Yesterday's shooting tragedy at Northern Illinois University was shocking late-breaking news event that pushed politics clear off the page and screen, at least for a while. I say "shocking" but of course it is, alas, less so than it would have been a year ago, after Virginia Tech but more recently after a spate of similar events like the Omaha mall shooting, Colorado church shooting, the Missouri City Hall shooting, as well as the three other school shootings — in the last week — in Louisiana, Tennessee, and California. So perhaps "shocking" is no longer the word.
The story took the top spot on all the nightly newscasts and was widely covered on cable, but not nearly the way Virginia Tech was almost a year ago. MSNBC broke in with the news at the end of the 4 p.m. hour with a detailed ongoing report, then went to the regularly-scheduled programming of Hardball and Tucker; on CNN, The Situation Room teased four top stories — three election-related — and led with the Romney-McCain endorsement before switching to coverage of the shooting. Though it made virtually all the front pages today (the Oregonian's top headline is particularly heart-stopping: "'Run, He's Reloading The Gun'"), it is surprisingly not one of the five-part switching top stories at Time.com (only a headline, no photo), though it is the second of six switching top stories at Newsweek.com. It has been the big story today on cable (in addition to the Bobby Cutts conviction), and was big on the morning shows, but though the story will likely appear at the top of the three evening newscasts this evening, none of the anchors will be traveling to DeKalb, Illinois for the story (as they all did for Virginia Tech and the Minneapolis bridge collapse, for example). As for the political media, the story has not yet cracked Politico.com with a political angle (which we've seen before), nor does it appear on The Page or First Read, and though it's been an above-the-fold top story here at the Huffington Post since yesterday afternoon, it's been one of the smaller headlines under the top box. Between the rush of the campaign and the shocking regularity of these shootings, it just doesn't seem as big of a story, particularly in light of the campaign.
Or is it? Between the rash of shootings and the shock of this story, could this become a campaign issue? Maybe — but probably not. Senator Barack Obama has already given a statement, but seems to show no intention of returning to his home state, where this tragedy happened — and no one seems to be asking about it. The sad fact is that we're in election season, and gun control is a well-known loser for the Democrats. It's been a non-issue thus far in the campaign; indeed, the only time I can recall seeing it really dealt with in a debate was in the CNN/YouTube debate with the guy who called his gun his "baby." That question was answered by Bill Richardson (background checks and no guns for mentally ill people!) and Joe Biden, who was just getting into it when moderator Anderson Cooper called "time." That was in July 2007; now it's February 2008. Only two Democratic candidates remain, and gun control is still not an issue. Will five school shootings in a single week change that? Will the fact that a kid on medication could purchase three handguns and a shotgun, walk into a packed lecture hall and use them change that? That will depend — on whether the candidates make it an issue, and on whether the media asks them about it.