NBC Insists Gun Violence a ‘Public Health’ Issue, Doesn’t Explain Why

Managing Editor's Note: Due to a Media Research Center Christmas party held this afternoon, this post was pre-written Friday morning -- well before the school shooting today in Centennial, Colorado -- and was scheduled to automatically post at 3 p.m. Eastern. We regret the unfortunate but accidental timing and our thoughts and prayers are with the citizens of Centennial.

Two days ahead of the one-year anniversary of the Newtown mass murder, Dr. Nancy Snyderman took to the air on NBC's Nightly News, labeling gun violence a public health issue. However, neither Snyderman nor anybody quoted in the story made it clear exactly why the gun issue is a matter of public health.

Anchor Brian Williams introduced the December 12 news package like this:

"As we approach the one-year mark on Saturday of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, there is a plea tonight from this country's psychologists. They say the gun issue is not just a political issue, that protecting our children from gun violence, including in their own homes, is a matter instead of public health."
 

The story was centered around the tale of a mother, Ashlynn Milton, who lost her teenage son nearly two years ago. Snyderman recounted the tragedy:
 

"Ashlynn’s 13-year-old son had been accidentally shot by his friend who, in a moment of horseplay, didn't realize the gun was loaded."
 

A horrible tragedy, to be sure. But what does it have to do with public health?  The boy who shot Milton’s son was not mentally ill, according to the story. He was just an irresponsible goofball. Snyderman went on to talk about public safety, not public health:

"Ashlynn and her family are gun owners and avid hunters, but they keep their guns locked and secure and they want parents who don't do the same to be held legally responsible."
 

That line makes it sound like gun violence is merely a safety issue. So does this line from Snyderman:
 

"Since the Newtown tragedy, at least 173 children under the age of 12 have died from gunshots in the U.S, according to original reporting and research by NBC News. Nearly half of those deaths were accidental."
 

There was one doctor quoted in the story, but it wasn’t a psychologist. It was an emergency medicine specialist, Dr. William Begg, who has been advocating “to change the way we view gun violence,” according to Snyderman. But rather than explaining why this is a public health issue, Begg only offered this vague sound bite:
 

"Research is paramount. When you have a discussion about this public health issue of gun safety, there’s two sides. And the only way I think change is gonna happen is if we look at the data."
 

Snyderman ended the package by looking into the camera and offering some basis gun safety advice to parents who take their children to a friend’s house:
 

"Ask a simple question: are there guns in the house? Are they loaded? And most important, are they locked up and away from kids? It's a real transformation to make gun violence a public safety and public health issue."
 

Violent crime, regardless of how it's committed -- with or without weapons, including guns -- has always been a public safety issue, and this story was exclusively about that aspect. If NBC is going to call it a public health issue, they should talk about mental illness, perhaps. When we look at gun violence through that prism, it resembles a public health issue. But don’t conflate basic gun safety with public health.

Below is a transcript of the report:


BRIAN WILLIAMS: As we approach the one-year mark on Saturday of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, there is a plea tonight from this country's psychologists. They say the gun issue is not just a political issue, that protecting our children from gun violence, including in their own homes, is a matter instead of public health. And so we get the story tonight from our chief medical editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman.

DR. NANCY SNYDERMAN: It was nearly two years ago when, like so many other times, Ashlynn Milton dropped her son Noah off at his best friend's house to spend the night.



ASHLYNN MILTON: About 1:15 in the morning we got a phone call.

SNYDERMAN: What went through your gut when you pulled up and saw all that activity outside that house?

MILTON: Immediately I went into shock. Even before I talked to a cop. Like, there’s no way this is real. They made a mistake.

SNYDERMAN: But it wasn't a mistake. Ashlynn’s 13-year-old son had been accidentally shot by his friend who in a moment of horseplay didn't realize the gun was loaded. Who do you hold accountable?

MILTON: The parents.

SNYDERMAN: Why?

MILTON: Because I think as parents we are supposed to keep our children safe.

SNYDERMAN: Ashlynn and her family are gun owners and avid hunters, but they keep their guns locked and secure and they want parents who don't do the same to be held legally responsible.

MILTON: We keep them safe with car seats, we put seat belts, we drive the speed limit. We have caps on medicine that they can't get in. I just -- guns is right there with that.

SNYDERMAN: Since the Newtown tragedy, at least 173 children under the age of 12 have died from gunshots in the U.S, according to original reporting and research by NBC News. Nearly half of those deaths were accidental.

DR. WILLIAM BEGG: This coming year, it's projected that the number of people who die from gun related injuries will surpass the number of people who die from motor vehicle deaths.

SNYDERMAN: Dr. William Begg was in the ER the day of Newtown’s tragedy and has been advocating not only to change gun laws, but to change the way we view gun violence. Why is research important?

BEGG: Research is paramount. When you have a discussion about this public health issue of gun safety, there’s two sides. And the only way I think change is gonna happen is if we look at the data.

SNYDERMAN: In 1996 the gun lobby worked successfully to halt the CDC's analysis of gun violence. While the National Rifle Association has always advocated gun safety and education, it didn't respond to our requests for comment. President Obama has called on Congress to provide $10 million to fund gun research. Your heart must catch in your chest when you see this. Ashlynn Milton hopes education and new laws might save another mother her pain.

MILTON: I wanted to watch him go to high school, and graduate, and get married and have kids. And I’ll just – I'll never see that.

SNYDERMAN: Start the conversation with your children at home, and then talk to other parents before play dates, before overnights. Ask a simple question: are there guns in the house? Are they loaded? And most important, are they locked up and away from kids? It's a real transformation to make gun violence a public safety and public health issue.

WILLIAMS: Important aspect of this overall story. Nancy, thank you as always.

Paul Bremmer
Paul Bremmer is a Media Research Center News Analysis Division intern.