On Thursday morning, our nation suffered the latest in a never-ending series of mass shooting tragedies when 26-year-old Chris Harper Mercer opened fire at the Umpqua Community College campus in Roseburg, Oregon, killing 10 and injuring 7. In a depressing sign of the times, President Obama took to the podium of the Brady Briefing Room one more time Thursday night, and delivered yet another frustrated statement on a mass shooting, with an even angrier edge than usual.
One part of the now-established routine that President Obama referenced during his statement is the debate over whether media outlets should say the name of the shooter, with some favoring moderation, and others outrightly refusing to do so. This is, in equal parts, a matter of personal opinion, editorial judgment, and taste. I personally find the argument against it — that mentioning Mercer’s name grants him the “infamy” he sought and/or might incentivize some future shooter — uncompelling and then some.
The establishment of a print versus TV standard, as Megyn Kelly recommends, is interesting, but in my view, the effect of such a practice would be to add notoriety to the shooter, not to rob him of it. As Joe Concha points out, the shooter’s name is a Google search away, so those inclined to be influenced will seek it out, and by shutting them off to the internet, you’ve relinquished any chance to contextualize him responsibly. Making an ostentatious point of not saying his name only adds to the mystique, while doing nothing to suppress it.
Refusing to say the shooter’s name is also counter to the mission of journalism, which is to inform the public in a fashion that serves the public’s interests. Aside from making an ordinary judgment about newsworthiness, imagine that there’s some CNN or Fox News viewer out there who might have run across Mercer, and who, upon hearing the name, might jog up some useful bit of information. There’s more to the news than simply giving people something to talk about.
The debate among journalists over this issue, while quite clear-cut to me, is at least being conducted in good faith, and I respect the opinions of those who disagree. I can’t say the same about Sheriff John Hanlin, whose office is handling the investigation. Hanlin was interviewed by CNN’s Chris Cuomo Friday morning, and again made a great show of not saying Mercer’s name:
“I don’t want to glorify the shooter. I don’t want to glorify his name. I don’t want to glorify his cause. In order to prevent that, I’m refusing to state his name. The Oregon state medical examiner’s office will put out a notice identifying who the shooter is, but, again, that’s the only information that will come out. You won’t hear his name from me or from this investigation.”
Whatever you think of the media debate on how to cover the shooter, that debate is none of Sheriff Hanlin’s business, and making that judgment call is not his job. Dispensing this shooter’s name, on the other hand, is one of the minimum requirements of Sheriff Hanlin’s job. No one is saying he needs to sing it out to the tune of the Hallelujah Chorus, but this is one of the basic, key pieces of information for which the public relies on him. Knowing that the name is already being reported, Hanlin’s refusal to do so is an obviously self-aggrandizing move, unless Hanlin is saying that he intended to “glorify” every person he’s ever named in public.
What makes Sheriff Hanlin’s refusal to do his job in this instance all the more infuriating is that he also refuses to do his job when it comes to enforcing federal gun laws. A mere four weeks after the Sandy Hook mass shooting, Hanlin sent the letter he wrote to Vice President Joe Biden after allowing the community of Newtown a generous four weeks to heal, at which point Hanlin apparently felt it appropriate to “waste the time” on the firearms debate:
This letter serves two purposes. First, to make a formal request that you NOT tamper with or attempt to amend the 2nd Amendment. Gun control is NOT the answer to preventing heinous crimes like school shootings. Any actions against, or in disregard for our U.S. Constitution and 2nd Amendment rights by the current administration would be irresponsible and an indisputable insult to the American people.
I fully agree with the statement made by Linn County Sheriff Tim Mueller in a recent letter he sent you. He stated, “In the wake of recent criminal events, politicians are attempting to exploit the deaths of innocent victims by advocating for laws that would prevent honest, law abiding Americans from possessing certain firearms and ammunition magazines. We are Americans. We must not allow, nor shall we tolerate, the actions of criminals, no matter how heinous the crimes, to prompt politicians to enact laws that will infringe upon the liberties of responsible citizens who have broken no laws.”
The United States Supreme Court has ruled that when a Sheriff chooses to enforce an unconstitutional directive, he is violating his Constitutional Oath. I will NOT violate my Constitutional Oath. Therefore, the second purpose of this letter is to make notification that any federal regulation enacted by Congress or by executive order of the President offending the Constitutional rights of my citizens shall not be enforced by me or by my
deputies, nor will I permit the enforcement of any unconstitutional regulations or orders by federal officers within the borders of Douglas County Oregon.
In conclusion, it is my position as Sheriff of Douglas County, Oregon that I will refuse to participate in, nor tolerate enforcement actions against citizens that are deemed unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court has also ruled that it is the Supreme Court which interprets the Constitution, not county officials.
In that same interview with Chris Cuomo Friday morning, Hanlin tried his best not to engage in any discussion of gun policy because he wanted to “give the community an opportunity to heal,” but a dogged Cuomo finally got him to admit that his views on the subject have not changed in the wake of this incident:
“I want to ensure that this community has an opportunity to heal as well as the victims’ families. right now, that is my focus.”
“…My position on it has not changed.”
“…I’m not going to waste the time today, or any time in the real near future, having the firearm debate.”
If people like Sheriff Hanlin “wasted” more time reading the Constitution, and less time not saying a name that everyone already knows, then maybe President Obama wouldn’t have to come out with one of these statements every couple of months. Sadly, I don’t think we’ll ever know.
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