The column below is an op ed I submitted to the Sun Sentinel media corporation of Florida on Feb. 15, 2018. I had requested that the column be printed to correct the company’s initial profile of Nikolas Cruz, the suspect who was arrested in the shooting death of 17 people in Parkland, Florida on Feb. 14, 2018. I did not hear back from the company’s editorial team. Because this issue is still timely and important, I am printing a full copy of my column below.
In my communication to the editorial team, I noted its Feb. 14 story (“Nikolas Cruz: Troubled suspect had been expelled from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School“) failed to cover the larger issue of the proliferation, sale, and use of weapons of war like the AR-15 semiautomatic rifles and how money influences gun legislation. I also wrote the coverage perpetuated harmful stereotypes against adoptees (like me). I have published a related article on my website on Feb. 16, 2018 (“Telling the wrong story of the alleged Florida shooter and why it matters“), written after I sent the Sun Sentinel my op ed proposal.
Media’s Focus on Shooter’s Family Status Harms Adoptees and Ignores National Failures at Gun Control
Guest Column for Sun Sentinel by Rudy Owens, MA, MPH
Like millions of Americans, I am outraged and numb how a lone gunman could lawfully acquire a weapon of war and murder students and teachers at a Parkland, Florida high school on Feb. 14. My heart goes out to every student, employee and family member impacted by another gun-related mass murder.
I also am troubled how the media avoided the larger issue of failed gun control and the suspect’s ease in acquiring a war weapon. Instead many media tried to find a root mental problem with the alleged 19-year-old killer, Nikolas Cruz.
Within hours after the rampage, the Sun Sentinel media company and national news media—Time, the New York Times, the Washington post—had identified an irrelevant fact in the first profile stories of Cruz. The shooter was reportedly a mentally unbalanced adoptee.
The Sun Sentinel article first posted the day of the killings (“Nikolas Cruz: Troubled suspect had been expelled from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School”) both beatified Cruz’s adoptive parents and singled out his adoptee status in the first sentence: “Adopted at birth by a loving older couple, Nikolas Cruz seemed to struggle in recent years.”
The article referenced his adoptive status no less than five times, yet failed to mention more important facts, such as why lethal weapons like the AR-15 rifle used in the rampage can be bought legally anywhere in the United States, including a stores like Cabela’s.
The pattern of associating adoptees with psychological pathologies is long-running among U.S. media. It is also continues historic bias that goes back centuries, stereotyping illegitimately born persons as demons seeds and vile people. Today most Americans still see adoptees through this persistent stigma, as illegitimately born people—it was the shame that lead to millions of infant relinquishments from the 1940s on.
Psychologists for decades have labeled adoptees as prone to mental illness with unscientific studies. Adoptees who searched for their past, and who were denied their records because of state laws that denied them their heritage and treated them unequally by law, were deemed mentally imbalanced. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders through the 1980s identified adoptees as having an imaginary problem it called “identity disorder.”
As an adoptee who has spent decades dealing with stereotypes and discrimination by state officials, the public, my own family, and media, I am not surprised how the media framed the suspect as an “adoptee” killer.
This stereotype is an easy story. It sidesteps harder ones, such as donations by the National Rifle Association (NRA) to mostly Republican members of Congress, and some Democrats. Politico reported last fall that in the 2016 election cycle, the NRA gave $5.9 million to GOP members and $106,000 to Democrats. A mentally unhealthy gunman is easier to grasp than the ways corporate money and access shape U.S. lawmaking, including the failure to renew the assault weapon ban in 2004.
In the weeks to come, likely more attention will be paid to the mental state of Cruz, and less given to the dealer who sold the reported killer his AR-15 or the lack of any meaningful national regulation that allowed for that purchase.
As an adoptee who speaks out on behalf of adoptees and their rights, I am sure I and other adoptees who talk openly of our status as adoptees will have to answer questions later from the public: Are adoptees potentially dangerous like Cruz?
Sadly, thanks to this initial coverage of Cruz, the public will likely will forget the killer’s name, the school’s name or the many victims’ names. I am less certain they will forget the alleged mass murderer was that unhappy adoptee, the one with a mental health disorder.