Powerlessness breeds desperation, and rarely is that truer than when it comes to the national debate about guns. Last week’s massacre of 19 school children in Uvalde, Texas, and the fatal shooting of 20 first graders and six staff members in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012 bookend a tragic era in American life. Mass shootings have become routine events. In the nearly 10 years between these two horrific killing sprees, there have been thousands of mass shootings in America, countless lives lost and complete inaction from Congress. We’ve shaped our lives and our fears around the possibility that the terror of a mass killing will touch us or our families.
After Uvalde, an old idea is gaining greater prominence: releasing the graphic, horrific pictures of children killed by AR-15 semi-automatic rifles.
Since Congress won’t act, the result is an ever-desperate search for a simple solution to stop the killing. After Uvalde, an old idea is gaining greater prominence: releasing the graphic, horrific pictures of children killed by AR-15 semi-automatic rifles. Seeing the photos of children’s bodies, mangled by a weapon of war, will, the argument goes, lead to a change in public opinion and spur recalcitrant legislators to act.
It’s a proposal that comes from a deep well of frustration — and it’s being offered by people who want nothing more than to end gun violence. But this is a truly terrible idea that will change few minds and risks traumatizing those who already understand the devastation caused by American gun culture.
In a recent NPR interview, Amy Goldberg, a trauma surgeon in Philadelphia, laid out the affirmative case for releasing these pictures.
“Citizens need to see the destruction of what these military-style weapons do,” said Goldberg. “And I don't say that lightly. I don't say that with any disrespect, but I'm desperate. All the trauma surgeons need this to stop.” She added, “I just cannot believe that Americans in this country would see what these weapons do to our children, our teachers, our community and that they would stand by and do nothing.”
But more likely than not — they would stand by and do nothing.
Most of us already refuse to engage with arguments that contradict our ideological and political assumptions, and when it comes to gun violence, attitudes are even more firmly established, particularly among America’s pro-gun minority. To be an advocate of near-unfettered access to firearms means shutting out all the evidence that one's selfish demand for practically limitless gun rights is responsible for so much needless suffering. It means looking at Robb Elementary, Sandy Hook, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the 2017 mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival in Las Vegas or countless other tragedies and deciding that the fetishization of steel and bullets plays no role whatsoever.
It’s why Republican politicians try to make gun violence about everything other than guns and hold dear to the child-like notion that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. To consider the central role of firearms in gun violence would, in effect, give up the game. If politicians are so cynical and morally bereft that they are willing to accept the needless deaths of schoolchildren because it’s in their political interest, do we really expect them to sober up when shown a picture of a murdered child? They’ve already compartmentalized their complicity.
It’s hard to imagine they would even willingly look at the pictures. Their more likely response would be to accuse their opponents of grotesquely using dead children to make a political argument. And they would have a point.
What about the other side: the overwhelming majority of Americans who support more restrictive gun control measures? How would seeing pictures of dead children make us more adamant in our views?
In 2015 news organizations ran a heartbreaking picture of a 3-year Syrian boy washed up on a beach in Turkey. Did it shift public opinion in the United States on welcoming Syrian refugees to this country?
Proponents of releasing these photos have argued that pictures from the war in Vietnam shifted public opinion; as did, they claim, the decision by Mamie Till to leave open the casket of her son, Emmett, who was murdered by white racists in Mississippi in 1955.
But the true impact of those photos is debatable.
In September 2015, news organizations ran a heartbreaking picture of the body of a 3-year-old Syrian boy who had washed up on a beach in Turkey. Did it shift public opinion in the United States on welcoming Syrian refugees to this country? No. In fact, three months later President Donald Trump called for banning all Muslims from entering the United States, and his heinous proposal was met with rapturous approval by Republican voters.
Did images of crying infants being separated from their parents or children being held in cages along the U.S. border with Mexico shift the public debate in the United States on Trump’s highly restrictive immigration policies? Not among Republican voters and certainly not among those in the White House.
Making public the pictures of the children slaughtered at Uvalde’s Robb Elementary School would likely do little to change minds or seriously reshape the debate about guns in America. But allowing people to see such pictures would increase the national trauma around gun violence.
I’m a parent, and the week since Uvalde, nothing has been more difficult for me than seeing images of the beautiful smiling faces of the victims. It has been gut-wrenching to hear their parents talk about their personalities, their passions and their hobbies. I have written countless columns about America’s sick gun culture. I interviewed survivors of the Las Vegas shooting minutes after the massacre took place. I like to think I’m a bit hardened to stories of gun violence. But I find it impossible to even look at those smiling photos or listen to their parents talk about them. I immediately look away and speedily scroll down my Twitter feed. My mind goes to my kids, and that leads to a dark place where no parent wants or needs to go. It’s bad enough that every parent needs to worry about an active shooter showing up at their children’s school. Even imagining for a moment that it could to happen to our kids is piling trauma upon trauma.
These pictures would live on the internet forever. They’d be be used and manipulated, including by the same people who have spent years harassing the Sandy Hook parents.
When we’re talking about something as truly ghastly as the shooting of schoolchildren, the emotional wounds run deep. It affects how parents look at their own children. It increases anxiety and stress levels. It’s not healthy, and allowing people to see pictures of slain children will only compound the hurt. Americans can and should advocate for stronger gun control measures. They should cajole, demand and get angry at their leaders for doing nothing. But they need to take care of themselves, too. Looking at pictures of dead children isn’t going to help.
As for the families of the victims, it’s hard to imagine any parent giving permission to release such photos. But do we really want to ask them to make such a momentous decision at a moment of unimaginable emotional distress? These pictures would live on the internet forever. They’d be be used and manipulated, including by the same people who have spent years harassing the Sandy Hook parents with claims that the mass shooting was a false flag operation or that their children didn’t actually die. The desperation that informs calls to make these gruesome photos public is understandable, but there would be horrible unintended consequences.
Again, such proposals are not coming from a place of amorality or indifference; they are coming from people who are anguished, despairing and furious. Their motivation is pure, but their idea is awful. We need to be honest about the consequences of America’s toxic gun culture: the wounds such violence inflicts, both physical and emotional. But releasing photos of murdered children will make a bad situation worse.