In the wake of the deadly school shootings in Newtown, Conn., a newspaper publisher on the other side of the country — in Idaho of all places, where gun ownership is up there with life and liberty as a solemn human right — found himself with a disturbing sense of déjà vu.
John Pfeifer, publisher of the Times-News in Twin Falls, had been publisher of the Daily Chronicle in DeKalb, Ill., in 2008 when five students were shot to death at Northern Illinois University there. In the clamor for new gun-control laws then, he’d opined in a column: “This is a local tragedy in which students from our own university were murdered. Now is not the time to turn the shootings into a political debate.”
Last week, Pfeifer figured he needed urgently to tell his readers something else. For Friday’s paper, he and Editor Autumn Agar cleared the front page. Instead of the usual headlines, stories and photos, they ran simply a column by Pfeifer, along with the names of the victims of the Newtown shootings, under the headline: “It’s Complicated.”
Pfeifer told readers about the earlier piece he’d written in Illinois about the issue of mass shootings, about not making it political.
“I was firm. I was sincere. And I was wrong,” he wrote in Friday’s column. “Feb. 15, 2008, would have been a very, very good day to begin the debate.”
Pfeifer wrote about the “deeply troubling progression” he’d seen as a newspaperman in the response to the various mass shootings that have occurred since the attack in Illinois.
“Both local residents and then national leaders immediately proclaim the shootings to be ‘horrific,’ declare them to be ‘tragedies’ and issue statements implying some sort of national grief that Americans feel — or at least ought to feel. The president addresses local mourning friends and families, quotes comforting Biblical passages and attempts to turn our thoughts to those things that are truly important.
“And then a short 72 hours after each mass shooting, the fiscal realities of ‘real’ solutions are cited, monied interests re-stake old ground and elected officials on both sides of all mass-shooting issues shrug their shoulders and cry out in unison, 'It’s complicated,' " he wrote.
Well, it is complicated, he said.
“But with the president and his reelection committee having spent nearly $1 billion — and U.S. senators and representatives spending countless additional hundreds of million dollars — they may well have thought that they’d be called upon to address, and solve, complicated issues.”
This being Idaho, and Pfeifer being like most newsmen, steeped in the opaque waters of nuance, he suggested that ending gun violence wasn’t only about guns. It is also a mental health issue, he wrote, and a school security issue.
But he asserted: “It’s time to be honest with ourselves and see the deaths as frighteningly inevitable consequences of national inaction.”Agar said she had originally planned to run the column on the front page, but not as the front page. That was before she read it, though.
"As I was reading it, my heart started beating. The writing was good, the sentiment was powerful. Honestly, I thought it was one of the best things I'd read in a long time. I said, 'I want to give it the whole front page,' " Agar told the Los Angeles Times.
She sent it to the copy desk chief, and they debated what photo might be appropriate, before deciding that the words spoke more eloquently than any heart-wrenching photo possibly could.
The page went to press, and only then did Agar start worrying.
"It’s too late to do anything about it, but not too late to cause me to lose sleep all night," she told Pfeifer in an email.
Pfeifer, perhaps wisely, was already on a plane to Wisconsin for the holidays.
The reaction, though, has been mostly thoughtful.
“I’ve probably gotten 20 or so emails from readers. I’d say they’re running kind of 50-50,” Pfeifer said.
"Unless we speak up and solve this issue, we can all look into the mirror the next time a mass shooting happens," one reader wrote on the newspaper's website.
"Hogwash ... The knee-jerk response of the witless is let's pass a law to take all those guns away from their law-abiding owners," wrote another.
“I don’t feel like in anything I said I jumped off the bridge in terms of advocating some strict control of guns or anything," Pfeifer said. "I put it in the context of school security and mental health, but as you point out, it’s Idaho, so some of the comments are, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ ”
On the other hand, Pfeifer feels like maybe he got people to thinking, which was the point to begin with. “A lot of emails were long, six-, eight-, 10-paragraph things that caused me to think they had thought it through, and maybe used what I wrote as a way of crystalizing their own thoughts about that,” he said. “Even if I disagreed with their conclusion.”