- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers.

The (Eugene) Register-Guard, Oct. 7, on naming the Roseburg killer

Suppose no one had ever heard the names Adam Lanza, James Holmes, Dylann Roof and Kip Kinkel. Would anyone be hearing the name Chris Harper-Mercer now? That’s the question at the root of calls for the media and others to decline to identify the perpetrator of last week’s massacre at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg. The impulse to deny a killer the recognition he evidently sought is understandable, but ultimately misguided. The man who pulled the trigger had a name, a face and a past that cannot be ignored.

Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin was the first to suggest that the UCC gunman be consigned to anonymity. “I will not name the shooter,” Hanlin said at a news conference last Thursday. “I will not give him the credit he probably sought prior to this horrific and cowardly act.” The hashtag #forgetthezero soon echoed and amplified the sentiment. The website NoNotoriety.com began a campaign against the publication or broadcast of names or photographs of mass killers even before the UCC rampage.

Strong evidence suggests that the UCC killer was indeed seeking fame, or rather infamy. “A man who was known to no one, is now known by everyone,” Harper-Mercer wrote in one blog post. “His face splashed across every screen, his name across the lips of every person on the planet, all in the course of one day. Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.”

So maybe it was earlier examples - including Lanza, killer of 26 at a school in Newtown, Conn.; Holmes, killer of nine at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.; Roof, killer of nine in a Charleston, S.C., church, and Kinkel, killer of his parents and two fellow students at Thurston High School in Springfield - that motivated Harper-Mercer. And maybe Harper-Mercer’s example at UCC will in turn plant the seed for future mass murders.

It’s not enough to point out that expecting killers to remain unnamed is impractical. In an age of Twitter and Facebook, Harper-Mercer’s name would have become known even if police and the media had formed an airtight pact of secrecy. But the fact that information is not easily suppressed is not a sufficient reason to reject the demand that responsible officials and media decline to participate in disseminating the names and photos of mass murderers. The fact that not all channels of communication can be closed does not in itself justify keeping all of them open to information about killers.

To justify the publication and broadcast of the names of such criminals as Lanza, Holmes, Roof, Kinkel and now Harper-Mercer, it is necessary to argue that on balance, the public interest is better served by making this information known. That argument can be made in two ways.

The first way is by imagining the results of an effective blackout. Suppose everyone joined Hanlin in refusing to name the UCC killer, and little or nothing was known about him beyond the fact that he died at the scene. The result would be a vacuum that would quickly be filled with speculation ranging from the laughable to the bizarre to the malicious. In the absence of a clearly identified perpetrator, people would suppose the killer to be just about anyone, with unpopular social, political and ethnic groups bearing the brunt of suspicion. If people were kept in the dark about the identity of the guilty party, they’d project their fears upon many innocents.

The second way is to consider what is gained by informing the public of killers’ identities. Once Harper-Mercer’s name became known, the range of possible motives or precipitating factors narrowed, removing a shadow from most people and influences. People could begin to seek rational explanations for an irrational act. They could look for clues about what led to a terrible crime, and start thinking about what might be done to prevent another one like it.

Such thinking has led some people to be concerned about copycat crimes - though it’s worth recalling that Harper-Mercer’s thirst for notoriety would not have been known if his identity had been kept under wraps. And unless every evildoer in the world could somehow be ignored, nobodies desperate to be somebodies will always find examples to follow.

The way to deny Harper-Mercer the attention he sought is not by pretending he didn’t exist, but by keeping him in context - a context that above all includes 16 dead and injured victims.

The man who ended or damaged those victims’ lives had a name, and a face, and a story that can’t be wished away, but must be confronted and understood.


Albany Democrat-Herald, Oct. 7, on naming the Roseburg killer

Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin has been in the spotlight lately for reasons that we wouldn’t wish on anybody: He’s the top law enforcement officer charged with investigating the horrible shootings last week on the Roseburg campus of Umpqua Community College.

He first drew national attention on Thursday, in the hours after the shooting, when he pointedly declined to name the shooter who killed nine and injured nine. The shooter, Christopher Harper-Mercer, committed suicide after exchanging gunfire with police.

“Let me be very clear, I will not name the shooter,” Hanlin said. “I will not give him the credit he probably sought prior to his horrific and cowardly act.”

The sheriff also encouraged reporters “not to glorify and create sensationalism for him. He in no way deserves it.”

We don’t disagree with the sheriff when he says that Mercer doesn’t deserve to be glorified.

And we understand Hanlin’s motivation in making his comments Thursday night, especially in the frenetic, emotional and horrifying hours after the shooting.

But there are reasons to identify Harper-Mercer, and they don’t involve trying to glorify him, not at all. Instead, identifying him starts the process of asking the hardest questions: Who is the person? Why did this happen? Could it have been prevented?

Ironically, not naming Harper-Mercer could be counterproductive: It lets the man hide behind that horrible phrase, “the shooter.” It might actually run the risk of somehow glamorizing him. Naming him is the first step in stripping that away. Let us cast the brightest light we can on the man and his life - again, not to glorify, but to try to understand what seems at first to be beyond our understanding.

On a related matter, Hanlin was attacked this week by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, an organization that called for the sheriff’s resignation because of what it termed his “extremist” views on gun rights. The president of the group said on Monday that people “need to trust that nothing is being presented or withheld because of one man’s extremist ideology.”

A couple of points on this: First, there’s not a shred of evidence that anything related to this case is being presented or withheld because of Hanlin’s views on gun rights, which seem to be shared by most voters in his county.

Hanlin has been a vocal opponent of gun control measures: He wrote a letter in 2013 to Vice President Joe Biden, saying he wouldn’t enforce gun restrictions that he regarded as unconstitutional - but many other sheriffs, including Tim Mueller, then the sheriff in Linn County, did the same. He also testified against a legislative proposal this year to expand background checks to cover private gun transfers - but his views on the matter were openly shared by other law enforcement officials, including the current Linn County sheriff, Bruce Riley.

Hanlin told reporters on Friday that his focus is “on getting this investigation completed and taking care of the victims and the victims’ families. Now is not an appropriate time to have those conversations.”

Douglas County voters will get a chance to assess the sheriff’s performance if he runs for re-election. Until then, the sheriff’s words should be the last ones heard on this matter.


The Oregonian, Oct. 2, on naming the Roseburg killer

With great ostentation, Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin stood in front of reporters in the midst of a nationally calamitous moment and announced what he wasn’t going to say.

“I will not name the shooter,” said Hanlin on Thursday, hours after a heavily-armed man had fatally shot nine people and wounded nine others at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg. “I will not give him the credit he probably sought prior to this horrific and cowardly act.” Hanlin continued, punctuating his statement with brief, dramatic pauses. “But you will never hear me mention his name.” He then urged the news media and community to avoid using the shooter’s name, saying it only glorifies his actions.

Hanlin’s motivations are understandable. There are few words to describe the devastation to families, communities and, once again, our sense of safety caused by such an act of violence. So refusing to say the shooter’s name to strip him of the celebrity he might have envisioned feels like a tiny victory in an ocean of loss.

But Hanlin’s insistence that he and his office will not utter the name of the shooter, identified by others as Chris Harper-Mercer, amounts to little more than grandstanding at a time that demands professional leadership. Selecting which facts to share is no way to build confidence in an investigation or to foster true debate - both of which are critical in any effort to stop what has become nauseatingly routine.

The investigation, led by Hanlin’s office, has only just begun. In press conferences, Hanlin has been urging anyone who might have tips relating to the shootings to call 1-800-CALL-FBI. But as a practical matter, how are people who may have valuable information about Harper-Mercer supposed to call if they never know that he was the shooter?

There is no doubt a mess of factors that contributed to Harper-Mercer’s murderous rampage and they deserve investigation to guide any public policy debates that emerge. Did mental illness play a part? How did he get his weapons? These are relevant, uncomfortable questions that, in Hanlin’s mind, may glorify the act, but in truth they only expose the complexity of the problems we face. Ignorance never makes us stronger. It only makes it easier to resort to tired rhetoric and the same failed proposals that ensure nothing ever changes.

Hanlin’s willingness to withhold public information in this instance also raises the question of what else he would keep confidential because it conflicts with his views. Hanlin, in 2013, authored a letter to Vice President Joe Biden, in which he pledged not to enforce any gun-control laws that he saw as unconstitutional. While Hanlin certainly wasn’t alone in his objections, the episode shows his willingness to let personal beliefs affect how he does his job.

Credibility and professionalism matter in such a high-stakes case as this. Like the murders of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, some people are already posting videos questioning the legitimacy of the shootings at Umpqua Community College. Hanlin’s selective information-sharing does not help that.

It is especially in these times of crisis, where, fear, anger and uncertainty are running high, that we need and expect our leaders to guide us. That comes through being transparent with information and showing professional judgment, not personal bias.


The (Bend) Bulletin, Oct. 6, on naming the Roseburg killer

When a shooting like the one in Roseburg happens, people want answers. One proposal is: Don’t name shooters. But it’s a flawed answer.

Some law enforcement officials, including Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin, have adopted a policy of not naming shooters. The media are encouraged not to name them or focus on their lives. The hope is it may limit the attention shooters get and provide less inspiration for others.

Of course, some shooters seek notoriety. A torrenting site account associated with the Roseburg gunman posted this after a shooting in Virginia: “I have noticed that so many people like him are all alone and unknown, yet when they spill a little blood, the whole world knows who they are.”

Media attention can also be riveted with the shooter rather than those who died or anyone who tried to stop the gunman.

But if the no-names policy is to be adopted, when should criminals or alleged criminals be named? If they are charged with driving under the influence? If they are charged with murder? If they are still at large? If they shoot more than one person? Should law enforcement just withhold the information? That’s a scary thought. Or should the media not print or broadcast it?

A training program at Texas State University promotes this idea of “Don’t Name Them.” It says “it’s simple but effective.” But there is actually no proof it is effective.

There are reasons to name the shooter and to explore his background. It helps the public understand what happened as well as warning signs. Just imagine the rumors and speculation that would circulate if the person was never identified.

Shooters are driven by a number of factors, according to researchers: notoriety, mental illness, anger, revenge and fear. What researchers can’t answer is how exactly mass killings could be stopped. Many things might help. Improved treatment of mental illness. Fewer rounds in magazines. Well-balanced media coverage. Those are better answers.


Baker City Herald, Oct. 5, on the Roseburg killings

President Obama, in talking about the man who shot and killed nine people Thursday morning at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, said the U.S. has “become numb” to mass shootings.

We disagree.

And we’re pretty sure Roseburg residents do too.

Nor do we concur with Mr. Obama’s description of the nation’s response to Thursday’s tragedy as “routine.”

He’s right, of course, that the situation is familiar, in the sense that it’s the latest in a series of such events.

But “routine” also implies that we are not as horrified, not as disgusted, by these awful episodes as we used to be.

We have seen no evidence of that.

Indeed what we saw, including from the president himself, was the righteous anger that any civilized society feels when such a catastrophe happens.

We agree with Mr. Obama that “our thoughts and prayers are not enough. It does not capture the heartache and grief and anger that we should feel. And it does nothing to prevent this carnage from being inflicted someplace else in America.”

The ultimate question, of course, is what would prevent such atrocities?

We don’t have an answer.

And although we don’t begrudge the president claiming that he does have an answer, we think he’s promising more than he, and more to the point any law, can deliver.

“We know that other countries, in response to one mass shooting, have been able to craft laws that almost eliminate mass shootings,” the president said Thursday. “Friends of ours, allies of ours - Great Britain, Australia, countries like ours. So we know there are ways to prevent it.”

Would that it were so.

In the aftermath of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, we posited that none of the gun control laws in effect then, and none of the proposed laws that well-meaning politicians, including Mr. Obama, endorsed, would in any meaningful way reduce the chances that mentally unbalanced people could procure a gun and ammunition.

As much as we wish otherwise, we believe this is still true.

To be clear, we’re not dismissing as impossible a legislative remedy, even a partial one, to this problem plaguing our nation.

Perhaps Congress can write, to borrow Mr. Obama’s phrase, “common-sense gun laws” which are constitutional and which would truly help, even in a small way, to sever that link between mentally ill people and guns.

(Preventing such people from getting other deadly weapons, of which there is of course a multitude, is another, equally vexing, dilemma.)

But we’d like to hear the president, when he speaks so passionately about this topic, talk about the killers, and not just about the weapons the killers wielded.

The ultimate source of every one of these events, after all, is a person with a diseased mind. These people pose a danger even if they never fire a gun.

As politically divisive as this issue is, there exist points of essentially universal agreement, among them that we need to identify people who should not have access to guns and, to the extent possible, ensure that they don’t have that access.

That is an immensely difficult task.

And although we respect the president’s belief about the powers of legislation, and we echo his anger at the depressing litany of disasters to which Umpqua Community College has been added, we don’t share his confidence that a solution awaits only his signature on a sheet of paper.


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