The real issue behind on-air killings of journalists

Story highlights

  • Errol Louis: Killings of two journalists during TV broadcast lead to familiar call for gun control
  • Louis says such a call ignores more relevant problem of workplace violence
  • Firms must offer training on dealing with dangerous co-workers, he says

Errol Louis is the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)As day follows night, the stunning killings of journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward in Roanoke, Virginia -- a gruesome crime caught on live television -- all too quickly became grist for politicians and ideologues to argue about their favorite issues, while skipping the elephant in the room: the widespread prevalence of workplace violence.

Errol Louis
To hear politicians such Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe talk about it, the killings of Parker and Ward by a deranged ex-employee could have been prevented with tougher gun laws.
President Barack Obama said, "It breaks my heart every time you read or hear about these kinds of incidents," and his White House spokesman called the killings "another example of gun violence that is becoming all too common in communities large and small all across the United States," pointing to "common-sense things that only Congress can do that we know would have a tangible impact on reducing gun violence in this country."
    From the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton called for "preventive measures and control measures" to limit gun violence.
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    Such statements predictably have already drawn a reaction from gun-ownership advocates, who can rightly point out that the incident became a rallying point for gun control legislation -- without regard for whether it would have stopped or even slowed the killings in Virginia. In a nation that struggles with mixed feelings about the constitutional right to bear arms, latching onto the latest tragedy will likely produce the same old stalemate.
    A more fruitful discussion worth having is about the scourge of workplace violence, which the killings of Parker and Ward certainly was. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a federal agency, while workplace violence has dropped in recent years, it is still startlingly frequent. Nearly a decade ago, according to the agency, 20 workers were murdered every week. A more recent report shows the tide of violence declining, but as of 2009, 521 people were killed on the job and 572,000 non-fatal violent crimes took place, including rape, robbery and assault.
    That averages out to more than 10 lives lost every week. Many of the tales are grisly: As CNN pointed out last fall, a fired UPS employee in Alabama shot two former colleagues to death before killing himself; a laid-off worker in Oklahoma went to his old plant and beheaded the first person he saw; and a traffic controller in Illinois set fire to his workplace and slit his throat.
    And all those happened in a single week.
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    It happens so frequently that the horrific stories tend to be news only within a local community. If the Roanoke tragedy hadn't been caught on video, it's doubtful anybody outside the region would have heard about it. Estimates of how much workplace violence could be costing the nation run as high as $36 billion a year.
    Instead of revving up another round of finger-pointing and political grandstanding on the issue of gun control, we should focus on teaching the public how to spot, prevent and defend against workplace violence. There's no shortage of publications offering advice and best practices that businesses and government agencies should follow. Many of these practices helped bring about a steep drop in workplace violence over the last 20 years; they need to continue.
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    Some suggestions, like training employees to report threats of violence, are obvious. But how many of us have had such training?
    All workers should get professional instruction on how to talk with a troubled or dangerously angry co-worker to reduce or minimize the threat of violence. Other approaches to protecting employees, such as court orders of protection, will require business owners and agency managers to figure out legal strategies.
    But above all, we have to stop treating workplace killings as sporadic, one-time bursts of irrational behavior. When hundreds of people are being killed on the job every year and thousands are being attacked, it's time we armed every worker with the tools they need to avoid the fate of the young journalists killed in Virginia.