Three Things Mainstream Media Got Wrong about the Alexandria Attack

CNN, the New York Times, and others were guilty of erroneous, negligent reporting.
CNN, the New York Times, and others were guilty of erroneous, negligent reporting.web photo

As the news of Wednesday’s shooting that sent Sen. Steve Scalise, an aide, two capitol police officers and a lobbyist to the hospital and the attacker to the morgue, nearly everyone in front of a camera or keyboard had something to say about the tragic and senseless events that occurred on a Washington D.C.baseball field.

Unfortunately, several major media outlets and politicians repeated the same mistakes regarding guns and gun laws that are made after every high-profile shooting in the age of 24-hour news.

Here are some of the biggest reporting foul-ups:

1. The SKS rifle used in the attack is a Chinese-made AK-47 variant assault weapon.

The Reporting: In this story from Wednesday, CNN.com stated that "traces are still being done on the two firearms recovered at the scene—an SKS rifle 7.62 (which is a Chinese-made AK variant) and a 9mm pistol, a law enforcement source tells CNN."

This story from Mediaite.com says during the 11 p.m. Eastern hour on Wednesday night, correspondent Jessica Schneider used similar language in an on-air report: "A law enforcement source says two weapons were recovered at the scene — a SKS rifle, a Chinese-made AK variant that investigators believe was used in the shooting; and a nine millimeter pistol."

These details were repeated by numerous online and TV news outlets since.

The Truth: The SKS is not a variant of the fully automatic AK-47 assault rifle in any way. If anything, it's a predecessor to the AK, which it predates by a few years. The rifle was originally widely manufactured and issued by the Soviet Union during World War II. It was one of the first firearms chambered for the 7.62x39mm round, which is also used by the AK and a number of other firearms.

The SKS is and has always been a semi-automatic rifle and has never been considered an assault rifle, even by anti-gun advocates and legislation. It was not classified as an assault weapon under the expired 1994 Assault Weapon Ban (officially the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act). Even Sen. Diane Feinstein, a notorious gun control proponent, didn't include the SKS in her list of "assault weapons" that would have been banned under a gun control bill she proposed in 2013, according to Mediaite.com.

And, while a number of SKS rifles have been manufactured by the Chinese, certainly that can’t be made as a blanket statement. More than 15,000,000 SKS rifles have been manufactured since the Soviets started cranking them out in 1945. The Chinese made the Type 56, Yugoslavia produced the PAP M59/66 and M59/66A1. The Romanians and Albanians also produced versions of the rifle, along with East Germany, North Vietnam, North Korea, and Poland.

This information isn't secret. It's right on the wikipedia page for the SKS.

2. Virginia basically has no gun laws.

The Statements: in a series of tweets, David Frum, a senior editor at The Atlantic said on Wednesday at 8:50 a.m. and 8.54 a.m. the following:

“In view of reports of many, many shots, also worth noting No restrictions on large-capacity magazines.”

And

“Virginia: No background checks No licensing No registration No permit req’d for concealed carry of long guns Open carry long guns & handguns.”

The Truth: Virginia does have background checks. By federal law, a background check must be conducted by an FFL at the point of sale in every state—including Virginia. Most states use the NICS system, which is run by the FBI. Some states like Pennsylvania opt to use their own background check system.

David Frum, senior editor at *The Atlantic* tweeted some misleading information soon after the shooting.
David Frum, senior editor at The Atlantic tweeted some misleading information soon after the shooting.web photo

The state does not require background checks for private gun sales, just like many other states. This is irrelevant, as this story from ABC (which repeats the erroneous detail of the SKS being an "assault-style" weapon) says that the rifle and a Smith & Wesson 9mm handgun that was also recovered at the scene were both purchased by the attacker, James T. Hodgkinson, legally. The story also says he "is believed to have obtained a permit to carry a concealed weapon in approximately the last two months."

Hodgkinson is a resident of Illinois, not Virginia, and would have had to buy the firearms in his home state if they were purchased legally, and Illinois has fairly tight gun laws. It requires a firearms ID card and a state permit to purchase both long guns and handguns, and requires a license to carry and doesn’t recognize carry licenses from other states. All automatic firearms, short-barrel shotguns, and suppressors are prohibited.

Furthermore, Virginia does have specific restrictions pertaining to magazines in more populated areas like Alexandria, where the shooting took place. There, magazine capacities are limited to 20 rounds.

Frum says that Virginia allows concealed carry of long guns, which isn’t even a thing. Concealed carry of long guns, if even physically possible, is illegal in Virginia, regardless of permits.

That’s what happens when you tweet about things a few minutes after they happen. Frum was chided by many online for his poor timing.

3. Tighter gun laws in Virginia would have prevented the attack.

The Reporting: In this op-ed from* The New York Times*, the editorial board writes that Hodgkinson, whom it calls a sniper—though it does not seem the 66-year-old fired from any significant distance or from cover with accuracy—would have been foiled if not for the ease with which guns and ammo can be purchased in the U.S.

“Was this attack evidence of how readily available guns and ammunition are in the United States? Indisputably. Mr. Hodgkinson, by definition, should not have had a gun, but he was licensed in his home state, Illinois. And in any event it would have been easy for him to acquire a weapon in Virginia, which requires no background checks in private sales, requires no registration for most weapons and has few restrictions on open carry.”

The Truth: Hodgkinson, while having some arrests on his record, had never been convicted of a felony, which is required for someone's Second Amendment rights to be stripped. The only other signs he showed of being unstable, that been reported so far, is a habit of posting leftist, anti-Trump sentiments online. He was also a Bernie Sanders volunteer during the 2016 campaign, so those types of posts weren't exactly out of character.

In hindsight, knowing what he intended, of course it can be said the attacker should not have had a gun, but the law is not pre-cognitive, and the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled against the concept of prior restraint, or laws can punish people in an effort to prevent them from committing a crime. Legally, you can’t punish someone until they’ve done something wrong.

Hodgkinson had a clean record, as far as the NICS system and mental health checks are concerned, and that is proven by the fact that he legally purchased his firearms in Illinois. There have been no reports saying if he purchased them through an FFL or via a private sale, but regardless, he would have had to pass similar if not more intense background and mental health checks to obtain his Illinois concealed carry permit, which the Times confirms he had.

And while private sales are legal and don't require a background check in Virginia, that only counts if both parties live in Virginia, by federal law. If an out-of-state resident wishes to privately purchase a gun in Virginia, it must be done through an FFL transfer, which requires a NICS check. If someone in Virginia had privately sold Hodgkinson a gun, which did not happen, it would have been an illegal sale.

Additionally, while some states require handguns to be registered, very few states require blanket gun registration that includes long guns.