December 9, 2015

To carry or not to carry — that is the question some journalists were asking after the San Bernardino massacre last week.

The topic of whether community journalists should start packing concealed guns at public meetings or in the office was the busiest topic this week on the listserv of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors. The issue was first posed by editor Patric Hedlund of The Mountain Enterprise in Frazier Park, California. She asked, “Does this now become a question for journalists who cover so many public events to consider?”

Most, though not all, of the editors who responded said they wouldn’t carry:

“In my town of 4,000? In my county of 25,000? I don’t see the need, and I don’t know if I can conceive of the circumstance where I would,” wrote Brad Martin, editor of the Hickman County Times in Centerville, Tennessee. In a phone interview, he added, “I guess my answer would be the same if I lived in a city of 1 million.”

“Do I really want the responsibility of carrying a deadly weapon, capable of taking a life, around with me?” asked David Pugh, news editor at the Archbold Buckeye in Archbold, Ohio. “Am I really mature enough to be trusted with that responsibility?”

David Giffey, the retired editor of the Home News in Spring Green, Wisconsin, said he hadn’t carried a gun since his days as a soldier in Vietnam. “I choose to deal with my fears unarmed,” Giffey wrote, adding that he had been “threatened often in the past.”

“Having a gun, I think, would probably have ended badly for someone, maybe me,” he said.

And Bill Tubbs, owner and publisher of the North Scott Press in Eldridge, Iowa, wrote, “As journalists, our weapons are words, used wisely and appropriately.”

A handful of editors and publishers posted that they already exercise their right, legal in their states, to carry a concealed weapon.

“I conceal carry a firearm most of the time when I am out and about,” wrote Gregory J. Lamoureux, publisher of the County Courier in Northwestern Vermont’s Franklin County. “You never know what you are going to run into, and my personal feeling [is] that I would rather have the gun with me and never have to use it than not. I even have a pistol hidden in my office in the case that I need it.”

The weekly editors’ society, with about 300 members in the U.S., Canada, Australia, Ireland and the United Kingdom, has no official position on the issue. Neither does the National Newspaper Association, which represents 2,200 daily and weekly community newspapers in the U.S. “As a legal matter, I would counsel publishers to be aware of their local laws before taking any action, and to consult their insurance carriers before authorizing any weapons,” said Tonda Rush, the newspaper association’s CEO.

One Oklahoma editor posted to the listserv on Dec. 4 as she prepared to cover a daylong open-carry class that a local pastor holds on church property. Kaylea M. Hutson-Miller, managing editor of the Grove Sun in the state’s hilly northeast, said the pastor had called her when the usual monthly enrolment quadrupled after the California attack. “So it’s a story,” she wrote. “Locals are reacting, just as we are in this thread, and reacting by getting training and licenses.”

Hutson-Miller hasn’t yet taken the class herself, but she’s considering it, she said in a phone interview, since her marriage to a detective four months ago meant she now lives with guns in her home. “I’m not going to let fear dictate what I decide,” she said, but she believes in educating herself.

Screenshot of story about increase concel carry  training

Kaylea M. Hutson-Miller of the Grove (Oklahoma) Sun wrote about an increase in concealed-carry training after the San Bernardino attack.

The Committee to Protect Journalists’ online Journalist Security Guide primarily addresses war zones and recommends against carrying firearms when covering armed conflict. “Carrying a firearm on other assignments is also strongly discouraged,” the guide continues. In choosing to do so, “you should consider that carrying a firearm can have fatal consequences and undercut your status as an observer.”

The Society of Professional Journalists has a page on war journalism, but it doesn’t address domestic journalism.

Bill Reader, a journalism professor at Ohio University and a member of the weekly editors’ group, argued that armed journalists misconstrue their role.

“A journalist who goes to cover an ‘active shooter’ situation is neither trained nor authorized to ‘take down’ the ‘bad guy,’” Reader posted on Dec. 9. “And by showing up to an active crime scene armed and twitchy, a journalist can very well cause more problems for law enforcement officers as they are very much the targets in such situations. Armed journalists could become no better than the armed vigilantes who are causing problems along borders, in ‘neighborhood watch’ activities, and etc.” [This paragraph has been edited for clarity.]

Some editors who posted seemed to be considering their options, or they preferred to keep their position ambiguous.

“I might never be armed; I might always be armed; I might sometimes be armed,” wrote Bobby Mayberry of the Cairo Citizen in Cairo, Illinois. “Let’s just leave it at that.”

Cyndy Slovak-Barton, publisher since 1985 of Barton Publications in central Texas, had a purely practical reason for considering a concealed handgun license.

“I testify occasionally at committee hearings for the Texas Legislature regarding issues dealing with newspapers,” she wrote. “The line to get into the capitol can be rather daunting, especially when you are late for a committee hearing.”

But with a permit, she said, “You can bypass the line, show your license and go on in to the capitol. Strange as it sounds, having a concealed gun gets you in easier.”

And Dan Thalmann, the owner of three Kansas weeklies and a past president of the Kansas Press Association, said, “Let’s just be thankful we can have this conversation and present two sides of the debate.” Guns, he said, are pretty common in rural Kansas, but mostly for hunting.

“We don’t have gun violence like elsewhere,” he wrote. “We’ve had two murders in the last 35 years. The last one about 10 years ago was by a big knife. For the murder before that, a body was never recovered–they think the victim was fed to hogs.”

Correction: The original article referred to the Mountain Enterprise as the Mountain Express.

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Barbara Selvin is an associate professor of journalism at Stony Brook University. Previously, she was a reporter for Newsday and New York Newsday, covering real…
Barbara Selvin

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