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PBS Ombudsman

Firing Blanks?

At the bottom of an ombudsman's mailbag posted on March 7, were two letters from viewers who challenged the accuracy of a statement by former New York City Police Commissioner Howard Safir on the recent PBS documentary "After Newtown: Guns in America."

Safir was talking about the violence on city streets years ago and said: "We saw everything from what's called a Saturday Night Special, which is a cheap .22 or .38 made overseas, to 9 mm's that fire 14-17 shots at a time, to the extreme Street Sweepers, which is a shotgun that has a 100-round magazine on it, to machine guns like the machine pistols, high-volume magazines, 30 cartridges in each magazine. It's amazing the amount of firepower. In fact, the reason that law enforcement went from .38 revolvers, which were the standard issue when I started in 1965, to 9 mm was because we were being out-firepowered by the criminals."

It was the description of the "Street Sweeper" shotgun with a 100-round magazine on it that attracted the criticism of viewers in Brick, N.J., and Green Cove Springs, Fla. They said that the weapon can be loaded with 12 rounds, not 100, called Safir's statement "grossly inaccurate," as the Florida viewer put it, adding: "That type of error is what leads some people to question the impartiality of your organization when you present these types of shows dealing with these types of issues. I suppose that an on-air clarification of this error would be too much to ask for; but at least you now know that the error didn't go unnoticed."

The mailbag also included a response from producer Jonathan Silvers who, at my request for documentation or evidence about this combination of weapon and magazine, went back to Safir multiple times and reported back that the commissioner stood by his description. And it also included an ombudsman's note from me saying I assumed that Safir knew what he was talking about but that the viewers also seemed to know what they were talking about and that I was "unable to provide a more substantive answer for the viewers at this time."

Since then, I've corresponded again with the viewers and with Silvers, who said "Howard [Safir] was emphatic and stood by his statement. It also seems that many criminals modify their weapons to accept bigger cartridges and clips and magazines. I think at this stage it's over and done with. Not sure what else there is to do."

I've also done a fair amount of web searches about the "Street Sweeper," and talked to a couple of recommended gun experts. And, if you are really determined to get further into this, the Florida viewer has posted all but the latest exchanges between us.

My Thoughts

I still find it awkward to doubt the answers of a big city police commissioner about guns, and I still don't have a convincing, confident sense of whether at some place and at some time someone managed to modify this shotgun to carry what would be quite a heavy magazine with 100 rounds in it.

But the point of this column is to say that, so far, I have not found nor been presented with any evidence of such a Street Sweeper shotgun/100-magazine combination. So I'm on the side of the viewers on this one.

I do not, however, accept the argument of the Florida viewer that this "type of error is what leads some people to question the impartiality of your organization." I don't doubt that some people will use something like this to hang a label on PBS, but there is no reason to believe Safir would make something like that up, or would have any interest in doing so, or that a producer would not assume that an NYPD commissioner knows what he is talking about in describing his experiences with guns. And, maybe Safir is right about modifications but was thinking about another weapon.

Another unsatisfying point that this episode raises is how do you correct something that a producer is not sure merits correction? And even if you wanted to, how could you do it when the film is not going to be re-shot and the DVDs are already produced and sold? My vote would be for the producer to post an explanatory note on the program's website outlining the challenges, noting Safir's defense of his statement, but noting that there has been no documentary evidence offered to support the statement about that specific weapon.

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