Should we show graphic photos of gun victims?

The recent mass shootings using military-style weapons like AR-15s have reopened the debate about whether we should show images of the victims. Generally, media show just photos of the children when they were alive, grieving families, memorials erected in their memory, and so on. While these are heart-wrenching, some argue that they do not convey the full horror of what happened, leaving most people with simply no idea of the massive amount of damage that these weapons can inflict even on adults, mutilating them beyond recognition so that they can be identified only by their clothing or DNA. The effect on small children is even more devastating.

Uvalde paediatrician Dr Roy Guerrero also spoke to the committee to describe the fatal injuries he witnessed.

“Two children, whose bodies had been pulverised by bullets fired at them, decapitated, whose flesh had been ripped apart. That the only clue as to their identities were the blood-spattered cartoon clothes still clinging to them,” he recalled.

Peter Maass writes that the time has come to show at least some of these images to the public.

IT IS ONE of the rituals of school shootings in America – another round of debate, usually among journalists, on whether graphic photos should be published. If people could just see what assault weapons do to young bodies, the argument goes, they would no longer tolerate the policies that enable these killings. No, the other side warns, these photos would only cause further pain to the survivors and have no impact on a divided society that moves from one gruesome entertainment to another with the flick of a switch.

This debate skips along the surface of an American aberration: We passively tolerate high levels of violence while actively suppressing evidence of the slaughter.

As the photographer Nina Berman explained to a New York Times reporter a few days ago, “For a culture so steeped in violence, we spend a lot of time preventing anyone from actually seeing that violence. Something else is going on here, and I’m not sure it’s just that we’re trying to be sensitive.”

I think the familiar debate about whether to publish graphic photos of school shootings – or Covid victims or war casualties – has lost its urgency. Like so much else, it has become a ritual that we dutifully enact after another outrage occurs. I think the answer to the debate is clear – yes, publish the photos, it’s the right thing to do, we should be aware of what our plagues of violence beget. I also think it’s now more likely that if news outlets get possession of the right photo from Uvalde or from the next school shooting (we won’t have to wait long, this is America), they will publish it. But it will be from a position of desperation. They have tried everything else to change minds; this is all that’s left.

The truth is, it no longer matters so much. It’s not just, as the critic Susie Linfield wrote the other day, that photos rarely result in the kind of change that their supporters hope for. What’s different now is that on the life-or-death issues that confront us – shootings, wars, Covid, opioids, traffic violence – the awfulness of what has been allowed to accumulate over the decades is so damn vast.

I have a very low tolerance for blood and gore, studiously avoiding them in films and TV and even in hospital dramas involving surgeries. A description of a film saying it has violence and horror is enough for me to give it a miss. I do not think I could bear to see such images of mutilated bodies. I also worry that there is a class of people who actually have a prurient interest in such things and enjoy what might be called ‘war porn’, the sight of dead and mutilated bodies, and that we might be catering to their basest needs. But maybe Maass is right, such images may shake at least some Americans out of their complacency about the level of carnage in this country.

One gets a glimpse of the horror that the children experience in this testimony before Congress of a 11-year old survivor of Uvalde survivor who spread a classmate’s blood over herself in an attempt to act like she was dead.

A student who survived the Uvalde school shooting by covering herself in a classmate’s blood has told the US Congress of the moment her teacher was killed during the massacre.

Her graphic testimony left some representatives in tears.

“He told her goodnight, and shot her in the head,” Miah Cerillo, 11, said.

The 11-year-old recalled her experience, which for her began when a teacher told students to hide after seeing the gunman.

The 18-year-old attacker shot her teacher as children took cover behind her desk and their book bags.

Miah was wounded by fragments in her shoulders and head. She pretended to be dead before using her teacher’s phone to call 911 and ask for police.

“I thought he was going to come back to the room, so I grabbed the [her classmate’s] blood and put it all over me,” she said. “I just stayed quiet.”

I cannot begin to comprehend how a child could have the presence of mind to take such evasive action. I cannot also begin to imagine the lifelong trauma that she will have to live with after seeing what she has seen.

This article shows some of the more famous images of war that have had an impact in showing us the horror of it. One is of the little Vietnamese nine-year old girl Kim Phuc in 1972, shown running down a street screaming, her clothes burned off after a napalm attack severely burned her back and arms. On the right is a photo of sobbing little Iraqi girl, splattered with the blood of her parents who had just been murdered by US troops at a checkpoint. That photo still haunts me. I sometimes wonder what happened to that girl, now that over 16 years have passed since she saw her parents being killed.

So should the images of the victims of these mass shootings be shown? Whatever one’s views on the merits of such a decision, I think it is only a matter of time before they will be.


  1. ardipithecus says

    At least 2/3 of Americans already support effective gun control laws, but not enough elected representatives do. It looks like the SCOTUS doesn’t either. Graphic images won’t change that, but they will desensitize people over time.

    It doesn’t matter. The problems in the US are far bigger than this one. The biggest problem is that too many are still trying to play by the rules after their opponents have thrown out the rule book and are playing by their own.

  2. DataWrangler says

    If anti-choicers can show pictures their pictures of “carnage” that happens rarely, surely pictures of actual carnage that happens nearly every day should be acceptable.

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    On the right is a photo of sobbing little Iraqi girl, splattered with the blood of her parents who had just been murdered by US troops at a checkpoint.

    It wasn’t a checkpoint. They encountered a patrol. There was more tragedy after this for the family than most of the media stories covered, but I’m in no mood to elaborate, or dig up the details.

  4. garnetstar says

    I don’t know. As Mano says, there are people who couldn’t bear the sight and people who would sadistically enjoy it.

    OTOH, Emmet Till’s mother caused a great outpouring for change by showing his body, and it was gruesome footage on the evening news that caused opposition to the Vietnam war, which eventually helped end it.

    It might help bring change, but it might take a long time.

  5. says

    I imagine that for certain types of gun fondlers, such photos might constitute gun porn. More to a kind of everyday BS though, Senator John Thune of S. Dakota said that an AR-15 is “sporting rifle” and people in his state use them to shoot prairie dogs. This is crazy on multiple levels, the least of which is that these folks most be terrible shots in order to need a high powered assault style weapon to shoot a ground squirrel that only weighs a couple of pounds. When I was a kid, people hunted small mammals with a .22. I dunno, maybe these folks think it’s “fun” to watch a prairie dog explode into a fine red mist when it takes a direct hit from an AR-15. That, or maybe they have 6 foot tall Terminator prairie dogs there that eat cars.

    But the truly insane part is that Thune is, in essence, arguing that it is more important that these folks get to continue their “hunting” than it is for little kids to be safe in their schools and ordinary people to be safe in the local grocery store. No, I take that back. That is insane, but the truly insane thing is that every media outlet hasn’t pilloried him for such a bullsh*t statement. We get crickets instead.

  6. Rob Grigjanis says

    Re #3: Of course, the photographer and his life and achievements are well known. The butchered family and their story, not so much.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    … what might be called ‘war porn’…

    More accurately and concisely, “warnography”.

  8. txpiper says

    Showing unpleasant things for effect can backfire. There should be no doubt that anti-abortion advocates will use the same technique.

  9. consciousness razor says

    At least 2/3 of Americans already support effective gun control laws, but not enough elected representatives do.

    Yes. Perhaps if we could show people gruesome pictures of the filibuster, which is the cause of so many of our woes, maybe then…. Not really though, because the Senate is the thing that would have to end it, but they have very little regard for what the general population actually wants.

  10. sonofrojblake says

    Anti-choice crowd use this tactic and are absolutely condemned for it, shoving graphic pictures of foetuses into the faces of women seeking family planning help. Be careful taking up their methods.

  11. John Morales says

    sonofrojblake, a method is not a goal. I don’t conflate the two.

    Leaving aside that antiabortion usage is not accurate (show pictures of a glob of bloody snot, if they wanted to typify the abortion product), the method in each case purports to show reality.

    The only way to challenge it is to show it’s not true, so it’s quite a good method, I reckon.

  12. jrkrideau says

    Here in Canada, cigarette packages have gruesome pictures of what happens to smokers and I believe the Gov’t is moving to have each cigarette have some horrible picture on it.

    I do not know if it works but why not do it anyway? It raises production costs and may affect youth? Perhaps the same thing would have an effect on gun attitudes in the USA. Or at least raise production costs and make criminals a bit nervous.

    “Yes officer it was an AR-15 with the “Sandy Hook” shooting on the butt”. Christ, I just realized how obscene that sounds.

  13. says

    The public is very much removed from the reality of gun violence even in most of the violent media consumed. Even the goriest movies rarely ever show the result of a high caliber bullet hitting a person. Hell, it used to be that they didn’t even show blood. James Cagney would get shot, put his hands where the bullet would have hit, and slumped down. Now blood is shown, but usually it’s a neat little hole that can sometimes even barely slow Keanu Reeves down.

    With these kinds of visuals maybe it wouldn’t be a bad thing for people to see some of the real thing.

  14. John Morales says

    jrkrideau @13, good comment.

    This is (if not exclusively) a public health issue.

  15. sonofrojblake says

    Tell me you can’t picture an American saying this: “I used to have just the one AR-15.then the gubmint made a law where the butt hadda have” Sandy Hook” or”Columbine” or some shit printed on it. So here’s my collection… They’re releasing the “Uvalde” edition next week, already got my order in. ”

    However tasteless, 3% (at least) of Americans would lap it up. It’d be like pokémon. They’d be looking forward to the next one.

  16. John Morales says

    sonofrojblake @17, that has nothing to do with either the topic at hand, your original comment or my response to it.

    You know, the topic of graphic but absolutely real images of consequences.

  17. sonofrojblake says

    For the hard of reading, post 17 should have started with:

    Once again I overestimate the attention span and/or comprehension of the commentariat here.

  18. John Morales says

    sonofrojblake, “hard of reading”, you claim. Cool.

    That noted, 2/3 aint bad, eh?

    Make that “has nothing to do with either the topic at hand, your original comment”.

    Graphic photos, remember? Methods, remember?

    (not events, either. Your attention is very flighty)

  19. sonofrojblake says


    @17, remember?

    Not @12, @16, @18, or @20. I’m not talking to you. I’m not responding to the original post. I’m responding directly to jkrideau in post 17. Why you felt the need to interject, I don’t know. I can speculate that you’re desperate for the attention, any atteniton, even if, given your usual ideas and method of expressing them, people make it clear you’re unwelcome. You come across like the kid in the playground that nobody will play with who spends their days antagonising the bullies, because getting punched repeatedly in the head is the only interaction you can get anyone to have with you. You have my pity.

  20. friedfish2718 says

    Mr Singham asks: “Should we show graphic photos of gun victims?”
    Answer: Yes. Why not?
    An old newspaper proverb: If it bleeds it leads.
    The age of photography started around the USA Civil War and lots of gory pictures were published in newspapers for all, adults and children, to see. Photographs of cannon violence, musket violence, bayonet violence, explosive violence. There were no public outcry and no reports of mass psychological trauma. Back in those days, delicate snowflakes were rare.
    Commentator jkrideau is correct. A Youtube vlogger pointed to cigarette vending machines in Germany with graphic pictures of lung cancer and noticed that public smoking is much more prevalent in Germany than in the USA. Another Youtube vlogger noticed the widespread smoking in Denmark on day 1 of his stay in said country. I personally met a Canadian physician whose books on pulmonary medicine are used in various Medical Schools in the USA and Canada; I found him a few times smoking outside hospital grounds.
    American culture has changed from rural to urban. Those in rural cultures are exposed at very young ages to the facts of life: animal sex in the raw, animal butchering, making of sausage, hunting, fishing, farmer injuries and deaths, birth of animal and human babies. Those in urban cultures are exposed to little and thus more prone to allergies and mental illness. Homework for Mr Singham et al.: what percentage of mass shooters are from rural culture? Rural people have far greater exposure to weapons than urban people.
    I doubt showing graphic photos of gun victims will change many minds. Photographs of hammer violence, knife violence, baseball bat violence, car violence are much more gruesome.

  21. says

    A Youtube vlogger pointed to cigarette vending machines in Germany with graphic pictures of lung cancer and noticed that public smoking is much more prevalent in Germany than in the USA.

    That datum in no way implies causation between pics of lung cancer and an increase in smoking. It may well be that the rate of smoking was higher and the pics were added in an effort to curb it.

    The remainder of your post is of equivalent validity.

  22. lochaber says

    Almost everyone in the U.S. lives in or near an urban center.

    If you are trying to frame this as an urban/rural thing, then you have already fucked up.

    In all honesty, it’s probably not even your fault, as the rural education system in the U.S. sucks even worse thatn the urban one.

    Just, try not to shoot anyone about it…

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