Oct. 14, 2023  

Aim, Fire, Report

SPJ taught five journalists how to fire a pistol, shotgun, and AR-15. Want to be number six?

By Michael Koretzky

Rafael Olmeda is an excellent shot. And he hates that.

The South Florida Sun Sentinel reporter was one of five journalists from three newspapers who participated in Under Fire, an experimental program funded by the Society for Professional Journalism.

The concept is simple: If you’re a reporter long enough, you’ll surely cover gun violence and perhaps a mass shooting. So you should know something about the weapons those shooters wield.

Olmeda had never fired a gun before Under Fire on Oct. 7. But certified firearms instructor Steve Triana said Olmeda hit the targets more often and with more precision than any of his peers.

“He has great aim,” Triana says.

“That’s not something I wanted to hear, to be honest,” Olmeda says. Here’s why: Olmeda has already covered a mass shooting.

Lois K. Solomon learns how to fire a pistol and an AR-15 from instructor Steve Triana

Mass shooting, mass coverage

Five years ago, a 19-year-old used an AR-15 to kill 17 and wound 17 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. That’s only a few miles from where Olmeda lives.

Olmeda walked through the building that Cruz shot up. He interviewed devastated parents. He covered the court proceedings – for six months. The Sun Sentinel won a Pulitzer for its coverage.

“I don’t want to hear I have great aim,” Olmeda says. “To me, good aim with a weapon like that means a dead kid.”

So why did he sign up for Under Fire?

“I struggled to remove the exercise from the context of my memory, but it was also necessary,” Olmeda says. “I truly believe without this experience, I would understand the subject matter a little bit less than I did before. It was emotionally jarring for me to do this. But it was important for me to know.”

One lesson he didn’t expect…

I was taken by the safety measures that were in place for our little experiment. I needed to make sure my fingers and hands were in a particular position. I needed to make sure I was touching this part of the weapon and, for God’s sake, not that part of the weapon.

That also surprised Palm Beach Post reporter Chris Persaud: “Seeing how careful people at the range were – and the safety precautions they took – should help reporters understand how much respect a responsible gun user has for their weapon. Contrast that with shooters who get arrested.”

Dan Glaun fires a shotgun and an AR-15

What others learned

Persaud learned other lessons big and small.

“Just knowing how a pistol or rifle feels from the point of view of the shooter – the weight, the grip, the recoil, the safety precautions needed to wield the piece without hurting yourself – should help any reporter covering cops and crime,” Persaud says.

He also learned, in a very physical way…

“Semi-automatic” does not mean that a few bullets spray out when the trigger is pulled. Lots of people, and probably lots of journalists, don’t know that. Might seem like an unimportant detail, but we gotta get even the small details right. Incorrect details are like sour notes in a good tune. Readers notice. Credibility gets damaged.

Speaking of the physical effects of Under Fire, Sun Sentinel reporter Lois K. Solomon says, “It was much more of a physical experience than I expected. You are jolted by the bullet coming out, by the sound, by the smell of gunpowder, by the casings popping back at you.”

Sometimes, Under Fire participants learned opposite lessons.

“The guns were heavier than I thought they would be,” Solomon says.

“The weapons felt much lighter than I expected,” Persaud says.

The other two participants…

  • Eric Wallace, Palm Beach Post – “Under Fire dispelled some of my preconceived notions. I have covered multiple instances of gun violence on my beats. I’ll be better equipped to handle those situations in the future, thanks to this experience.”
  • Dan Glaun, Naples Daily News – “I thought it was interesting and useful. I think it will make my reporting on shootings more precise, and allow for more accurate descriptions and more informed questions when interviewing people about firearms.”

Glaun took the experience one step further: “I also found it useful to get Triana’s contact info for use as a future source on technical gun info and the pro-Second Amendment side on gun control politics.”

Now that’s a dedicated journalist.

Want to know more about Under Fire? Email us. We can host it where you are – for free.


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