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Good, evil, mass murder, mass publicity and the Bill of Rights

By Lee Habeeb 

I won’t name him because it’s what he wanted. As the details pile up, and the experts and pundits weigh in, we still won’t comprehend the evil that was perpetuated by that deranged young man in Florida.

One thing’s certain: the media’s full out freak out over the Second Amendment will continue. Don Lemon of CNN blamed the deaths on Republicans, accusing our nation’s lawmakers of having blood on their hands. And being bought and owned by the NRA. The same with the crew at CNN, MSNBC and the rest of the mainstream media.

The truth is, many good Americans don’t believe tinkering around the edges of gun control will stop these mass murders, any more than tinkering around the edges of the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments will.

Many Americans believe what they believe not because they’re “bought and sold” by the NRA. They’re NRA members because they believe in our Second Amendment rights. And believe the Bill of Rights – all of them – are not up for sale.

Let’s start with the freedom of the press. Has a single media outlet pondered the notion that these deranged men got what they wanted when journalists came out of the woodwork to cover their crimes? That when these deranged men murdered all of those innocents, what they were after was a big stage? With the world focused on them and their gruesome acts?

Don’t take my word for it. Take the word of the deranged 26-year-old gunman who ended the lives nine innocent people before taking his own life at Umpqua Community College in Oregon in 2015. That murderer provided insight into the minds of the young men involved in an ugly trend in America: mass-shooter suicides.

Here’s what he said about the man who took the lives of two journalists in Roanoke, Va. before taking his own.

“On an interesting note, I have noticed that so many people like him are all alone and unknown, yet when they spill a little blood, the whole world knows who they are,” the soon-to-be-infamous gunman from Oregon posted on a popular website.

He wasn’t finished:

“A man who was known by no one is now known by everyone. His face splashed across every screen, his name across the lips of every person on the planet, all in the course of one day. Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.”

The fact is, these killers are staging their own snuff films, with the media playing the role of co-producer and distribution partner. They’re providing the wall-to-wall coverage these men longed for. And died for.

One of the heroes in that Oregon mass shooting, Sheriff John Hanlin, refused to play the killer’s game. ‘I won’t give him the credit he sought with this horrific and cowardly act,’ Hanlin said. “You’ll never hear me mention his name.” That reflected the overwhelming sentiment of Americans: It’s the victims’ names we should know, not the killers.

NoNotoriety.com was a website created after the mass shooting in Aurora, Colo., in 2012 by victims of the families, and members of the community. “In an effort to reduce future tragedies, we challenge the media, calling for responsible coverage for the sake of public safety when reporting on individuals who commit acts of rampage mass violence, thereby depriving violent like-minded individuals the media celebrity and spotlight they so crave,” they wrote. The media never covered them.

It’s not theory, the idea that the media plays a part in these mass-shooter suicides. In 1987, four teenagers in Bergenfield, N.J. made a suicide pact. They entered a car in a garage, started the engine, and died minutes later of carbon monoxide poisoning. The media descended on the small town.

My dad was the superintendent of schools, and the media’s appetite for gruesome details seemed not merely insatiable, but unsavory. “The vultures,” we called them.

That began a tragic phenomenon: a rash of group suicides erupted, leading the New York Times to run a front-page headline that put media coverage itself in the crosshairs: “Pattern of Death: Copycat Suicides Among Youths.”

“Hearing about a suicide moves teen-agers at risk closer to doing it themselves,”’ said David Shaffer, then head of the Suicide Research Unit at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. “The news coverage of teenage suicides can portray the victims as martyrs of sorts, and the more sentimentalized it is, the more legitimate — even heroic — it may seem to some teenagers.”

“Teenagers are highly imitative, influenced by fads and fashions in general,” David Phillips, a sociologist at the University of California at San Diego, said. In a series of studies, Phillips found a significant rise in suicides after a well-publicized case. The rise was greatest among teenagers. “Hearing about a suicide makes those who are vulnerable feel they have permission to do it,” Phillips said.

Those reports led to a 1994 Centers for Disease Control study called “Suicide Contagion and the Reporting of Suicide.”  “Evidence suggests that nonfictional newspaper and television coverage of suicide has been associated with a statistically significant excess of suicides,” the study concluded.

Add 25 years and the overlay of social media and 24/7 cable-news, and add a twist – mass-murder suicides – and you get the picture. Where are the media cries for a follow-up CDC study? And limits on their own rights to cover these stories?

There should be debates – and marches – about more than just the Second Amendment. Should folks with mental health issues be forbidden from owning a gun? Who will decide? And what will advocates for mental health disabilities have to say?

Should law enforcement be given more latitude to stop such tragedies? The ACLU will remind us quickly that the Fourth and Fifth Amendments were designed to limit police from doing such things. Regrettably, they must wait for a crime to be committed to make an arrest.

There should be a discussion about guns, too. No right in the Constitution is absolute, as Supreme Court Justice Scalia noted in a case that made gun ownership a personal right. But the overwhelming cause of the deaths of young people from guns in this country isn’t AR-15’s. It’s handguns, and in high crime, high gun control neighborhoods. Why are there no marches for those young people when they die? It’s Columbine every day in those neighborhoods.

What there won’t be is any discussion on the media’s role in these mass shootings. They don’t like turning the cameras on themselves.

One of the best movies of 2014 was “Nightcrawler.” It starred Jake Gyllenhaal as a hired media gun. His specialty? Getting to accident scenes before his competitors, and getting up-close footage of people dying, which he’d sell to local news outfits.

By movie’s end, Gyllenhaal’s creepy character goes from finding gory news to creating it. All along, he thrives on people’s tragedy. And uses it to make ratings. And money.

Sound familiar?

Americans believe too many journalists are no better than the nightcrawler Gyllenhaal depicted.

That might be something they might consider as the nation grieves.

Heck, they might even pray about it.

Lee Habeeb is the vice president of content at Salem Media Group. He is also the host of “Our American Stories.” He lives in Oxford, Miss., with his wife, Valerie, and daughter, Reagan.