The haunting job of covering America’s mass shootings

When I awoke two weeks ago to the news of yet another mass shooting at yet another LGBTQ club in yet another American city, the first thing I felt was my heart sink.

I looked at my husband asleep next to me, visualized my brother and his boyfriend, and thought of all the friends I have spent countless nights with in queer bars just like Club Q in Colorado Springs.

The second thing I felt was a familiar rush of adrenaline — the kind that comes whenever I know I’m about to dive, headfirst, into the unstoppable wave of trauma such shootings set into motion.

FBI and local police outside an LGBTQ nightclub.

FBI and local police outside Club Q, an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs.

(RJ Sangosti / Denver Post via Getty Images)

I quickly weighed my emotional reserves, took a deep breath, and sent a message to my editors at The Times with a link to an early Associated Press piece about the shooting, an estimate for how long it would take me to get to Colorado Springs, and a simple question: “You want me to go?”

For the last 15 years, covering America’s mass shootings has been part of my job as a reporter. I can’t recall all the shootings I’ve covered, or the victims I’ve talked to, but I remember most. They have a way of staying with you.

In 2007, when I was a college kid working for the student newspaper at the University of Maryland, I traveled to Virginia Tech to cover the campus shooting that killed 32 there. I listened to fellow students tell of the horror and wondered, justifiably and naively, if it would be the worst thing I ever covered in my career.

In 2018, as a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, I had to write a story on deadline about a shooting that killed five people at our sister paper, the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md., as colleagues sitting next to me, who knew the victims well, cried at their desks and continued working.

Earlier this year, I traveled for The Times to cover the fatal shooting of 19 elementary school kids and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas. When you look a mother in the eyes as she holds out a photo of her just-murdered 10-year-old daughter, both of their faces get seared into your brain.

I’ve always heard that moments of heightened emotion make for vivid memories, and it’s certainly not easy to forget what the devastation of sudden, senseless murder looks like up close. Sometimes I think more people, including policymakers, should see it too.

Sometimes I wonder, as well, whether this haunting job of responding to America’s mass shootings — counting the dead, telling their stories, profiling the shooters and asking how it can all keep happening — is really all for nothing. Because nothing is what always happens after.

Joshua Thurman reacts the morning after a mass shooting at Club Q.

Joshua Thurman of Colorado Springs reacts the morning after the mass shooting at Club Q.

(Jason Connolly / AFP via Getty Images)

But then I get a call like Joshua Thurman’s.

I’d met Thurman, briefly, at the memorial outside Club Q the day after the shooting. He had been in the club when the shooter opened fire, was devastated and crying in spurts and didn’t want to talk. But he took my card.

He called me about a week and a half later. He said he’d just gotten his phone back, after having left it in the club, which was still a crime scene. He said he had saved my card and was thankful for it, because he had something to say.

“I want to tell my story. I want people to see my pain. I want people to know we are still here,” he told me. “We may be knocked down, we may be bruised, we may be hurt, you may have taken our loved ones, our friends, our family, but this is not the end for us.”

‘Keep telling it’

As I drove toward Club Q the morning after the shooting, not sure what I’d find there, my phone pinged with a message on my big family text chain.

My gay brother Conor had texted a link to a story about the shooting, with three of those cursing-face emojis. My husband Aaron quickly texted that I was driving toward the scene to cover the shooting, so I wouldn’t be reading the texts immediately.

“Right on, KevRec!” my mother texted, using my family nickname, as others in my LGBTQ-affirming family chimed in with their support too.

When I neared Club Q, I saw mourners gathering along the street and turned into a parking spot. Before I got out of the car, I looked down at my phone and saw my family’s messages.

They buoyed me.

I have covered a lot of horrible things, including the other, far more prevalent kind of gun violence in this country — the kind that kills one or two people at a time, in street shootings with handguns, and amounts to a steady drip of death that far surpasses the torrent during mass shootings.

I’ve also covered natural disasters, house fires and other freak accidents that have killed people too soon and devastated those left behind.

Mass shootings are different.

Mass shootings have the power to devastate everyone in a community at once, like a natural disaster, but they are also the result of human choice. The two are hard to accept together.

People who experience mass shootings understand this, but I don’t know if others in the country do: Assault-style weapons like AR-15s turn angry young men into tornadoes.

A man weeps at a vigil at All Souls Unitarian Church with others.

R.J. Lewis, center, attends a vigil at All Souls Unitarian Church with others, Sunday, Nov. 20, in Colorado Springs, Colo., following the fatal shooting at Club Q the night before.

(RJ Sangosti / Denver Post via AP)

I talked to people who had lost friends. People who were mourning Club Q as a safe space. People who were there just to show solidarity with the queer community. People who were sad but also pissed off — angry that intolerance and gun violence persist in this country, often in tandem.

After hours of talking to people, many in tears, I saw a man who looked to be about my age, crying deeply on the ground in front of an embankment of flowers. A woman he didn’t know knelt by his side, comforting him.

I’ve had plenty of people tell me it is shameful to try, as a journalist, to talk to people in such situations. I’ve had more people than that thank me for approaching them — for bearing witness.
The pair stood and started to walk away. I approached. The woman — the comforter — told me it was “too soon.” I backed off.

Later, I saw the same mourner sitting away from the memorial. He had calmed down but was still crying. I approached him again as an unexpected lump formed in my throat.

I told him I didn’t mean to bother him. I told him I am gay, and wanted to tell the story of Club Q as best I could, from the perspective of those most affected. I handed him my card and told him to call me if he ever wanted to share any thoughts — or even just wanted to talk.

He stood up, stepped forward, and pulled me into a big, strong hug.

A woman cries at a cross for victims.

A woman cries at a cross for one of the victims of the Club Q shooting.

(Jack Dempsey / Associated Press)

As I left the memorial that night, I was emotionally drained, chilled to the bone from standing outside and deeply thankful that this time, for this shooting, I wouldn’t be staring at the blank wall of a hotel room all night.

When I got to my brother Reid’s house in town, I wasn’t sure if my four little nieces would know why I was there. But Reid and my sister-in-law Bridget had figured out a way to tell them.

Sometimes kids can understand hate, and name it, even better than we can.

“I made this for you,” my oldest niece said almost as soon as I’d walked in the door — handing me a little square canvas, painted in all the colors of the rainbow.

When I got in bed that night, in the guest room just across the hall from my younger nieces’ bedroom, I read back through the family chat. Reid had sent links to a couple stories I had contributed to, including from the memorial.

Underneath one, my dad had responded.

“Keep telling it, Kevin.”

‘Humanity comes first’

I can’t cover a mass shooting anymore without thinking about the Capital shooting in 2018, where journalists weren’t just covering the story, but were the story.

I think mostly about Phil Davis.

Phil Davis, a reporter who survived the mass shooting at the Capital Gazette newspaper

Phil Davis, a reporter who survived the mass shooting at the Capital Gazette newspaper, speaks at the dedication of a new memorial to the five victims on June 28, 2021, the third anniversary of the attack.

(Brian Witte / Associated Press)

The news that a shooter had barged into the Capital’s newsroom and shot several people first broke on Twitter, where those who had been in the room — including Davis, then a Capital crime reporter — were posting information.

At the time, I was a crime reporter at The Baltimore Sun, which owned the Capital. I still remember an editor walking over to my desk and assigning me the task of anchoring our story about the shooting, which would be posted to both the Sun’s and the Capital’s websites.

After the first version of the story posted, people who found it on the Capital website began emailing me from all over — some with vicious anti-media remarks and others with hyper-political diatribes about guns — before the dead had even been named.

I tuned it out, tried to focus on honoring my fallen colleagues, hated the world for its cruelty.

Davis was one of the first people I got on the phone. I repeatedly told him how sorry I was as he described what had occurred.

“I’m a police reporter. I write about this stuff — not necessarily to this extent, but shootings and death — all the time,” Davis told me that day. “But as much as I’m going to try to articulate how traumatizing it is to be hiding under your desk, you don’t know until you’re there and you feel helpless.”

When I decided to write this piece, to try to articulate what it’s like to cover this endless American horror show, I thought again of Davis, who later became a colleague at The Sun.

I told him about receiving Thurman’s call, and about the hug I’d gotten at the Club Q memorial, and about my feeling slightly unsure about it all.

Capital Gazette reporters Pat Furgurson, center, and Chase Cook hug at a makeshift office

In this Thursday, June 28, 2018 photo, Capital Gazette reporters Pat Furgurson, center, and Chase Cook hug at a makeshift office in a parking garage of a mall in Annapolis, Md., during coverage of the fatal shootings.

(Thalia Juarez/AP)

Journalists are taught to see themselves as outside observers, never impacted by what they are seeing and chronicling. Davis, now a special projects editor at the Baltimore Business Journal, said he used to believe that staunchly — to think that “journalists are better off as mirrors, and mirrors just reflect what’s happening.”

But that doesn’t serve anyone, he said. Not when what you are trying — pretending — to be emotionless about is mass murder.

“It’s literally in our brains to try to help out others who are in need,” he said. “To work against that in times of extreme tragedy is less a reflection of humanity and ends up making us look more like robots.”

Having survived a mass shooting, and having experienced the wave of media attention that follows, Davis said journalists responding to such tragedies should be taking a much different tack.

“Just ask what they need,” he said.

Some will need to talk, or borrow a cell phone to make a call, or get a ride somewhere. And maybe, along the way, they’ll give that powerful quote.

“We need to do a better job of just being like, ‘You know what? Humanity comes first in any situation where there are a bunch of dead people,’” Davis said.

A call back

I left Colorado Springs that Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, ready to get home and give my husband a big hug. I turned off my work phone, made a pecan pie, and tried to stop thinking about Club Q.

I knew it was a privilege those who had lost loved ones and friends, or who were sitting in hospital beds with bullet wounds, did not have and felt guilty about that.

After the holiday weekend, I realized I had a missed call and voicemail from a Colorado number.

Justice Lord is comforted by a friend at a makeshift memorial.

Justice Lord is comforted by a friend at a makeshift memorial near Club Q on Nov. 20.

(Helen H. Richardson / Denver Post via Getty Images)

Justice Lord, 38, is transgender, Native American, works in construction and remodeling, and used to be a bouncer at Club Q.

He was the one who’d hugged me at the memorial.

That day, the weight of the shooting — which claimed the lives of two of Lord’s friends, bartenders Daniel Aston and Derrick Rump — was banging around in Lord’s brain and bursting back out in sobs as he sat on the ground near the flowers.

“Number one, I lost friends. Number two, that could have been me. Number three, am I safe anywhere in this world being who I am? Is it ever going to stop? Is anyone ever going to do anything?” he recalled thinking.

He was also feeling a deep frustration, he said, that it had taken a massive tragedy for the local LGBTQ community to really come together.

Lord said Club Q was absolutely a safe space and one he loved deeply. But he also said the Colorado Springs queer community, like those across the country, has struggled with internal racism and prejudice, particularly against trans people of color such as him.

That, Lord said, has been a missing part of the story of what the local LGBTQ community has been reckoning with since the shooting. And it shouldn’t be. He said he has joined a group of LGBTQ leaders in Colorado Springs who have been trying since the shooting to form a new coalition of queer people to build out resources for everyone in the community.

Bouquets and a sign reading "Love Over Hate" are left near Club Q.

Flowers and a sign reading “Love Over Hate” are left near Club Q.

(Jason Connolly / AFP via Getty Images)

I told Lord that I would try to get that information into a story, and he thanked me.

I also asked him why he had hugged me that day, and why he had decided to call me.

Lord said he hugged me because he saw me, a gay man who wasn’t hiding the fact that a mass shooting at a queer bar was upsetting, as just another person in pain that day.

“I felt the hurt in your voice,” he said.

Lord said he had called, after carrying my card around in his pocket for days after, because of something I’d said.

“I called you basically because you said, ‘Even if you just want to talk…,’ and that made me feel more personable toward you than I have to many people here,” Lord said.

He said he and the others in the new coalition are working on a memorial to honor the dead and wounded from Club Q — a sort of “Pride Rock,” a beacon of hope for everyone in the local queer community.

He said he’d save my number, as a friend, and invite me to cover it when it all comes together.

I told him I’d be there.

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-12-04/covering-american-mass-shootings The haunting job of covering America’s mass shootings

Alley Einstein

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