Opinion editor's note: Star Tribune Opinion publishes a mix of national and local commentaries online and in print each day. To contribute, click here.


In 1955, the mother of Emmett Till demanded an open casket for her 14-year-old, Chicago-born son and contacted journalists to photograph and publish the images of his badly mutilated face and body. Grieving and outraged, Mamie Till-Mobley wanted the world to see what had been done to her boy when he was kidnapped, tortured, shot and ultimately dumped in the bottom of the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi. The subsequent pictures, published in the Black magazine Jet and widely circulated in other media, jolted the nation and helped mobilize the civil rights era.

Similarly, the photograph of the summary execution of a Viet Cong captive — a gun to his head — and the image of a horrified young woman kneeling over the dead body of a Kent State University student shot by the National Guard are two other examples of powerful photographs that deeply touched Americans — and accelerated the antiwar movement.

Now, at a time when the tragedy of mass shootings continues to expand (already more than 350 this year involving four or more injured or killed) it's time to ask whether a different strategy is necessary to change policy and slow this epidemic of gun violence, particularly by AR-15 assault rifles. With each new deadly massacre, we move one step closer to accepting these horrific events as routine — a time to give thoughts and prayers, wring hands, assert how wrong it is — then assume nothing can be done.

In an effort to protect the victims and their families and minimize the public's trauma, media outlets have typically chosen not to publish images of death's toll, particularly given the extreme effects of these high-powered killing machines. That's understandable — and thoughtful. But is the sanitizing of the grisly reality by withholding the visual facts not desensitizing a public that could be motivated to demand change?

Circulating images of this devastating carnage carries a risk, of course. The coroner responsible for identifying the shattered children's bodies from Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, said that "it's something you never want to see." Circulation would require significant care and discretion, as well as the approval of victims' families. Publishing or broadcasting would need a serious warning to minimize accidental viewing and possible trauma from viewing the awful images. Some gun advocates will decry the photographs as fake. Others would find new ways to exploit this horror.

But just as the courageous mother of Emmett Till felt she had to take action, we need brave grieving families and brave editors and publishers who understand the continuing consequences of withholding this reality from the public's gaze. In my view, this is a risk we must take to shock the conscience and jolt a discouraged, resigned public to demand action — and motivate reticent lawmakers to do more, including reinstating a ban on AR-15s.

This is sensitive stuff, requiring tough decisions. That's why I sought to take the pulse of people on social media and the readers of my own newsletter, America, America. Honestly, I anticipated a more mixed response to this controversial question rather than a large majority of respondents who said it's time to show the graphic images and let people see what these massacres are really like.

Add to this list Jeh Johnson, the former secretary of Homeland Security, who believes "the death and destruction must be honestly revealed." As he put it recently, "We need a game changer. We need an Emmett Till moment."

Yes, this is a lot to ask of mourning parents or other victims' family members. They alone understand the price of our nation's gun epidemic. But do we not owe it to them and everyone who has felt the ripple effects of this metastasizing violence to take action that can change the equation and shift the trajectory of America's future? Failing to do so will inevitably yield more of the same.

Steven Beschloss, author of the book "The Gunman and His Mother" about Lee Harvey Oswald, writes and publishes the newsletter America, America. He is a professor of practice at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication as well as several other colleges at Arizona State University.