like this means that we can’t ignore the reality of this or any notorious crime, no matter what happens in legislatures to prevent the next one. To know Daniel Barden and what he left behind is to give meaning to his life. To know his parents’ grief honors Daniel and the Bardens by telling the full truth about what his murderer did.

Newtown’s victims and public information

If put to a popular vote, the choice that faces Connecticut legislators would be a slam-dunk in favor of protecting the parents of the Newtown victims. That choice, as explained by the Hartford Courant, is whether to create a broad exception in the state’s freedom of information law to keep secret certain images and information about what exactly happened inside the Sandy Hook Elementary School.

From the perspective of the parents and their legislative supporters, the issues boil down to this: Does anyone really need to see grisly photos of the victims, or hear the horrific cries for help in 911 calls? When put that way, how could anyone say yes? The question seems even easier after Googling the Sandy Hook massacre. Look at the kooky conspiracy theories, and imagine what such bloggers — with no grasp of reality or responsibility — would do if they could get their hands on the most explicit details. Imagine the worst about the media, about hucksters exploiting tragedy for ratings and sales, and then it’s easy to side with the parents and families.

But the real issues aren’t so simple. Emotions and gut reactions don’t make for good public policy. If after every horrific crime, we indulged the instinct to retreat, shove the ugly truths aside, and put the survivors and victims in control of what the rest of us may know, we would lack all perspective on crime other than what we learn in the immediate aftermath. Time and again, the initial burst of information after a mass shooting turns out to be riddled with errors and half-truths. If public access to information were governed only by fear of what the lunatic fringe may do with it, then where do we go for a rational, fact-based discussion on how to prevent attacks? Even if the information we learn about attackers and crime scenes yields no useful preventive information (which is hard to believe), how can we understand what just happened, and why people do what they do, if we’re under a self-imposed news blackout?

As distasteful as it sounds, and as unfair as it works out to be for the families who lost loved ones, there is a public interest at stake. Responsible journalists, analysts, and historians will make wise use of the truth, and will minimize inflicting further pain on the victims. Crime is the public’s business. Policymakers must keep a broader perspective than what seems to be driving the debate in Connecticut.