Safety advocates discuss violence, race, and the media at Ford Hall Forum

“Eighty-seven Americans who woke up this morning will die from guns today,” John Rosenthal, gun owner and founder of Stop Handgun Violence, said at the latest lecture from the Ford Hall Forum. Entitled, “Guns Don’t Kill People, The Media Kills People,” the discussion sought to examine how media coverage affects violence in communities while exploring issues of race and gun regulation.

Gun violence lead to the deaths of 32,000 Americans last year, including 19,000 suicides.

Panelists Rosenthal and Charlton McIlwain, an associate professor of media, culture, and communications at NYU Steinhardt, along with moderator Edward Powell, the executive director of StreetSafe Boston, stressed that the event was not meant to start a pro- or anti-gun conversation. Instead, participants hoped to analyze how and why the media covers violence.

McIlwain believes the media portrays only the extremes of gun violence because “they don’t want to talk about moderate, safety measures because that makes bad TV.” The media’s choice to frame violence this way highlights rarer mass shootings and largely ignores the everyday issues of gun violence in cities and towns across the country.

“There is too little coverage on the deaths of inner city youth,” Powell said. At StreetSafe Boston, Powell works on reducing gang violence in neighborhoods of the city most affected by violence.

“There is a strong correlation between consuming media violence and committing violence,” McIlwain said, “Almost as strong as the link between smoking and getting lung cancer.” He quickly noted that while the media doesn’t directly tell people what to think, it can still have a significant influence on the way public discourse on issues plays out.

Rosenthal, whose non-profit organization displays provocative gun control advertisements on the billboard above the Massachusetts Turnpike just outside of Fenway Park, was more controversial in his assessment of the media’s coverage of instances of violence.

“Congress has this notion that only poor, non-white people die from guns, so why should we care? If white kids were dying at the rate black kids were dying [from guns] you’d see more coverage in the news,” Rosenthal charged, “Newtown showed that, guess what, [gun violence] might even be rich white people’s problem too.”

Both panelists also advocated for safe gun ownership practices, like locking guns in the home at all times and locking ammunition in a separate place. This safe storage principle is the law in Massachusetts but not federally. Rosenthal says this state statute has “dramatically decreased toddler and teen gun-related deaths [in the state.]”

When asked by audience members what citizens can do to help stem gun violence, Rosenthal urges all in attendance to call their congressmen and demand change. “It’s the uniquely unregulated gun industry who has bought republicans and intimidated democrats in congress” that allows so many Americans to die from gun violence, Rosenthal said, “But before we blame anyone, we have to look in the mirror. We are giving up our democracy.”