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Uvalde massacre victims

Flowers and photographs are seen at a memorial dedicated to the victims of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School on June 2, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas. Nineteen students and two teachers were killed on May 24 after an 18-year-old gunman opened fire inside the school. Wakes and funerals for the 21 victims are scheduled throughout the week. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Desperation, Pain Drives Debate Over Making Photos of Mass Shooting Carnage Public

While some say showing what high-caliber bullets do to children's bodies could spur change, others warn that it risks traumatizing viewers—and re-traumatizing victims and their loved ones.

Brett Wilkins

Amid the desperation, pain, and frustration in the wake of last month's massacre of 19 children and two teachers at a Texas elementary school, there is renewed debate about whether making public post-mortem images of those killed by AR-15s and other assault weapons would help move the public or lawmakers in the U.S. towards taking real action on gun violence and mass shootings.

"I just cannot believe that Americans in this country would see what these weapons do to our children, our teachers, our community, and that they would stand by and do nothing."

In a society that often averts confronting the bloody and graphic consequences of its domestic and foreign policy choices, many people argue the images of children and others who suffer unimaginbale violence—like Emmett Till's pulverized body, Phan Thị Kim Phúc running naked and napalm-scorched down a South Vietnamese road, or Derek Chauvin's knee slowly choking the life out of George Floyd—have the power to change minds and potentially upend horrific norms.

Trauma surgeon Amy Goldberg believes Americans wouldn't be so numb to gun violence—which claims tens of thousands of U.S. lives each year and is so frequent that only the most horrific mass shootings make national headlines—if they saw what she has seen so many times.

"I think the citizens need to see the destruction of what these military-style weapons do, and that would be pictures," Goldberg told NPR earlier this week. "And I don't say that lightly. I don't say that with any disrespect, but I'm desperate. All the trauma surgeons need this to stop."

"I just cannot believe that Americans in this country would see what these weapons do to our children, our teachers, our community, and that they would stand by and do nothing," she continued.

"Emmett Till's mom had an open casket, and I'm sure that had some impact on the civil rights movement," Goldberg added. "The napalm girl—you know, those images, brought into our homes during the Vietnam War, I think significantly made change."

In an op-ed published by Common Dreams on Wednesday, attorney and social justice activist Mitchell Zimmerman contended that "there is no Second Amendment right to protection from reality."

Noting that "a number of states force women exercising their constitutional right to abortion to look at fetal sonograms before ending their pregnancy," Zimmerman asks, "What if states required anyone who wants to buy an assault rifle, or other semi-automatic weapons, to first see photos or films that show what such weapons do to human bodies?"

"Perhaps some would reconsider whether they really need this kind of weapon to hunt or engage in target shooting," he said.

The debate is not a new one. After 26 students and staff were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012, Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Michael Moore asserted that the entire country was complicit in the slaughter due to gun control inaction.

"That is why we must look at the pictures of the 20 dead children laying with what's left of their bodies on the classroom floor," the Bowling for Columbine director said. "Then nothing about guns in this country will ever be the same again."

Moore's remarks sparked widespread outrage.

"There is no Second Amendment right to protection from reality."

"We want to remember the little angels as they were, with their happy expressions and faces and you want to think of the teachers trying to hold them safe and not to see the pictures of their bodies," said the leader of a Newtown parents group who called Moore's idea "a horrendous offense to the families."

Lenny Pozner told The New York Times that after his six-year-old son Noah died at Sandy Hook, he considered showing the world photos of what a 5.56mm x 45mm NATO-spec bullet—the type fired by an AR-15—does to a child's body. Made for use in war, such bullets can decapitate a person or leave a body looking "like a grenade went off" inside it, according to trauma surgeon Peter Rhee.

Pozner's first thought was, "It would move some people, change some minds." His next thought, however, was, "Not my kid."

Others believe that those puhsing for making such images public are mistaken and that many people—especially those so steeped in their sacrosanct right to bear arms that no number of dead children would move them—would "stand by and do nothing," as MSNBC opinion columnist Michael A. Cohen wrote on Thursday.

"To be an advocate of near-unfettered access to firearms means shutting out all the evidence that one's selfish demand for practically limitless gun rights is responsible for so much needless suffering," he continued. "It means looking at Robb Elementary, Sandy Hook, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the 2017 mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival in Las Vegas, or countless other tragedies and deciding that the fetishization of steel and bullets plays no role whatsoever."

"Making public the pictures of the children slaughtered at Uvalde's Robb Elementary School would likely do little to change minds or seriously reshape the debate about guns in America," Cohen conluded. "But allowing people to see such pictures would increase the national trauma around gun violence."

"It's something you never want to see and it's something you don't, you cannot, prepare for. It's a picture that's going to stay in my head forever, and that's where I'd like for it to stay."

Some proponents of showing photos argue that it could come down to the way in which the images are displayed.

"I can imagine some pictures that could be made without dehumanizing the victims that speak to the story of the AR-15, which is a story that has not been seen or fully told," Nina Berman, a documentary photographer, filmmaker, and Columbia journalism professor, told the Times.

"For a culture so steeped in violence, we spend a lot of time preventing anyone from actually seeing that violence," she said. "Something else is going on here, and I'm not sure it's just that we're trying to be sensitive."

There is also the very real possibility that ordinary people viewing images of extraordinary carnage could be traumatized, perhaps even forever.  Uvalde coroner Eulalio "Lalo" Diaz, Jr. had the grisly task of idenfitying victims of the Robb Elementary School massacre.

"It's something you never want to see and it's something you don't, you cannot, prepare for," he said of the crime scene. "It's a picture that's going to stay in my head forever, and that's where I'd like for it to stay."


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