In Portsmouth, New Hampshire last week, a man carried a handgun a few blocks away from the site where President Obama was scheduled to hold a town hall a couple of hours later. Was it a danger or not? The man carrying the gun, William Kostric, even had permission to have the gun on private church property while he was protesting Obama's appearance. Everybody from the New York Times to USA Today to CBS News expressed their outrage, interpreting it as a hot head threatening the president and linking it to militias and conservative talk radio. A prominent liberal radio talk show host came out saying that conservatives "want Obama to get shot." New legislation related to this incident is even being proposed in Congress.
Obviously no one wants to see a president even remotely threatened and people need to be sensitive to such things. But worrying over a law-abiding citizen legally carrying a gun several blocks and a couple of hours away from an indoor event that the president will attend is overdoing it.
Before the president's town hall meeting, an MSNBC host noted: "Apparently there is fairly significant, almost disturbing news, let us know what is happening there in New Hampshire." A reporter, Ron Allen, breathlessly responded: "There is a man in the crowd who has a gun, a handgun strapped on his lower leg. . . . And I suspect that he won't be here when the president gets here in a couple of hours time."
Chris Matthews' cross-examination on "Hardball" of Kostric was sent all over the Internet, with various versions on YouTube picking up a total of nearly 200,000 viewings. But Matthews' interview fell flat by trying to link Kostric with extremist groups such as the"birthers," who challenge Obama's legitimacy as president. And Kostric did not come across as the hot head that Matthew's tried so hard to portray him as.
On the "CBS Evening News," Katie Couric asked: "Are we really still debating health care when a man brings a handgun to a church where the president is speaking?" Kostric did bring a gun to the church, but Couric was plainly wrong about where the president was speaking. He spoke at the town hall at the high school down the street. She somehow linked Kostric's gun to the "fear and frankly ignorance drown[ing] out the serious debate that needs to take place about an issue that effects the lives of millions of people."
Yet, the most amazing thing about the news coverage was how much the media missed. Far from being a hot head, Kostric and a friend had been roughed up by a union member. The union member had spit on and kicked the person who was with Kostric. But Kostric didn't threaten the union member, and didn't respond physically in any way. Kostric and his friend notified the police of the incident, but the police officer shrugged and went away. Kostric's gun did however defuse the volatile situation with the union member -- once the union member saw Kostric's gun in its holster he backed up and moved away.
Also the coverage missed that Kostric regularly carries his gun for protection. He did not bring the gun as part of his protest against President Obama's policies.
Is there a sudden trend with health care protestors threateningly carrying guns? Gail Collins' New York Times column "Gunning for Health Care" claims there is such a trend. She also misrepresents the risk of law-abiding citizens carrying guns. Collins simply provides two anecdotes as evidence. One involved Kostric -- she is shocked his actions "turned out to be completely legal under New Hampshire law." The other case was a dropped gun at a political event in Arizona with Congresswoman Gabreille Gifford (D-Ariz.). But Collins' description of that event was also misleading, as Giffords herself never felt there was any danger. Giffords stated: "A lot of people carry firearms here... at no point did I ever feel in danger and at no point did I ever feel there was a problem."
Nor does the issue look like it is going to go away. On Monday in Phoenix an unidentified black man outside of Obama's latest health care rally carried a semi-automatic rifle (referred to in the media as an "assault rifle"). When asked about whether anyone openly carrying a gun outside Obama's event endangered the president's safety, the U.S. Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan said: "of course not." Not happy with all these events there is a move in Congress to ban guns within the "vicinity" of President Obama.
MSNBC probably went the farthest on all this with some truly remarkable claims on Tuesday, August 18. Showing the clip of the anonymous black man carrying the "assault rifle," but editing it so that one was not able to see the man's race, Contessa Brewer said: "But also there are questions whether this has a racial overtone. I mean here you have a man of color in the presidency and white people showing up with guns strapped to their waists." Another person on the same show noted the"anger about a black person being president" and about "the black man becoming president. You know we see these hate groups rising up."
The five million Americans who legally carrying concealed handguns permit holders are extremely law-abiding. Take Arizona, given that Collins' points to the event there. There were 99,370 active permits as of December 1, 2007. During 2007, just 33 permits were revoked for any reason -- a mere 0.03 percent rate. In New Hampshire, where Kostric lives, permit revocations are even rarer.
What should have been a story about an American with a gun who behaved properly was somehow twisted into a storyline focusing on something else: crazy conservatives who want to threaten the president.