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Editorial: The line between honoring tragedy victims and talking policy

Having conversations about horrendous situations, like the unprecedented mass shooting at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, is harrowing business — but arguably necessary. We know the situation by now — 58 people killed with over 500 injured. This violent act has been described as the worst shooting in modern United States history, and it came with no warning.

In the days following a massacre, the American public does some things very well in reaction. Community members line up to donate blood — sometimes, so much that local blood banks can restore their stock without missing a beat in the care of those injured in the attack. Vigils and memorials are held. Millions of dollars have been donated to relief efforts, through several organizations. For example, one Kickstarter campaign raised over $10 million for victims of the Las Vegas shooting.

The Scarlet & Gray Free Press, a student-led newspaper based in the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) printed an extensive, tribute-focused edition of their paper on Oct. 9. Its front page read “#VegasStrong: Resilient in the Face of Tragedy.” Over 30 pages of content were printed, including a three-page spread featuring each victim, witness accounts, special tributes to UNLV community members affected and how the larger Las Vegas community was responding.

The tone was, sometimes, very different in other communities. Mere days after the tragedy, conversations of gun policy and heavily-bipartisan debates began. While the Scarlet & Gray Free Press did publish some discussion about policy, these pieces were slim and farther into the edition. The focus was undeniably on the victims and community.

Other news sources have honored victims, in tandem with policy talk. Several hosts disagreed about this issue, claiming that now is the not the time to talk about gun control, and declined to make political comments.  

We need to ask ourselves — when is the appropriate time to zoom out? Who makes that decision? There is a clear distinction between the coverage of tragedies by directly affected communities and the coverage from geographically-removed news outlets. This disconnect inspires tension and uncomfortable arguments about timing, and how to balance honoring victims and talking about policy.

Without doubt, affected communities must be allowed a grace period. Right now, the people of Las Vegas need time to tend to victims — those who were at the concert, and those who were not but who were impacted, mentally and emotionally. This grace period should be politically silent, until the community is back on its feet and looking to the future.

On that same note, the conversation must happen eventually. In the wake of past tragedies, several of them notable gun tragedies like the Las Vegas shooting, discussions echoed the same “not now” tone. We haven’t determined when “not now” turns to “now.” In the stasis that follows, we risk another tragedy without so much as a glimpse at what can be done toward prevention. There is real danger of continuing a cycle here — covering tragedy with silence about politics, and then falling into another tragedy.

It’s uncomfortable to talk about policy around these issues. It’s devastating to think about the families undoubtedly still reeling from the events that transpired earlier this month. Regardless, something has to be done so we know, as a nation, how to respond to these situations to reach the best possible outcome. We already have charity and national support under our belts — it’s time to understand mourning with respect to communities, and when it’s time to push toward the next step of policy and prevention.

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