If Only AR-15 Murder-Scene Photos Would Bring About an Assault Weapons Ban

If Only AR-15 Murder-Scene Photos Would Bring About an Assault Weapons Ban

If Only AR-15 Murder-Scene Photos Would Bring About an Assault Weapons Ban

Washington Post leaders thought they were doing right by showing the carnage those weapons of war create. But we already knew that.


I learned that The Washington Post planned a blockbuster feature about the way AR-15 rifles destroy human bodies, complete with grisly photos, via the ever-growing network of bereaved families and survivors of domestic weapons-of-war gun violence. Scheduled for Thursday, the project was thought to perhaps include what some tone-deaf proponents of better gun regulation insist would be a political game-changer: gory photos of murdered children, to show the horrors too many Americans allegedly ignore.

Thank God, it did not.

Judging from Post editor Sally Buzbee’s introduction to the project, as well as from my own reporting, the paper talked to dozens of survivors and family members and weighed the enormous range of their opinions about this issue to craft the feature. It was so much better than I was expecting that it initially blinded me to the way it was bad. But bad in a kind of routine way: The media, as well as certain kinds of activists, believe we need to be presented with graphic, grisly evidence to grasp what are simply facts. This grisly evidence, they posit, will change hearts and minds.

It will not. Upwards of three-quarters of American voters support almost every commonsense gun law. And we know why political leaders haven’t heeded their call: the gun lobby, and its disgusting political servants. But the Post tried, anyway, with its multimedia “Terror on Repeat” project. I won’t impugn these journalists’ motives. I’ll assume they are good. I’ll just tell you what I saw, and why I would like to spare people seeing the same thing. Especially survivors.

Let me also say here: If you are not a bereaved survivor of violence, and especially if you are white, keep the name of Emmett Till’s mother out of your mouth. (I’ll say more about that later.)

Once you’ve prepared for seeing bullet-ridden children, and you don’t, everything is up from there. But the Post’s feature is tough going, nonetheless. One of its justifications appears early: “The weapon, easy to operate and widely available, is now used more than any other in the country’s deadliest mass killings.” This is true and should be more widely known.

The worst thing: The Post forces you to view the photos, in order to read the text. It’s got that slow-loading text/graphic presentation that’s become popular online. In this case, it means you linger too long on bloody scenes, whether you want to or not, waiting for the next part of the story to show up. This is exploitative, my Post friends. I expected a story accompanied by a slide show, that I could decide (or not) to click through. I’m not sure what sadist decided this was a better idea.

Big picture: “Terror on Repeat” shows a lot of bloody AR-15 crime scenes, once the victims’ bodies have been cleared. Their bodies have been cleared, but not their flip-flops or sneakers or clothes or backpacks. We see unbearably thick pools of blood—medium pools that have been smeared for yards, by first responders saving victims or retrieving their bodies. It’s devastating. I haven’t eaten yet today.

It shows shot-up classrooms and city streets and houses of worship, the bullet-pocked, bullet-ruined aftermath of bloody cruelty. The blown-away corner of a Jewish prayer book from the 2018 Tree of Life Synagogue massacre, which killed 11 and wounded six, is particularly chilling. So are the bullet wounds in the walls and pews and toppled pews—in the wake of frantic congregants fleeing?—of the 2017 Sutherland Springs, Tex., First Baptist Church mass shooting, which killed 28. The physical devastation caused by these ungodly weapons is a feature in itself, if anyone wanted to spare us the gore.

There are at least two videos. One I watched, and with sound, since it auto-rolled. I’d turned off my sound by the time the second one rolled, and I’m grateful.

The one I watched and heard was from the Las Vegas massacre, which began as (ironically?) right-wing hero Jason Aldean was on stage. He and his band kept playing as some weirdly rhythmic rat-tat-tat sounds began, and then it became clear it was automatic gunfire, and he and his band fled. You can see the crowd below realize what’s happening and try to protect one another. It is horrific, but you don’t see anyone shot.

The other was a short video filmed by a Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School survivor in Parkland. Apparently it features wounded children, who you can’t see but only hear, crying for help. After the Las Vegas video, I disabled sound, so I only read the subtitles, but that was bad enough. I’m glad I didn’t hear it, but I wish I’d never seen it.

Interspersed between the awful photos (that you can’t avoid) are testimonies from witnesses, either interviewed directly by the Post or collected from official public proceedings. Because I’m writing this to spare people who have been or will be traumatized by these details, I’m not quoting liberally. Here are a few that are descriptive without being graphic, from the mundane to the horrific. And all heart-breaking.

“I heard what sounded like metal chairs falling, and I figured that was for the holiday program or something.”—Abbey Clements, teacher. Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Conn.

“I could hear people screaming, and I could hear people—you know, last words were uttered, things that were—fear, and just really awful sounds. And then it eventually started getting quieter. And that was the worst part, knowing that the quiet meant the worst.”—Morgan Workman, church congregant, Sutherland Springs

“After a while, I could see she was shot and she wasn’t going to survive.… I kissed my fingers, and I touched my fingers to her skin…. I cried out, ‘Mommy.’”—Andrea Wedner, synagogue congregant, Pittsburgh

I’m intentionally leaving out the descriptions of literal carnage. And there are many.

I’ve been covering mass shootings for, sadly, far too long. I was author Dave Cullen’s editor at Salon, on his important dispatches from the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, stories he turned into an award-winning book, Columbine. I’ve thought about and even changed my mind about the ethics of all of our reporting—from naming/spotlighting the shooters (who crave that) to whether showing photos of the people, especially children, whose bodies were blown apart by these war weapons might change minds.

I used to think, maybe? Now I think: Nope. Now I think that’s a savage, exploitative argument, a view I’ve come to mainly as I’ve gotten to know victims’ families. No one is more important to me than Nelba Marquez-Greene, the mother of Sandy Hook—I started to write “victim,” but that felt inadequate, then “angel,” but Nelba told me how “angel” got deployed and so… the mother of the irreplaceable Ana Grace Marquez-Greene, who would be 17 this year, and who is deeply missed, not only by her family but by those of us who never got to know her.

Nelba, a therapist and grief activist of astonishing wisdom and integrity who is now teaching at the Yale School of Public Health, schooled many people in why no one has the right to demand that she or any other parent share the post-murder photos of their children. She did so in a New York Times op-ed and in an interview with me last year, on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the Sandy Hook horror.

Here’s what she told me then (and why I feel so strongly about ignorant, mainly white, people who use one particular example against these families): “I didn’t appreciate the weaponizing of one tragedy against another. They weaponized the sacred story of Emmett Till and his mom against me, and that was a shitty thing to do. And I offer all the respect to that family. But [his mother] had a choice. It was not forced. She was not pushed.”

And about the notion that politicians would change their minds about gun legislation if they saw these photos: “They know what these bullets do! Our government officials have access to everything. They have testimony from emergency room physicians, police officers, victims—and many victims have shared images! You want to sensationalize the dead body of a 6-year-old. And for that I have two words. Two words I won’t repeat today.”

Nelba blasted the Post on Instagram Wednesday night. As did Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter, Jamie, died in the 2018 Parkland massacre, on Twitter: “I spoke with the reporters months ago and shared my opinion that this was unnecessary and will be traumatic to those of us who have been impacted by gun violence.” He followed up with long, heartfelt threads elaborating his anger and grief.

When I reached out to him, he sent me this: “I am upset that this article exists, but I also understand why it does. For my family, especially my wife, it is very traumatizing. My hope is that now that it does exist, everyone focuses on the reality that America already gets it. Over 80% of America wants this handled and the reality that elected officials choose to ignore the photos and videos and not do the right thing is what matters to me. This must be a top voting issue of 2024.”

The Post feature used the greatest number of photos and quotes from the Robb Elementary School massacre in mostly Latino Uvalde, Tex. To Marquez-Greene, that is no accident: “Black, Brown and poor white communities are less likely to be able to protect themselves,” she wrote; Sandy Hook parents, suburban and almost all white, had the legal and financial means to get most images sealed.

Again: There are no actual photos of victims used in this project.

But one Uvalde advocate told me the families could figure out which child’s death scene they were viewing, given a combination of the photo details plus the quote from a survivor that ran along with it. “People have used the ‘no bodies’ photos as a justification. But [seeing] the belongings are enough,” the advocate told me. “The phrase ‘no bodies’ has become triggering for the families.”

A group of Uvalde families who post on Instagram under the name “livesrobbed” shared on Thursday: “This is how we choose to remember our loved ones.” It featured photos of the adorable murdered fourth graders as they lived: dressed up for Halloween, in soccer clothes, hugging their pets, hugging their friends, and for the teachers who died, hugging their husbands, hugging their kids.

The montage posted by “Livesrobbed” is actually harder to watch than the bloody-mayhem photos. The Post photos made me cringe, even gag. These beautiful photos made me cry.

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