Dailies shoot from hip, miss

Mischaracterizations of D.C. gun-control group bespeak sloppy reporting, editing at newspapers

by David Kopel

Jan. 27, 2002, Rocky Mountain News

The Washington, D.C., gun-control group Americans for Gun Safety released a report criticizing the operation of the background check system for gun buyers in Colorado and other states. Rather than calling AGS what it is -- a gun-control group -- the Rocky Mountain News in its story on the report called AGS "a national group that monitors gun safety." The Denver Post, meanwhile,called AGS "a group that supports gun owners' rights" (Jan. 17).

Saying that AGS is "a group that supports gun owners' rights" is like saying the Sierra Club is "a group that supports property owners' rights." Just as AGS does not want to ban all guns, the Sierra Club does not want to abolish private property. But the only thing that AGS does on gun rights, and the only thing that the Sierra Club does on property rights, is to fight for restrictions on those rights.

AGS does "monitor gun safety," but only in the same way that every pro-gun and anti-gun group does; the group fights for laws it thinks will enhance safety. Yet you would never see the NRA described as "a national group that monitors gun safety," even though the NRA actually teaches gun safety.

Now just because Americans for Gun Safety is a "gun safety group" only in the same sense as the Colorado State Shooting Association (a group that has a particular view on gun policy, and tries to promote that view to make things safer) doesn't mean that AGS's study was wrong. It just means that the papers shouldn't repeat AGS's self-serving description of itself as fact. At the least, AGS's claims should have been put in quotation marks, with attribution.

So was the AGS study accurate? Both the Post and the News did the right thing by asking the Colorado Bureau of Investigation for comments on the study; the CBI argued that AGS's claims were inaccurate and overblown.

The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, though, did best job, finding that some of the "felons" AGS claimed were allowed to buy guns were not felons at all, but people with the same names as felons, and whose gun purchases were, initially, delayed improperly because of the name confusion.

At Appalachian Law School, in Grundy, Va., a failing law student used a gun to kill the dean, a professor and a student. Just before the killings began, the student met with Professor Dale Rubin, who tried to counsel the student, and who has written studies for the Independence Institute, where I serve as research director.

Many news reports explained that the killings were stopped when students confronted the killer. But hardly any mentioned the key fact of this confrontation: a law student ran to the parking lot, retrieved a handgun from his car, and re-entered the building to challenge the killer. When the killer saw the student's handgun, the killer surrendered.

On the Lexis-Nexis database of news articles, a search revealed 80 articles about the Grundy crime, only two of which mentioned the armed hero. On the Westlaw database, there were 112 articles about the crime, and only two mentioning how the crime was stopped.

A search of major television news Web sites found only MSNBC and FoxNews reported on the life-saving student with a handgun. The stories carried in the Post and the News were among the large majority ignoring the hero.

The hero, Tracy Bridges, did get interviewed on the Today show. And The Wall Street Journal's online Opinion Journal does mention the defensive gun use.

Heroes get a lot of attention these days, except, it seems, when they perform the politically incorrect act of using a handgun to save lives.

"Bush Ripped Over Closings" was the accurate headline of a Post article (Jan. 10) on the administration's proposal to close regional offices of the Women's Bureau of the Department of Labor. The article extolled the bureau's virtues, and included quotes from three people criticizing the closing of the regional offices. The article offered not a single word of explanation for the closing -- such as a Labor Department official who could have explained the goal of cutting spending, or critics who complain that the bureau's research programs are too often biased.

The Boulder Daily Camera took political correctness to a new height when describing the rock opera Tommy (Jan. 11) which was showing at the Buell Theatre. As most rock fans know, Tommy is the story of a boy who is traumatized by seeing a man killed, becomes "deaf, dumb and blind," and then becomes a "pinball wizard." The Camera, though, wrote that Tommy was "physically challenged." Besides being ridiculous, the "physically challenged" euphemism was inaccurate, since Tommy's condition was mental, not physical.

Political correctness often impairs accuracy. Bernard Goldberg's best-seller Biasrecounts the time when CBS News executives insisted that a story about a Jamaican man call him an "African-American."

More by Kopel on media bias in coverage of gun control.

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