May 31, 2019. Another day, another deadly shooting.
This time, a Virginia Beach engineer murdered 12 people and wounded four. After resigning via email on a Friday morning for “personal reasons,” the man returned to his municipal workplace and gunned down 11 co-workers and one contractor.
Tragically, most Americans are not surprised. How could they be? Every day, 100 Americans are killed by guns, and hundreds more are injured. But they might be curious about a growing trend: omitting the perpetrator’s name.
The local police chief named the killer just once, and then said he would not utter his name again. Virginia Beach Police Chief James A. Cervera told reporters that Saturday, June 1, would be the only time police would announce the gunman's name. After that, he will be referred to by police only as “the suspect,” to keep the focus on the victims, Cervera said.
Not naming the perpetrators of these shootings is becoming more common, often at the request of survivors.
In fact, in Dave Cullen’s nonfiction book Parkland, about the gun-reform movement that grew out of the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, the murderer is never mentioned.
Many shooting survivors, be they the wounded or family members of those killed, criticize the media for putting more attention on the perpetrator than those people killed or wounded.
“The only thing that I have to say negatively about the media [is that] our tragedy has become sort of like an opiate for them,” said Lori Alhadeff, the mother of Douglas High School student Alyssa, 14, who was killed in the shooting.
“They continue to glamorize the shooter. And I have a big problem with that. There should be no notoriety,” Alhadeff said. “You probably don't know what my daughter looks like, but you all know what the shooter looks like. Stop showing his picture. He should be a black box with an X on it. Stop saying his name.”
She said that while overall she has been treated well by the media, she wished journalists would focus on those killed, rather than the killer.
“Instead of saying the shooter's name, say, 'the killer of Alyssa Alhadeff.’ And then it brings people back — ‘Well, who's Alyssa Alhadeff?’ And we remember the victims instead of remembering the shooter,” she said.
Pat Maisch agrees. January 8, 2011, Maisch was waiting in line to meet United States Congresswoman Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords at a political event outside a Safeway grocery store in Tucson, Arizona. Instead, a young man obsessed with Giffords shot her in the head and then shot 19 others. Six people died that sunny Saturday morning, and 13 were wounded, including Giffords. Maisch is credited for grabbing the gunman’s extra magazine before he could reload. The gunman was tackled by two men, and is serving life in prison.
Maisch, who became a gun-reform activist after experiencing the Tucson shooting, said many survivors want every gunman’s name wiped out.
“You never say the names of the victims,” she criticized. “You're always saying the names of the perpetrator.”
Maisch added that many survivors also argue against using the word “shooter,” which might sound positive in the mind of someone violent or troubled.
“Call him ‘the perpetrator’ or ‘him’ … instead of ‘the shooter,’” she said. “You don't need to keep saying his name.”
Maisch also accused the media of giving too much attention to the perpetrators, named or not.
“They shouldn't say anything about him,” she said. “They should talk about the victims.”
She criticized an article about a court hearing in which an accused gunman was described in detail, down to his “fashionable sunglasses.”
“Who cares what the perpetrator wore to court?” she asked.
Alhadeff, of Parkland, said by focusing on the killers, the media glorifies the person wielding the deadly guns. She added that many gunmen do not care about their lives, which makes them untroubled by the possibility of getting killed during a violent encounter.
“So they'll say, 'Well, I'll go and shoot up a school and I [if I] kill myself like, whatever, I don't care. At least I'll kill other people and then I'll become famous,’” she said. “We have to stop that. And the media is the one that is creating this, this monster, and creating this glamorization of being a school shooter.”
If the media printed and said the name and focused on the people murdered, like her soccer-playing daughter Alyssa Alhadeff, it would help people to remember her, and also might make these shootings more real to everyone.
“I think it just, it helps to remember who was tragically taken,” she said. “Because I think we become so desensitized, desensitized to these shootings. It's become such a norm. And that's terrible to think that someone being shot is normal in this horrific way.”
After the Virginia Beach tragedy, the vice mayor became one more person shaken by another shooting.
“I don’t say I’m in shock,” Vice Mayor James Wood told the press. “I’m numbed.”
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June 7 is National Gun Violence Awareness Day. #WearOrange to honor victims and survivors of gun violence and show support for solutions to the gun violence epidemic.
Mary Tolan is a fiction writer and journalist. Her first published book Mars Hill Murder, a mystery set in Flagstaff, will be published by The Wild Rose Press in autumn of 2023.