Is It News When It’s Legal?

As Americans still reeling from a national tragedy, we’re all a little more sensitive to particular issues — in this instance, guns.

An incident involving an assault rifle took place in Charlottesville Sunday night. As the acting weekend managing editor, I chose not to run the story that our television competition and local paper did.

It started on the police scanners in the newsroom. We heard that a man in his 20s was walking into a local grocery story carrying an AR-15 assault rifle. It was almost casual. According to the scanner traffic, he was not posing any other threat than carrying a weapon.

Some customers noticed this and left the store, calling police.

Ultimately, police arrived on the scene, questioned the young man and released him. The supermarket manager banned him from ever returning to that store.

The reason I chose not to run the story — the man did nothing legally wrong. He was not charged with any crime. In Virginia, it is perfectly legal to walk into a business with a gun, unless that business expressly prohibits it. This supermarket, presumably, did not have a sign near the entrance to say it prohibits guns.

Of course, at the first sound of this, your mind travels to what it could become. But what could have become never did. Police did not perceive any threat to public safety; otherwise, presumably, they would have detained the subject. No one was injured. The only news element out of this was that a man was banned from a supermarket.

If I included the story in the newscast, I would be reporting on an incident in which nothing illegal happened. Therefore, is it news? Yes, there was minor police activity for a few minutes. Yes, a number of other customers may have been scared. But a car accident on the side of the road has the same effects. And even though they don’t always make the news, someone typically ends up getting charged with something.

So, what would you do? Run it? Or hold it?

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