What Journalists Should Know About School Shootings and Guns

(Editor's note: this article originally appeared on Poynter.org and is being republished with permission from the author. Click here to view the article on Poynter.org)

By Al Tompkins

In the coming days, journalists will have to provide clear-eyed context to help the nation come to terms with the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Without question this incident will once again spark heated debates over gun-control and school safety. Let’s step back to see what we need to know to cover those stories.

Schools are safe.  After days like this, it can be hard to remember that schools are usually the safest place for a child. School violence has been in a steep decline since 1990.

The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice points out: “A 2010 report on school safety found that during the school year 2008/2009 there were 38 school-associated violent deaths — in a population of about 55.6 million students in grades prekindergarten through 12.”

The same report said, “This report also noted that 83% of public schoolsreported no serious violent crime; 13% of public schools reported at least one violent incident to the police. The rate of serious violent crime at school was 4 (per 1,000 students) compared to a rate of 8 away from school.”

NPR reported, “School violence in the U.S. reached a peak in 1993, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That year, there were 42 homicides by students and 13 ‘serious violent crimes’ — rape, sexual assault, robbery and aggravated assault — per 1,000 students at primary and secondary schools. By 2010, the latest figures available, those numbers had decreased to two homicides and four violent crimes per 1,000 students.” Update: After a commenter pointed out the implausibility of 42 homicides per 1,000 students, we checked the NCES data. The total number of homicides during the 1992-1993 school year peaked at 34. 

What journalists need to know about guns and gun control. In the days after the mass shooting at an Aurora, Colorado theater, I wrote this primerto help you use words like “semi-automatic” correctly. In addition to what I wrote in that piece, I would add some context about gun laws in Connecticut.

The Connecticut law (as in most states) affirms the right to own a gun. The statute says “…every citizen has a right to bear arms in defense of himself and the state.” Although Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven have more restrictive laws than the rest of the state, generally any law abiding citizen age 21 and over can own a rifle or shotgun without a permit. The state does allow concealed weapons to be carried with a permit.

The state has a ban against so called “assault-weapons” (a vague term). Early reports from the Sandy Hook shooting said police recovered two semi-automatic pistols. The Glock 9mm pistol is similar to what police officers nationwide carry. The Sig Sauer pistol is the standard issue pistol that Secret Service agents use. CBS News and others have said police found a“Bushmaster .223″ rifle in the suspected shooter’s vehicle. That rifle is similar to the better known AR-15 that critics commonly call an “assault weapon.”

Gun ownership is down but so is support for gun restrictions. The popular thought is that mass shootings will produce a movement toward stricter gun control. History indicates that is not true. Pew Research shows us that support for gun control changes very little after big incidents.

The LA Times points out that gun ownership is dropping in the United States.CNN said, “The number of households owning guns has declined from almost 50% in 1973 to just over 32% in 2010, according to a 2011 study produced by The University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center. The number of gun owners has gone down almost 10% over the same period, the report found.” But at the same time, those who own guns sometimes own a lot of them. By some estimates, 20 percent of gun owners own 65 percent of the guns in America.

Some believe that the consistent drop in the nation’s violent crime rate may be related to the declining gun ownership.

But even after the mass murder in Aurora, Colorado, and even after the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, there was no increase in support for gun restrictions. Right after that shooting, Gallup found that Americans resist gun control mostly because they do not trust the government.

Gallup said, “Almost half of Americans say they perceive the federal government to be an ‘immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens,’ and this percentage is up in recent years.”

Look at this trend described by Gallup, which has been asking about gun control for years:

Listen to kids. I have gotten quite a number of media calls in the last 24 hours from journalists who wonder what I think of journalists interviewing the children who witnessed the horrors at the Newtown school. In the non-stop viewing I have done since the shooting, I saw journalists talking to kids, but in every instance there was a parent in the video frame. I did not see one single child crying during an interview. I hear caring questions from  journalists. In some cases, the kids gave amazing detailed answers about what they did or did not see.

I especially appreciated that CNN has made an effort not to show the faces of children running from the school, masking the photo that has been so widely used online. Here are some guidelines I offer about interviewing children. In general, treat other people’s kids the way you would want yours treated.

When you talk with kids who have lost friends, focus on what they liked about the person, not so much about what they will miss. What did their friend like to do best, what made them such a great friend? Let the interviewee share their best memories, not their worst memories of what happened.

Give the kids space. If they start getting upset, back off. Kids can feel pressure to say what they think you want them to say, act as they think you expect them to act, remember what they think you expect them to remember. Keep the conversations mercifully short and be a real person, check up on them short term and long term. Leave your card with the parents in case they have concerns after the interview. If the kids have second thoughts, kill the interview even if you have put a lot of time and energy into it. Realize that could happen before you start interviewing a child.

Take care of yourself.  Journalists cover people in trauma and experience trauma themselves. This story will take weeks to unfold. You will hear many sad stories. Pay attention to your own emotions. Be honest with yourself and your bosses. When it is time to take a break, talk to somebody about your experiences. Remember what you learn on an airplane: If you do not have your mask on, you cannot help anybody else. We need you to be excellent right now.