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American mass shootings: We don’t have to watch

America isn't going to fix its gun problem. I've known that since at least 2012, when 20 children were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. I reasoned then that if dead first graders weren't enough to get the country to reconsider its stance on guns, nothing would be. In the time since, I've only been proven right.

In the newsroom, I sit directly across from two huge TV screens and so in the past month, I've been subject to endless scrolling updates on American mass shootings. The first was the carnage in Las Vegas, followed just weeks later by the murder of 26 people who were shot at a church in Texas. I've seen the same survivors tell their terrifying stories on multiple networks and endless parsing of both shooters' life stories.

To be honest, my capacity for shock has become numbed, just one reason I've come to believe that Canadian media should not cover American mass shootings as major news events. The other is that I've realized that they're not major news events, really. When the trophy for the largest mass shooting in the country's history is being passed around so rapidly, it's time to accept that these occurrences aren't particularly special. They're sadly just another drop in the global bucket of violence.

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This doesn't mean I don't have sympathy for victims of America's gun culture, especially children. Last week, I heard Syracuse University professor Rachel Hall speak in Toronto about her research on security and performance. Somehow, until her talk, I had missed the existence of "active shooter drills."

During the unannounced drills, teachers and students are surprised by highly realistic simulations of mass shootings often carried out by local law enforcement or private security firms. "Blanks are used to simulate the explosive sound of gunfire," says Ms. Hall. "Actors can be hired, fake blood can be used. It's a type of cinematic realism that takes its cues from law-and-order programs on television." Grade-school children have been separated from their classes in an attempt to test teacher competence during chaos.

A few of these drills have been held in Canadian postsecondary schools, but they're mandatory at public schools in two-thirds of U.S. states. This is more clear evidence that the U.S. would rather, in Ms. Hall's words, "redesign our entire environment or retrain people as performers rather than take on the gun lobby."

The reason why is obvious: In The Globe earlier this week, anti-gun activist Iain Overton wrote that Republican politicians received almost $6-million (U.S.) from gun lobbyists during the last federal election cycle alone. Following that money trail is worthy of journalistic resources, unlike "the romanticization of victims" that Ms. Hall says encourages people to "see themselves as besieged by the violence of others" – and perhaps in need of their own gun.

That coverage can actually be hurtful to victims, including Las Vegas survivor Braden Matejka. Since appearing in news coverage, the 30-year-old British Columbia resident has been harassed endlessly by conspiracy theorists accusing him of being an actor in an elaborate hoax, even as he recovers from being shot in the back of the head.

Another worry that numerous researchers have highlighted is that current coverage of gun violence encourages copycats. Most shooters are both narcissistic and insecure: The man who attacked the LGBTQ nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Fla., for example, paused his three-hour onslaught in June, 2016, to see if the killings had been mentioned on Facebook.

Other research has shown that the more times a shooting is mentioned on social media, the more likely another is to happen nearby very soon. To avoid fuelling this search for validation and fame, some journalists have stopped using shooters' names at all.

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Canadians face other drawbacks to excessive coverage of American shootings – such as the instinct to feel smug since, as everyone knows, we have far fewer gun deaths over here. But our laws also have loopholes: The man who is charged with the killing of six people at a Quebec City mosque in January bought his arsenal legally. Islamophobic hate crimes are on the rise.

Since we're also so proud of our more compassionate approach to health care, we could push back against the criminalization of those with mental-health issues.We could put resources into developing genuine solutions for violent acts of psychological distress and help those most at risk of gun death in both countries – people contemplating suicide.

Yes, we share a long border with the U.S. – they're our closest neighbours and despite everything, we care about them. But glorifying killers through endless newsreels of shooting deaths won't achieve any of Canada's goals, including the need to make sure that American guns stay in America.

FBI unable to access church shooter's phone (Reuters)
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About the Author
Journalist and editor

Denise Balkissoon is an editor in the Globe’s Life section and a columnist in Comment. The National Magazine Award-winning writer is also a co-founder of The Ethnic Aisle, a blog about race and ethnicity in the Greater Toronto Area. More

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