As Mass Shootings Multiplied, the Horrific Human Cost Was Concealed

Matt McClain/The Washington Post
Community members in Parkland, Fla., gather in February 2018 for a candlelight vigil in honor of the victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, one of multiple rampages that inspired lawmakers to tighten public records rules to prevent release of images and other evidence depicting victims.

After a burst of gun violence claimed 13 lives at Columbine High School in 1999, a difficult question confronted a Colorado judge: whether to order the release of autopsies sought by local media under the state’s public records law.

The judge, Jose D.L. Márquez, decided to keep the graphic reports hidden, ruling that the rampage was an “extraordinary event” that lawmakers could not have anticipated when they wrote the law. As evidence, he cited the “unique factor” of the community’s trauma, illustrated by an outpouring of grief and a presidential visit.

A quarter-century after Columbine, then the deadliest mass shooting ever visited on a high school, the reactions highlighted by the judge – including public memorials and visits from politicians – are no longer signs of an extraordinary event. They’re routine grief rites.

But as gun violence has grown more common, state lawmakers have increasingly restricted access to government records documenting its destructive impact, such as photos and videos showing mutilated bodies and audio recordings capturing children’s cries.

Some states have crafted new exemptions to public records laws specifically shielding depictions of victims. In Connecticut and Florida, bipartisan majorities curtailed access to government records after school shootings in Newtown in 2012 and Parkland in 2018, respectively. Other states, including Colorado, have wielded existing exemptions, for privacy or law enforcement activity, to withhold similar records.

Lawmakers behind the restrictions point to myriad reasons for cloaking crime scene evidence, above all sensitivity to survivors and the families of victims. There’s also concern about interfering with law enforcement investigations or court proceedings and inspiring copycat killers. In the balancing act between privacy and public access, the rise of social media has weighed heavily against access, say people involved in the debates, because of the permanence of digital platforms and their possible manipulation by bad actors.

Even when gruesome images may be available, news organizations have often declined to seek or publish them out of deference to families and fear of public backlash. That approach differs from the media’s handling of casualties overseas – a contrast on display in recent weeks, as explicit footage of violence in Israel and Gaza has appeared in news broadcasts and other media.

In the United States, some family members of victims of mass shootings have become outspoken opponents of publishing images that include bodies.

“I wish her pictures alive moved people as much as people think her picture dead would.”

Nelba Márquez-Greene, whose 6-year-old daughter, Ana Grace, was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, said asking families to disclose pictures of slain children puts an unfair burden on people who are already carrying the enormous weight of grief – particularly, she added, when she sees little evidence that such pictures change people’s minds.

“Why is that my job? We don’t ask rape victims to do this,” said Márquez-Greene, who recently took on a new position as activist in residence at the Yale School of Public Health focused on designing programs to help survivors of gun violence. “I wish her pictures alive moved people as much as people think her picture dead would.”

But the recurring nightmare of mass shootings has prompted others to advocate for releasing and publicizing photographs and autopsy information. They argue that withholding such material has deprived the public of an accurate understanding of the destructive force of weapons including the AR-15, a firearm originally designed for combat that’s now the weapon of choice for many mass killers. Concealing records that depict victims also makes off-limits a whole range of other visuals, including scenes of chaos and unrest left by the gunfire.

Patricia Oliver, whose 17-year-old son, Joaquin Oliver, was killed outside his creative writing class at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, said mere descriptions of that terror have failed to mobilize enough people or focus the public debate on the astonishing power of the gun used to kill her son. She said more graphic material could help.

“Sometimes human beings don’t understand with words,” she said. “If what’s necessary is to show people pieces of Joaquin’s skull everywhere, I’m willing to do that.”

The dilemmas of depicting mass shootings

For media outlets making sense of the spate of mass shootings since Columbine, impassioned appeals for privacy by some families have carried weight.

When the Denver Post mobilized to cover the 2012 massacre at a midnight showing of the superhero movie “The Dark Knight Rises,” the newspaper elected not to seek wide-ranging public records from the crime scene in suburban Aurora. Gregory Moore, the editor at the time of the Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage, said his staff’s approach was informed by past tragedies: “We were probably overly sensitized to victims and their grief here having gone through Columbine.”

“It’s part of our DNA not to traumatize victims and families in this community,” he said.

But the “landscape has changed” in the decade since Aurora, Moore said, and he now believes news organization must do more to “help people understand how out of control this situation is and what the devastation is from having these weapons of war on the streets.”

As part of The Washington Post’s reporting on the AR-15’s role in American life, Post journalists sought crime scene photographs, autopsy reports and court records in an effort to understand how the weapon transforms ordinary scenes – such as classrooms, concerts, shopping centers – and how it maims the human body.

In some cases, authorities released imagery from crime scenes, such as photos of guns, gloves and a gas mask; in others, they denied requests for such records. Government agencies that refused to provide documents most often cited exemptions to public records laws that allow them to withhold information related to law enforcement investigations. Agencies also invoked exemptions covering personal privacy.

After Texas authorities refused records requests related to the 2022 shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Post journalists independently obtained a trove of evidence compiled by state and federal police, including extremely graphic photos and videos taken moments after police entered the classrooms where 19 students and two teachers had been killed.

The families of some Uvalde victims have pushed for disclosure of such evidence. Brett Cross, the legal guardian of murdered 10-year-old Uziyah “Uzi” Garcia, said the reason is that families like his were left in the dark by law enforcement, whose response to the shooting quickly came under criticism.

Cross said crime scene footage is urgent evidence that belongs to the public. Still, he said, parents are entitled to their qualms. “The world needs to see the terrible things these weapons do, but at the end of the day, these are still our babies,” he said.

Two groups that regularly see gunshot victims up close, law enforcement officers and health-care professionals, aren’t in lockstep about public disclosure. Law enforcement is often against it. But the medical community is of a mixed mind, said Joseph Sakran, a trauma surgeon at Johns Hopkins who serves as board chair and chief medical officer for the nonprofit group Brady, which advocates for gun control.

Some who tend to the bodies of shooting victims see the potential for what Sakran called “an Emmett Till moment,” referring to the way in which the public funeral for the 14-year-old Black boy lynched in 1955 – and his mother’s insistence on an open casket – created moral outrage that helped propel the civil rights movement.

“My personal belief is that images could be profound and could make a difference in swaying public understanding of the crisis we’re facing and perhaps even lead to demonstrable change,” Sakran said. But no doctor, he added, would force that on a family.

Paul Slovic, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon who has studied the effects of visual imagery on human behavior, said graphic images can change attitudes, but only in particular circumstances. He drew a parallel to the 2015 photo of a Syrian child lying facedown on a Turkish beach, which brought attention to the war in Syria and caused a surge in humanitarian donations.

“An image, if it catches attention, creates a window of opportunity where people are alert to a problem,” Slovic said. “But if images are repeated over and over again, we become numb to them.”

After shootings, lawmakers restrict access to public records

In communities that have experienced some of the nation’s most traumatic mass shootings, governments have responded by adopting new restrictions on access to public records.

Six months after a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown in 2012, the legislature amended the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act to exempt from disclosure photos and videos “depicting the victim of a homicide” if the records “could reasonably be expected” to infringe on personal privacy.

Momentum for the legislation built after publication of a blog post by Michael Moore, the filmmaker who created the 2002 documentary “Bowling for Columbine,” predicting that someone in Newtown would leak crime scene photos to awaken public outrage. Moore wrote that “when the American people see what bullets from an assault rifle fired at close range do to a little child’s body . . . every sane American will demand action.”

The prediction set off alarm among families of victims – and an aggressive response by lawmakers “who were shocked and appalled by this suggestion that sensitive images would be disseminated,” said Colleen M. Murphy, executive director of the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, a state agency that enforces public records rules.

Murphy, who opposed the changes, was among those tapped for a task force set up by the 2013 legislation to make recommendations about the balance between “victim privacy” and “the public’s right to know.”

At the task force’s request, the General Assembly conducted a 50-state survey of public records laws and found that eight other states had rules specifically restricting the release of crime scene photos: California, Florida, Georgia, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Texas. A law in Texas, written by a Democrat and passed around the same time as the Connecticut measure, restricted photos of victims “in a state of dismemberment, decapitation, or similar mutilation or that depicts the deceased person’s genitalia.”

The review also found that 26 states specifically limited the release of autopsy reports and 16 limited the release of 911 tapes.

A Post analysis of state records laws found that all 50 states and Washington, D.C., allow police departments to withhold materials they consider part of ongoing investigations. Many also have broad carve-outs for personal privacy.

A year after the Newtown shooting, reports released by the Connecticut State Police included about 1,500 photos taken by a crime scene investigator. Most were redacted in accordance with the new law, obscured by large black rectangles. Those that weren’t redacted showed firearms, door handles and caution tape. None showed humans.

The full images have never been publicly released, even as conspiracy theorists seized on the shooting with claims that the murders had been faked, turning Newtown into a grim landmark in America’s break with reality.

Some argue that photographic evidence of victims would undercut such claims, while others say that gruesome images would only encourage extremists.

Jeff Covello, the Connecticut State Police sergeant who supervised the Newtown crime scene, brought then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to the scene and showed him the unredacted images. He said he believes only some people should see such visuals.

“Who exactly is on that list is not for me to decide,” he said. “Families should have some say – exactly how much I don’t know.”

Deciding what to conceal in the ‘Sunshine State’

Ever since Fred Guttenberg’s 14-year-old daughter, Jaime, was killed in the Parkland shooting in 2018, he has been a gun-control advocate – stumping for political candidates, yelling out in protest during the 2020 State of the Union and petitioning the government to investigate a firearms manufacturer.

He used to think depictions of the damage from powerful rifles could change minds. When he met with Sen. Ted Cruz in the fall of 2019, Guttenberg said, he showed the Texas Republican photos of his daughter’s lifeless body. “It didn’t change a thing,” he said.

Cruz, after the meeting, said it was “productive and respectful.” The senator’s spokesman didn’t respond to a question about Guttenberg’s account.

Now, Guttenberg opposes disseminating such images. “There’s this notion that what we need to do is convince Americans what this looks like, but Americans are already convinced,” he said, citing surveys that show huge majorities favor new gun laws. “In my mind we don’t need to flood television screens and newspapers with images of bodies like my daughter’s.”

The same year as Guttenberg’s meeting with Cruz, the Florida legislature amended the state’s Sunshine Law to shield photographs, videos and audio of the “killing of a victim of mass violence” from public release.

Barbara Petersen, the former longtime president of the state’s First Amendment Foundation, fought the bill, arguing that the exemption makes citizens and media trying to understand mass violence “dependent on what law enforcement tells us.”

“We need to see it for ourselves, as awful as it may be,” she said.

Lauren Book, a Democratic state senator in Florida, was among the members of a public safety commission who saw extensive footage of Parkland’s carnage to prepare a 2019 report on the shooting. In 2019, she voted to make confidential the very sort of crime scene evidence that she had viewed.

“It’s horrific to see a child in a classroom look like a piece of hamburger meat,” she said. “I don’t think anyone needs to see that.”

Few have. Most Americans haven’t seen the mangled human remains left by dozens of mass shootings since Parkland. So while images of her son, Joaquin, are awful, said Patricia Oliver, they reflect a reality that the country must face.

“When will people understand the damage these guns cause?” Oliver asked.