POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Dec 21, 2013
DENVER » Call him the gunman. Call him the killer or the perpetrator, the defendant or the assailant. Only, the survivors urge, do not say his name.
This is the new plea after another shooting has upended a community in suburban Denver and turned a high school into a bloody crime scene. As people grope for responses, many families of victims and law enforcement officials have begun urging journalists and public officials to avoid using the gunmen's names and photos in public.
For families, it is a small way to fight back. Their hope is that refusing to name the actors will mute the effects of their actions, and prevent other angry, troubled young men from being inspired by the infamy of those who opened fire in Columbine High School, Virginia Tech or Newtown, Conn.
The effort is also about finding some relief. Almost a year after Dawn Hochsprung, the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, was killed, her daughter Erica Lafferty said she walked into the lobby of MSNBC to give an interview. It was the day state investigators had released their report on the massacre, and Lafferty said she looked up at the television screens to see the hollow face of the 20-year-old who had shot her mother.
"Why do I have to read his name? Why do I have to hear his name?" Lafferty said. "It's so painful to see."
Those names are stricken from many Facebook memorial sites and victims' support message boards. When President Barack Obama flew to Colorado in July 2012 to memorialize the 12 people killed in an Aurora movie theater, he agreed not to mention the gunman's name. And Saturday, the sheriff investigating a shooting inside the halls of Arapahoe High School in suburban Denver announced that he had made the same decision.
Facing a bank of microphones, Sheriff Grayson Robinson spent nearly 45 minutes describing, moment by moment, gunshot by gunshot, how an 18-year-old student armed with a pump-action shotgun had charged into his high school last Friday and opened fire. He critically wounded a classmate, 17-year-old Claire Davis, before fatally shooting himself.
Robinson discussed how the gunman had sought revenge on a debate coach who had disciplined him in September. How he had carried a machete and three gasoline bombs. How the entire rampage had lasted just 80 seconds. Then, a reporter asked the gunman's birth date — a routine detail — and the sheriff paused. He said he wanted to offer an opinion.
"I will tell you that I am no longer inclined nor will I speak his name in public," he said. "He is someone who victimized an innocent young lady by an act of evil and in my opinion deserves no notoriety and certainly no celebrity. He deserves no recognition."
As Davis remains in a coma, law enforcement officials have continued to offer new details about plans by the gunman, Karl Pierson, to cause "the maximum amount of harm." They say he carried 125 rounds of ammunition, and had scrawled the numbers and letters of five classrooms on his arm. Also on his arm, in permanent ink, was a Latin phrase meaning "the die is cast."
Despite the urging of some families, few news outlets have excised the names of killers from their coverage. It is one of the most basic facts, and a difficult one to omit as reporters try to unravel questions about the mental health and private anger of these gunmen, and whether they had given any warning signs.
And of course, arrest records, public inquests and legal documents contain the gunmen's names.
"There's a compelling public interest in naming the gunman and what his circumstances were and how he pulled off the shooting," said Kelly McBride, a media ethicist at the Poynter Institute. "If you don't name the gunman and try and understand how he got his guns, what his motivations are and what might have prevented this, I don't think that we'll be any better off."
Would it even have an effect? Social scientists have found a nexus between suicides and news coverage, suggesting that extensive stories detailing methods and motives may drive others to kill themselves in similar ways. But the links between news coverage and mass shootings are far more tenuous, McBride said.
Social scientists and criminologists say the forces driving these shootings are a kaleidoscope of anger, revenge, insecurity, immaturity, mental illness, a desire for notoriety and myriad other factors, including easy access to weapons. In Colorado, the passage of tighter gun control laws did not prevent Pierson from legally buying the shotgun and ammunition that he used to carry out the attack, officials said.
Dave Cullen, the author of "Columbine," a book about the 1999 attack near Littleton, Colo., said that mass shootings were often public performances by frustrated young men who had suffered failures or loss. They were "about being heard and felt," in the worst way, he said. In a September essay for BuzzFeed, he suggested that news coverage use suspects' names "sparingly" during the first two days after a shooting, and then make only oblique references.
"Disappear the person," Cullen said. "If you take that away, it takes away the whole point for him."
Tom and Caren Teves were on vacation in Hawaii when a gunman sheathed in black body armor opened fire on a sold-out midnight screening of "The Dark Knight Rises" in Aurora. Twelve people were killed, including their 24-year-old son, Alex, who died shielding his girlfriend from gunfire.
"We had no idea of Alex's situation, where he was," Caren Teves said. "He was missing, and when we kept trying to get news, all we kept seeing was the shooter's picture, the shooter's picture."
"We couldn't even watch the news," Tom Teves said. "It was all about him."
Jack Healy, New York Times