Does the reporting of the Appalachian Law School shootings demonstrate a bias against guns?

The centrepiece of Lott's The Bias Against Guns is the story he tells about the shootings at the Appalachian Law School. According to Lott, after killing three people Peter Odighizuwa was almost out of ammunition and was on his way to his car to get more when he was confronted by two armed students, Tracy Bridges and Mikael Gross. When Bridges aimed his gun at Odighizuwa Odighizuwa dropped his gun and was tackled by students. Lott opines that Bridges and Gross "undoubtedly saved many lives". Lott says that the biased media mostly suppressed this story, with only four stories out of 208 in the week afterwards mentioning that the students were armed. He also tells us that he spoke to reporter after reporter who knew about Bridges and Gross' actions but did not report them.

Lott's claims were picked up by others, with commentators such as Larry Elder, James Eaves-Johnson and Donny Ferguson all seeing it as proof of media bias. In a Houston Law Review article Eric Luna thought it demonstrates

the willingness of certain individuals or groups to skirt the truth or disregard all other considerations when issues of guns and gun control are at stake.

Unfortunately, Lott's counting methodology is flawed, his count missed half of the stories that mentioned the armed students, his version of what happened deliberately omits important facts and omits contradictory accounts from other eye witnesses and his version contains details that appear to have been invented by Lott.

First, let's check Lott's work in counting news stories.

I did my own search on Factiva of all the stories appearing in the week following the shootings. I found eight stories (twice as many as Lott found) that mentioned the students having a gun. Next, in his 208 stories, Lott has counted the same stories over and over again. Many papers printed the Associated Press story by Chris Kahn and Lott has counted it each time it appeared. He has also counted stories about completely different aspects of the matter---there is no reason for a story about one of the funerals to have mentioned a defender's gun.

To address this problem I did my own count by reporter (so all stories by a particular reporter were only counted once), and only counted stories that mentioned how Odighizuwa had been apprehended.

The result? 28 different reporters wrote about the shootings and 8 mentioned the defender's gun. There was also a striking pattern---stories on the 17th of January (the first day of coverage) tended not to mention a defender's gun, whereas later stories did. In fact, four of the reporters who did mention a gun later also wrote stories on the 17th of January which did not mention the gun. Clearly those reporters did not leave out the gun in their first story because of a bias against guns---they simply did not know about it yet.

If you examine stories written on the 18th of January or later, there are ten stories, six of them mentioning a gun. That leaves only four stories that might have been expected to mention a defender's gun. Let's look at each of them:

  1. Mike Oduniyi All Africa News
    This story seems to have been written for Africa News because Odighizuwa was Nigerian. Oduniyi looks to have written his story from the news stories of 17 Jan and doesn't seem to have talked to anyone himself. No evidence that Oduniyi knew about a defender's gun.
  2. Alfonso A. Castillo. Newsday
    This story was about the murdered dean. Castillo just mentions in passing the police report of how Odighizuwa was apprehended. No evidence that Castillo knew about a defender's gun.
  3. Paul Dellinger Roanoke Times & World News
    This story was about the memorial service. Dellinger talked to Mikael Gross about one of the murder victims and identified Gross as one of the students who tackled Odighizuwa. No evidence that Dellinger knew about a defender's gun.
  4. Maria Glod The Washington Post
    Talked to Gross about the shootings. Did not mention that he was armed.

So there's your bias. One reporter who didn't mention the defender's gun when she probably should have. Maybe she is biased, but you can't conclude that from just one example.

Now let's look at the facts Lott deliberately left out of his account of what happened: Rick Montgomery in an article in the Kansas City Star wrote:

The Star recently interviewed two students involved---Bridges and Besen. They gave differing accounts.

Bridges repeated that he pointed his weapon at Odighizuwa and ordered the suspect to put his own down, which he did.

According to Besen, the first student to tackle the suspect, nothing of the sort happened. He said Odighizuwa set down the gun and raised his arms---"like he was mocking everyone: ha, ha, what are you going to do now?"---before the students confronted him.

The two armed students had not yet arrived at the scene, Besen said: "Peter had no knowledge anyone had a gun."

Virginia State Police confirmed Odighizuwa's weapon was empty by then.

Police spokesman Stater said the armed students did assist after Besen and another student, Todd Ross, tackled the gunman. Bridges sat on the suspect while Gross, also armed, provided handcuffs he had gotten from his car.

But to Stater's view, the biggest heroes were Besen and Ross---the unarmed men who lunged at Odighizuwa.

Alas, they weren't the focus of attention when a writer and photographer for an NRA magazine came to the campus to interview the armed students.

Bridges said they took his picture; NRA spokesman Gregory said, "It was nobody from our staff."

It's all gotten way too political for Besen.

"I'm a gun advocate, but it really irritates me that people are trying to use this as a (political) plug," he said. "The NRA is minimizing the tragedy that happened here. I don't appreciate it."

Lott is well aware of these facts because he selectively quotes from this very article. He knew that Besen contradicted Bridges account but did not mention this fact at all

And not only does he deliberately suppress inconvenient facts, he invents new ones to make his argument more compelling. Even though the Kansas City Star and many other stories report that Odighizuwa's gun was empty, Lott specifically claims that Odighizuwa was not out of ammunition. That lets him claim that armed citizens "undoubtedly" saved many lives.

Lott also prints a quote from Kent Markus, taken from a Legal Times article:

"The gun lobby, without much sensitivity or attention, has distorted what actually happened for their own political benefits, I think it is a shameful exploitation of a tragedy."

Lott writes:

"However, when I called up Markus to find out exactly which facts he was referring to, he was unable to provide me with any details."

I contacted Markus to find out if Lott had accurately reported their conversation. Like everyone else who I have contacted about conversations reported by Lott, Markus informed me that Lott had greatly distorted what was said. Markus actually told Lott exactly what facts he was referring to---that witnesses had told him that Odighizuwa was disarmed before the armed students returned. He also refused to tell Lott the names of the witnesses because he felt that they had suffered enough unwanted attention and he did not want Lott badgering them. Presumably this refusal was translated into Lott-speak as "unable to provide me with any details".

So again we see that Lott was well aware that Bridges story about using his gun to disarm Odighizuwa was in dispute, but he did not mention this.

This also explains why the stories drafted on 17th January did not mention the armed students---none of the other witnesses were aware of their guns, either because their guns played no role in the story, or all of these witnesses somehow did not notice them.

This isn't the first time that Lott has omitted important details of this story to help his argument. In his original op-ed on the shootings Lott left out the fact that the students were police officers.

The tale Lott spins: "Armed citizens save many lives; media suppresses this fact" seems to resonate with pro-gunners and many seem to accept it, turning off their powers of scepticism. Trouble is, his tale isn't true.

My thanks to Tom Maguire for sending me the link to the Kansas City Star article and prompting this investigation.

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