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Sound the P.R. Retreat.

On the same morning a Georgia sophomore shot six of his fellow students, the Senate approved a bill calling for background checks on gun buyers at pawn shops and gun shows and the use of safety devices on guns. "We are all just elated over this victory," declared Vice President Al Gore, who cast the tiebreaking vote. "Finally, the majority is turning the corner and helping to protect the children and families of this country."

The bill is a good thing. It's forward-thinking. And yet, neither Congress, nor the gun advocates who lobby there, nor the much-maligned entertainment industry, nor, for that matter, the media seem very interested in a deep analysis of what drives teenagers to shoot their classmates. Instead, we have relentless, almost nauseating coverage of the weeping friends and family members of the deceased, plus a lot of glib talk about our violent culture that doesn't lead us anywhere. Forget about Marilyn Manson--the endless media coverage of the mass grieving over the school shootings in Littleton, Colorado, may have contributed more to the shooting by that fifteen-year-old Georgia boy. After carrying out his copycat crime, he put a gun in his mouth, but minutes later, he laid down his weapons and began to cry. A witness heard the boy say, "Oh, my God! I'm so scared, I'm so scared."

Clearly, he can't explain what he was doing. Can we?

The response to the school shootings has been pretty thin. Schools reacted by sending home kids who wear black trench coats or other "menacing" clothes. And purveyors of violent entertainment--Hollywood as well as gun manufacturers--were quick to embrace a similarly superficial fix.

Take two articles in The Wall Street Journal that appeared the same day as the Georgia shooting but dealt with the aftermath of Littleton, Colorado. Both stories show why it's so hard to find honest debate on difficult issues. GUN INDUSTRY CANCELS ADS, CITING CONCERNS OVER TIMING was the headline on the far-right column of the B section of the Journal. Apparently, six weeks into a new ad campaign, the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) pulled the plug. The ads, which appeared in upscale publications such as The Atlantic Monthly and The New York Times Book Review, were canceled because the organization's leaders didn't want to offend anyone after the Columbine shooting.

"We decided the campaign would be seen as inappropriate and insensitive at this time," Robert Delfay, the group's head, told the Journal. THE VERY FACT THAT IT CAN BE DANGEROUS IS WHAT MAKES IT SAFE is the headline for one of the ads. "Since the first cave man threw a stone," the ad says, "the challenge of hitting a target has been part of human nature." The ads were created by P.R. giant Porter Novelli, which had spent just a half million of a three year, $3 million educational campaign. And this is where things get a bit strained. The Wall Street Journal reports that Delfay was told by Porter Novelli executives that because of the shooting, gun advocacy couldn't be done at this time--so "they suggested we table the whole thing."

This is why teenagers don't trust adults. Why should the NSSF--which is far less strident than the National Rifle Association --feels the need to retreat from its position in the face of adversity? Unless the organization doesn't believe its own rhetoric, which is quite possible if you've ever read Christopher Buckley's book Thank You for Smoking (HarperPerennial, 1995).

The problem is too much P.R. The public relations mindset stifles meaningful discussion--in this case, the merits of sport shooting. Porter Novelli, which has represented anti-tobacco groups in the past, says that given the current environment, "we do not see a constructive role for an NSSF educational-advertising program as originally intended." Well, what the hell does that mean? This is the perfect time to their case, unless they don't believe the argument is sound. If Porter Novelli's reasoning for pulling the ads were to be fully extended, then crime conditions in urban areas would mean that the NSSF's campaign should never have seen the light of day. But these ads were not going to be seen in Jet or Ebony or The Source or on billboards in the 'hood. It's only after gun violence comes to the suburbs that we see the gun advocates scurrying to soft-pedal their message--and Congress bestirring itself.

The after-effects of the shooting have television executives running for cover, as well. As with the NSSF, the smell of fear at CBS is tinged with bullshit. Just below the NSSF article in The Wall Street Journal is a story entitled CBS SHELVES FALL MOB SERIES AS TOO VIOLENT. The Mob? Violent? Say it ain't say so.

"CBS said last month's shooting at Columbine High School prompted it to shelve the Falcone series, at least for now," writes Kyle Pope of the Journal. "`It's not the right time to have people being whacked on the streets of New York,' said CBS Television President Leslie moonves."

Moonves is considered one of the smartest people in Hollywood, and he has made CBS a better network, raising the bar for all news magazines with 60 Minutes II. But his motives for not showing Falcone, a show about an undercover FBI agent, seem worse than disingenuous. When is it the right time to have people whacked on the streets of New York? Moonves said that he and other executives viewed the pilot days after the Columbine shooting and decided that the show, in its current form, would not make it on the schedule. One wonders if the shooting had not occurred whether the producers of the show would have been able to make a more persuasive case for airing the series.

Instead of spurring a serious self-examination on the part of the entertainment industry and the gun lobby, Columbine just prompted a P.R. retreat. And many commentators badly overreached by lumping shoot-'em-all-up video games like Quake with thoughtful, albeit violent, television such as HBO's The Sopranos.

The tragedy of Columbine is that fourteen kids died in an act of violence so alien to the rest of society that it almost defies reason. Yet we've compounded the tragedy with reactionary measures and rhetoric. Despite the very public grieving period after Columbine, we find ourselves wondering why teenagers seem to be in more pain today than ever before.

Fred McKissack writes a monthly column on culture for the Progressive.
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Title Annotation:public relations for the firearms industry
Author:McKissack, Fred
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Jul 1, 1999
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