The fog of war: Examining the media's treatment of the Alabama massacre
By Chad D. Baus
On March 10, 2009, a rampage killer ended the lives of ten people before taking his own life. The 28 year-old Alabama man, who went through police officer training in 2003 but did not graduate, killed several members of his family before shooting at people in seemingly random fashion from his vehicle.
While the motives of the mass murderer are still in doubt, the motives of some members of the news media covering the event will no doubt be immediately held as suspect, especially by those of us accustomed to front page anti-gun editorializing.
As is common for most "breaking news" reports, the first posts to hit the wires contained inaccuracies, many of which have continued to reverberate. Some of these are no doubt are due to the fog of war. Others are clearly based on ignorance about firearms. But typically, those of us in the pro-gun rights movement are suspicious that the real reason for all the poor reporting is the media's anti-gun bias.
What is really interesting is, in this case at least, many of these wreckless statements can be traced right back to Alabama authorities, rather than being blamed on the journalists who wrote the stories.
He fired a "30-round burst" from an "M-16"?
In a story originally filed in the hours immediately after the attack occurred, CNN reported the killer "fired a 30-round burst with what appeared to be an M16."
I've been unable to locate a source for CNN's M-16 reference, nor have I seen it repeated by other news agencies. I've found no quotes from law-enforcement, safety officials or witnesses describing a rifle "appearing to be" an M-16. Then again, the statement is not entirely without merit. While an M-16 is a fully-automatic military rifle, its semi-automatic civilian cousin is the AR-15.
The use of the term "30-round burst", which was repeated in hundreds, if not thousands, of versions of the initial coverage of this terrible act, seems to suggest the gun was a fully-automatic. It may surprise many to learn that the term originated from a statement released by the Alabama Department of Public Safety (ADPS), also on March 10:
He then was pursued to Reliable Metal Products two miles north of Geneva on Alabama 27, where he fired an estimated 30-round burst. One bullet grazed the Geneva Police chief, who was saved from serious injury by his bullet-proof vest. (emphasis added)
When a firearm is described as being capable of firing a "burst", this describes the function of a fully-automatic weapon, wherein, when the trigger is depressed, the gun will continue to fire ammunition until the trigger is no longer depressed, or until the gun needs to be reloaded.
Semi-automatic weapons, on the other hand, are not capable of firing "bursts." Rather, they fire one single round each time the trigger is depressed. And elsewhere in the same story, CNN notes "state public safety spokesman Kevin Cook said the gunman was armed with a semi-automatic weapon."
So we now know that while the murder may have fired 30 rounds at a police officer, he did not fire a "30-round burst," as the ADPS initially stated, and as the media repeated ad nauseum.
-----> File this one under a combination of both fog of war and ignorance about firearms.
(Another fog of war item: As it turns out, the killer was armed with at least two semi-automatic rifles, a shotgun and a handgun, and not just one semi-automatic, as the CNN report first indicated.)
"Spraying Bullets" with an "Assault Rifle"?
It has long been a tactic of extremists whose goal is to ban firearms to mislabel certain guns in order to create fear among a general public that is unfamiliar with firearms. The use of the term "assault weapon" is to describe the semi-automatic rifles that cosmetically resemble of true military assault weapons (the fully-automatic sort described earlier) is part of that strategy.
Use of the term to describe these rifles has become so common place in the media that even many pro-gun individuals use the term. They have also been vilified to the point that some individuals who call themselves "pro-gun" have also expressed a willingness to support a ban on "assault weapons" (something they'd never support if the ban was going to include their semi-automatic shotguns or hunting rifles, which feature the exact same action (one trigger pull for every round fired).
In its coverage of the mass murder, the New York Daily News reported that "an Alabama man with an assault weapon burned down his mother's house around her, shot his grandparents, aunt and uncle dead, then killed five other people Tuesday before turning the gun on himself, authorities said."
Did authorities use the term "assault weapon"? In fact they did. From an ADPS statement issued a day after the attacks:
[The suspect] was armed with two assault rifles, an SKS and a Bushmaster, using high-capacity magazines taped together; a shotgun; and a .38-caliber handgun. At this time we believe that he fired in excess of 200 rounds during the assaults. (emphasis added)
Again, since by definition an "assault weapon" must be capable of firing in full-automatic, and since we know from "state public safety spokesman Kevin Cook" that "the gunman was armed with a semi-automatic weapon," the use of the term "assault rifles" by the ADPS and the media is incorrect.
"Spraying bullets" is yet another term that would far better describe something a fully-automatic rifle is capable of than the types of weapons used in this attack. Yet the Associated Press has described the spree killer as driving around "spraying bullets through the town" (emphasis added) - a phrase that has also been repeated far and wide in media coverage.
Unfortunately, the use of the incorrect term can again be linked to Alabama authorities. Again, from the Associated Press, via the New York Daily News:
"He sprayed bullets through the town," Kirke Adams, district attorney for Geneva and Dale counties, told the Associated Press. (emphasis added)
-----> Chalk these both up to ignorance about guns.
Beginning on the morning after the attack, media coverage began focusing on revelations that investigators had turned up a list of former co-workers that he had grievances against.
Headlines like the BBC's (Alabama gunman 'had a hit list') have been rampant.
Given the fact that a statement from ADPS dated the day before this BBC story states that "the evidence includes a phone list and a notebook, but there is no evidence that indicates a hit list of any kind" (emphasis added), I immediately became suspicious about an over-hyped media exaggerating the story.
Wrong again. From MSNBC:
"We found a list of people he worked with, people who had done him wrong," said Coffee County District Attorney Gary McAliley. (emphasis added)
As many of the stories correctly noted, McAiley was unable to explain why none of the people who were on the list are among the victims.
----> I'd tend to label this another fog of war comment, with a little "this is my first time on t.v." thrown in for good measure.
Anti-gun Media Bias?
This is not to say that I didn't find examples of biased media coverage.
As documented above, despite the misleading terminology, it has been abundantly clear from the very beginning that the weapons used were semi-automatic.
But that didn't stop the Associated Press, two days after the fact, from writing about how "many residents of this quiet, close-knit farming community could hear the rapid crackling of automatic gunfire that killed nine of their neighbors." (emphasis added)
And while many news agencies have stuck with referring to the mass murderer as a "gunman" and "shooter", SKY News has resorted to calling him the "Alabama Gun Maniac" - a short throw from the derogatory "gun nuts" term many often use to label pro-Second Amendment rights persons.
And Communist China's Xinhua News Agency didn't even bother to try and hide their mistaken opinion that more guns = more crime:
The United States topped the world with 250 million firearms owned privately. Loose gun control has made the country a hotbed for gun-related crimes. (emphasis added)
The story provided interested comrades a list of several serious shooting cases in the U.S., but fails to mention, let alone explain, the recent mass shootings which have occurred throughout the rest of the world, including one in Germany within 24 hours of the Alabama massacre.
The fog of war has cleared, and investigators are coming closer to establishing a fact pattern. But somehow I have a feeling that coverage of this terrible event will still offer many more uses of incorrect terminology and poll-tested anti-gun code words from officials dazed by camera lights, along with sloppy and biased journalism from anti-gun reporters.
Chad D. Baus is the Buckeye Firearms Association Vice Chairman.