The two communities are 800 miles apart, but after the events of May 24, the small South Texas town and Northeast Arkansas’ largest city are members of an ever-growing group, one that no one in either city would have asked to join.
Though there are marked differences in the tragic events that have now inextricably linked Jonesboro, Uvalde, and many other U.S. communities, the same horrifying basic facts underlie them. That is, young males took guns to schools and murdered students and teachers with no readily apparent reason.
In Jonesboro’s case, as most of us know all too well, in March of 1998, two Westside Middle School students stole guns from the house of one of the pair’s grandfather and lured their schoolmates outside by pulling a fire alarm. As children and teachers were exiting the building and walking outside, they were silhouetted against the gym wall and the two shooters, aged 11 and 13, opened fire from the nearby woods, killing four students and a teacher and wounding 10 other students. It was a fiendishly clever plan, remarkably sophisticated but simple, and tragically lethal. Had sheriff’s deputies not encountered and arrested them on the road from which they planned to drive away in a van belonging to one boy’s mother, the casualties could have been higher.
At Uvalde, an 18-year-old student of the school system shot his grandmother, took her vehicle and headed to the school armed with a rifle and plenty of ammunition to murder students. He walked in the elementary school through an unlocked door, shot 19 students and two teachers to death before police shot and killed him. What his plan — if indeed he had formulated one — lacked in sophistication was exceeded by the casualty count.
As is always the case in mass murder events, reporters and photographers — those from the in-state media and the national news outlets — swarm the city. By the end of the week, media and law enforcement were already at odds over discrepancies in information released at various times in the first two days about the event timeline and the police response.
CNN’s Brian Seltzer said the initial confusion and release of incorrect information has erased any common ground because some people will believe the initial information, others will accept the corrected version of events and still others will reject it all.
What helped law enforcement during the Westside tragedy and its aftermath was local law enforcement asked the Arkansas State Police to send its media specialist, Bill Sadler, to handle the release of information from law enforcement.
Those of us who were reporting the story were of course free to utilize our own sources, dig for our own information and develop our own. As a member of the Jonesboro Sun’s staff at the time, I understood the directions editor and publisher John Trout Jr. gave us. We were to get it right, first and foremost, but we also had to be fair, complete and ethical.
We had to own the story because the horrendous crime happened in our backyard, but also we had to remember that next week or next month or next year, long after the satellite trucks and nationally known faces rolled out of town to the next tragedy, we’d still live here.
One more factor that perhaps was not as important to the out-of-towners was that John made us understand there were not 15 victims of the shooting, telling us that “everybody is in pain.” He wrote an editorial on that point. It was titled “We All Hurt.”
The media circus, camped out in front of the Craighead County Jail where the two shooters were held, seemed to get larger every day and lasted for weeks. By The Freedom Forum’s count, more than 70 U.S. and foreign news organizations assigned some 200 reporters, photographers and support staff to Jonesboro to cover the Westside shootings.
I’m not certain how long the national reporters will be interested in the story in Uvalde, in part because the shooter is deceased and there will be no criminal court proceedings against him. Another factor I believe is the mid-term elections. Most Republicans, backed by the NRA and others, will position themselves against new gun control legislation and most Democrats will favor measures such as bans of so-called assault rifles and universal background checks for gun owners.
In what may be a preview of the battle between the left and right sides of the aisle, Senate Republicans blocked a bill passed by the House called the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act. The bill, which failed to clear the Senate on a 47-47 vote, would have created three offices in the FBI and the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security to track and examine cases of potential domestic terrorism. The legislation would have directed the new government offices to document and report on domestic terrorism with a special focus on white supremacy and neo-Nazi groups, and force the Pentagon and federal law enforcement to expel white supremacists from their payrolls.
However, a growing number of Republicans in the Senate appear receptive to conversations about separate gun control policy after 31 Americans were shot to death in mass shootings in less than one month.
It will be interesting to see what, if anything, the two houses of Congress pass, especially if they pass it before November.
Editor’s note: Paul Holmes is editor-at-large for Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics. He can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed are those of the author.