A One-Sided Report on North Carolina Gun Violence
The Charlotte Observer built a narrative on gun crime that relies almost exclusively on police and prosecutors, ignores the violence of incarceration, and offers zero non-carceral solutions.
The public’s perception of crime is often significantly out of alignment with the reality. This is caused, in part, by frequently sensationalist, decontextualized media coverage. Media Frame seeks to critique journalism on issues of policing and prisons, challenge the standard media formulas for crime coverage, and push media to radically rethink how they inform the public on matters of public safety.
A recent series of articles, published in the Charlotte Observer, lays out a detailed and sprawling narrative of a criminal legal system that has become too lenient and prosecution-shy.
The article features several families, whose loved ones were victims of gun violence, and traces the gun-related criminal history of those convicted of their murder. Those killed, the piece reads, “might have been alive today if those accused in their killings had been convicted on previous gun charges.”
It promises all the trappings of Serious Journalism: It is very long—10,000 words and in four parts. It is data-driven, relies on hundreds of primary documents, and contains detailed interviews and original reporting.
But it fails to execute on its promise. The report is deeply unbalanced, elevating only pro-carceral and law enforcement voices. It suggests under-resourced prosecutors and police pose more harm than incarceration itself, not to mention the social and structural barriers that beget violence. And most of all, it is nothing new: It perpetuates the soft-on-crime framing that accompanied—and enabled—the rise of mass incarceration.
First, almost every one of the experts the article cites is—or works for—a police officer or a prosecutor. Excluding victims, victims groups, witnesses, and arrestees, 18 of the 21 people interviewed in the article are either police, former police, district attorneys, former district attorneys, or Republican elected officials. The only academic quoted in the piece, Alan Lizotte, offers three, pro-carceral lines on why the current gun laws are too weak. The article quotes a public defender, too, but he mostly says that more funding is needed.
No pro-reform voices, advocates, or critics appear in the story. While the article’s sub-headline indicates that reporters spoke with “violent crime experts,” the ones featured in the article appear heavily invested in the continuation and expansion of the current tough-on-crime prosecutorial regime. “If there’s no penalty, why would they stop?” former state Rep. Bill Brawley told the Observer, of those who commit crime.. “They’re felons. They won’t respect the law. What they’ll respect is going to jail.”
Second, when the problem of gun crime is examined through the eyes of law enforcement only, the solutions to the problem are unsurprisingly myopic. Those interviewed in the piece believe the answer lies with “tougher laws” and more resources for police and prosecutors. The well-documented idea that gun violence could be prevented or deterred by investing in resources into health clinics, anti-poverty programs, recreation centers, schools, public parks, or other public services that improve community ties and increase standards of living is never explored.
Mario McGill, a man whose legal situation was detailed in the report, was repeatedly arrested for violent and nonviolent gun crimes. But the district attorney often dismissed the weapons charges. Is it possible that McGill’s arrest record is not proof that prosecutors need to push harder, but rather that arrests, incarceration, and prosecution lead to more crime? What if McGill had been met throughout his life with social services and non-carceral support rather than petty gun charges? The reporters don’t attempt to grapple with these questions, instead framing a social phenomenon as a series of individual moral failings.
Third, a nuanced report would acknowledge that the violence and harm of crime does not end with a prison sentence. Gun violence has very real human consequences, as the article documents in great detail: Families suffer; sons, mothers, and friends are lost; and communities understandably demand justice for these killings. But long prison sentences routinely called for by those in the article also carry great human cost: Multiple studies have shown that pretrial detention leads to greater recidivism, as individuals are dislocated from their communities and families. Incarceration disproportionately affects people of color and costs people jobs. While one mode of violence—gun violence, murder, and assault—is explored thoroughly, the other—the suffering of mass incarceration—is ignored entirely.
Fourth, the methodology undergirding the report can paint a misleading picture. In a 2009 study, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that, across 75 of the largest U.S. counties, an average of 26 percent of weapons cases are dismissed without a conviction. At first glance, this may seem to bolster the Observer’s findings that Mecklenburg County’s rate of weapons charge dismissal is unusually high—68 percent from 2014 through 2018. But the BJS study defined a weapons case as one in which the most severe charge is a weapons charge and counted a case as dismissed only if all charges were dismissed.
The Observer calculated its dismissal rate using individual charges. In other words, if five charges were dismissed in a case, the Observer would count it as five dismissals; BJS would count it, instead, as just one dismissal. Given that it’s very common for defendants to face multiple charges for one offense, counting individual charges yields a much higher number than counting cases. The number of weapons charges it reports (roughly 5,000 per year on average) far exceeds the number of weapons cases in the 75 largest counties in 2009 combined (2,052).
The Observer also notes that its investigation found less than 1 percent of cases go to trial, as if this is a rarity. But according to Pew Research Center, jury trials accounted for less than 3 percent of criminal dispositions in 22 jurisdictions with available data. Across all of North Carolina, it’s 1.66 percent. Put plainly, It is not rare that cases do not go to trial, nor is it evidence of a lack of resources on the part of prosecutors. Rather, it is a result of a system stacked against defendants who effectively don’t have the right to a trial.
Most troubling, reporters David Raynor, Gavin Off, and Ames Alexander engage in “Dirty Harry” logic: Find the Bad Guy and figure out a way of convicting him later. Detailing the case of Deshawn McDowell, the article notes that “the only evidence prosecutors had against McDowell were the statements of a codefendant.” It’s unclear what the reporters are suggesting prosecutors do. If there’s little evidence to convict someone, they ought to be let go. This has been a basic tenet of Western law for over 800 years.
It is possible to look at thousands of arrests and find a handful where the state let go of a repeat offender that one could argue it shouldn’t have. But the idea that not enough people in North Carolina are in jail—that this is somehow a feature lacking in our criminal legal system—flies in the face of everything we know about both the state’s and the country’s legal systems.
And people in the state’s jails, like most jails across the country, are disproportionately Black. As of 2016, 1 in 40 Black men in North Carolina were imprisoned. The state’s Black adult imprisonment rate is 4.5 times higher than its white adult imprisonment rate per capita. Black people accounted for 52.9 percent of the prison population despite being only 21.5 percent of the adult population.
There are alternative ways to approach the problem of gun crime that the Observer could have taken into consideration. Those writing on gun crime would do well to examine what writers such as Daniel Denvir have noted—whether the state or local government has failed poor communities; whether they have fueled cycles of imprisonment that leveled generational harm; or if they have failed to offer non-carceral interventions—from education to prenatal care. Instead, readers are left with the same tired tough-on-crime script where the crisis of gun violence is presented as having only one solution: more money for prosecutors and police and more people in jail.
The Charlotte Observer has over 10,000 words to spare on the topic of gun crime but not a single one, notably, is used to ask questions that might address the problem at its root.
Ethan Corey contributed reporting.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece misstated the average number of weapons charges per year in Mecklenburg County, as reported by the Charlotte Observer. It is roughly 5,000, not 6,250.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the Charlotte Observer’s method of calculating Mecklenburg County’s weapons charge dismissal rate.