The Gun That Didn’t Shoot

In watching the coverage of the Washington Navy Yard shooting as it unfolded last Monday, I had to remind myself that most of the reports I was hearing would surely turn out to be incorrect, in some cases wildly so. And indeed this turned out to be the case. We were told, for example, that there was more than one gunman, and that one of them was armed with an AR-15 rifle. Even worse, both CBS and NBC identified the wrong man as the shooter before issuing retractions.

The first of these errors is the most understandable. In the rush to beat their competitors, the editing filters ordinarily in place are often put aside in favor of greater speed. Reports from the scene, no matter how unverifiable, are broadcast live so as to be first on the air. Again, understandable and even forgivable in most cases.

Less so is the misidentification of the shooter’s weapon. This too might be seen as understandable were it not for the obvious desire on the part of so many in the news business to demonize a particular type of firearm, the so-called “assault rifle.”  The Navy Yard gunman, Aaron Alexis, was not armed with an AR-15, or with any other kind of rifle, but rather with a pump-action shotgun, one of the most commonly owned firearms in the country. This did not prevent members of the media from pressing their case for a federal ban on “assault rifles.”  Just as the Sherlock Holmes short story Silver Blaze features the “curious incident” of the dog that didn’t bark, the story of the Navy Yard shooting came to be about the gun that didn’t shoot.

But most egregious of the media’s many errors at the Navy Yard was the labeling as the shooter of a man who was at home, 40 miles away, at the time of the incident. Though the mistake was caught fairly quickly and the appropriate retractions and corrections were made, it didn’t prevent other reporters from setting up camp outside the wronged man’s home. Both CBS and NBC blamed their misreporting on law enforcement sources who said that an ID card belonging to a former Navy Yard employee had been found near the dead shooter. In most cases it would have been a logical assumption that the ID card was indeed the gunman’s -- but not in this one.