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The Capital-Gazette, One Year After: Fierce Gun Control Advocates

Rick Hutzell, the editorial director of The Capital-Gazette, speaking Thursday at a forum in Annapolis on gun violence. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

Of all the many things to have sprung from the slaughter in The Capital-Gazette newsroom in Annapolis a year ago – from the horrific to the life-affirming – one of the most noteworthy is also seldom discussed.

Surviving Capital-Gazette staffers have been celebrated, at home and nationally, for their bravery and fortitude, their excellent work under unimaginable conditions, their unity, and their loyalty to their fallen colleagues – and to each other.

They have also become powerful advocates for gun control.

That’s a role so many survivors of gun violence find themselves thrust into. Some take it on intently, as their life’s work. The resolute and thoroughly impressive students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, many of whom are running in-your-face campaigns to change public perceptions – and public laws – are example No. 1.

But for journalists, the role and responsibilities of survivor are a little trickier. They’re supposed to be impartial observers. Advocacy, except in the rarest of cases, is generally considered verboten.

And yet, this is the role The Capital-Gazette – institutionally and among its individual editors, reporters and leaders – has chosen to take on. It’s usually subtle, but it’s breathtaking to behold.

“I applaud their courage to do so,” said Elizabeth Banach, executive director of Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence. “I know there’s journalistic integrity. But I’m also encouraged that these individuals have decided to stand up and advocate for the colleagues that they lost and the colleagues they want to protect.”

This advocacy manifests itself in different ways.

The most visible to readers is on the opinion page, where Capital-Gazette Editorial Director Rick Hutzell regularly advocates for gun safety legislation.

During the 2018 election season – just months after five of their colleagues were gunned down in the newsroom – the newspaper sent issue surveys to every general election candidate in Anne Arundel County, which included questions on how to combat gun violence. Candidates who declined or neglected to answer the questions were not considered for editorial endorsements.

And then there is the public and vocal advocacy of Capital-Gazette reporters, and members of the newspaper’s extended family, who have used public events to push for stronger gun safety measures.

Earlier this year, when the late House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Annapolitan, bestowed the Speaker’s Medallion, the House’s highest honor, on the five slain Capital-Gazette staffers, Hutzell and family members of the victims used the forum to talk emotionally about the need for more gun control. Speaking from the rostrum in the House chamber, Hutzell lobbied the legislature to strengthen the state’s “red flag” laws, which allows law enforcement officers to seize firearms from people suspected of being dangers to themselves or the public.

Days later, a Capital-Gazette reporter, Rachael Pacella, testified before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee in favor of legislation strengthening regulation of rifles and shotguns in the state. In a stirring first-person article, Pacella explained her decision to do so:

“I learned long ago to keep my opinions to myself as a journalist and to keep them out of my job. But that doesn’t matter for me on this subject.”

Pacella, who was in the newsroom at the time of the shooting, went on to describe the emotional burden she carries from that day. She noted that the alleged shooter of her colleagues used a legally-purchased rifle.

“I’m biased now — biased in favor of anything, anything at all, that would prevent another shooting,” Pacella wrote.

“I pride myself on sharing the stories and perspectives of others. In the years ahead, I hope to be an advocate and voice for trauma survivors like me. There are many.

“But today, I am the one who has a story to share. It is a horrifying story. I hope anyone who isn’t convinced that this bill should pass will hear it and change their mind.”

The legislation wound up stalling on the final day of the legislative session, and Andrea Chamblee, widow of slain Capital-Gazette sports journalist John McNamara, has waged a running war of words against the panel’s chairman, Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), since the end of the legislative session.

“As the one year mark of John’s murder is upon me, it’s common for people to ask me how I’m doing,” Chamblee wrote in a Capital-Gazette column earlier this week. “I’ve been fighting. I thought Maryland was exempt from dangerous politicians. I thought I was paying attention and I was happy with the political landscape here. I’ve since and sadly learned otherwise.”

‘Guns are right next to us’

So much of the gun control advocacy emanating from the Capital-Gazette and its extended family feels organic.

On Thursday afternoon, Hutzell was one of several speakers at a daylong anti-gun violence conference organized by Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley on the campus of St. John’s College. Other speakers included gun control advocates, clergy, U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Democrat, and local politicians.

Hutzell’s panel was about the community impact of gun violence. During his comments, Hutzell referred multiple times to others in Anne Arundel County who have died of gun violence – not just his former colleagues.

He said, generally, that a core issue in trying to address and legislate on the issue of gun violence is that gun ownership is deeply ingrained in the fabric of American society and law, and that there’s a lack of useful, in-depth data for lawmakers and public health officials to draw from to clearly identify problems and solutions.

“The answer is not to try to take away all the guns,” he said. “Like it, leave it, hate it, love it, the right to own arms is written into our Constitution. It is part of the fabric of our society; all you have to do is take an English literature class to know that guns is part of who we are. That’s not going to change. You might as well wave a wand and give us all wings. It’s just not going to happen.”

During closing comments, Hutzell asked how many people noticed that the chief of police was armed with a gun during a panel earlier in that day. He said that while he had no problem with it, it demonstrated a point.

“Before we can address the issue of guns in our society, we have to realize that there’s norms here that we all accept,” he said. “That guns are right next to us. And we’re OK with that. Until we’re not. Until it’s the NRA because they’re political. …Guns are a larger problem than just violence. …They are part of the fabric of who we are, like it or not. And until we can change that, we’re going to be having these conversations.”

Some local leaders have taken note of The Capital-Gazette’s advocacy.

“It feels good to have a newspaper that really cares about something,” Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman said in an interview. “And I think saving lives is something that most people care about.”

Pittman, a Democrat, added: “I agree with them on this policy.”

But not everyone does — though the usual gun rights advocates have been fairly muted beyond some social media chatter about the newspaper’s stance. The Maryland State Rifle and Pistol Association declined to comment for this story.

The old cliché about not wanting to pick a fight with someone who buys ink from a barrel may apply. But it could go beyond that.

Pittman suggested that gun rights advocates understand where the newspaper is coming from, even if they disagree on policy.

“It does change the relationship with your newspaper when you go through something like that,” he said. “My God, this feels like family.”

In this year’s General Assembly session, local legislators passed a bill designating June 28 as Press Freedom Day in Annapolis, and Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. signed it into law.

Several events have been scheduled for Friday in connection with the anniversary of the newsroom shootings.

From 10:30-11:30 a.m., there will be a dedication of memorial gardens in the slain journalists’ honor, at Acton’s Cove Waterfront Park in Annapolis.

At 2:33 p.m., the exact moment the gunman entered the Capital-Gazette newsroom, Tribune Publishing offices across the country will hold a moment of silence.

And at 7 p.m., the City of Annapolis is hosting a concert and community gathering at Maryland Hall. 

Danielle E. Gaines contributed to this report.

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The Capital-Gazette, One Year After: Fierce Gun Control Advocates