News from Outside the Path of Totality: Florida Highway Shooter Blames God, Eclipse for Her Actions; the Media Just Blames

by Vern Evans
Jongsun Lee/Unsplash Photo

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As a small-town newspaper reporter at the start of my career and when print newspapers were still a thing, I worked in a newsroom where one of our goals with stories of high national or international interest was to make them more relatable to the local audience.

Conflict breaks out between Israel and Gaza; you go to the local synagogue and interview Jewish leaders and families. Today, you might stop at a mosque and interview members of the local Muslim population (though back in the late 1990s there honestly weren’t any mosques in central Virginia or northeastern North Carolina that I knew of). Or you can even ask the socially rabid white Karen-in-training with straight As at an Ivy League school and vacationing with daddy at Martha’s Vineyard why she is willing to firebomb a cop car in protest over a conflict on the other side of the world, and of which she most often doesn’t even understand. Little Karen aside, if you could find someone with relatives in the actual conflict providing you with an international story with local connections, you had local news reporter paydirt.

If there were forest fires raging across the Rockies, you interviewed local fire officials about if there was a risk of such fires in the rural countryside outside the town. If there was a school shooting (and there wasn’t any back then either, though oddly, there were still plenty of guns around at the time) you’d interview local students to tease out their fear and apprehension so the local community could feel at one with the national angst and maybe feel grateful it wasn’t them. You get the point.

Such lessons don’t go away, even as a journalist’s career morphs and the writing they take on changes. We are creatures of habit and so fall back on what we know. So, it was this past week as eclipse fever swept the country, and mothers warned their kids not to look at the sun with naked eyes, that I pondered what connection might exist between the eclipse and the gun and shooting community.

It seemed a stretch. I was talking to a fellow editor at a hunting magazine and he told me with turkey seasons open in the South and about to open elsewhere, they were getting observations on how wild turkeys reacted to the eclipse. Interestingly, some reports from the so-called “path of totality” revealed as the sun began to emerge, some turkeys began to gobble their heads off from the roosts they had flown up to as it got dark. They had totally been fooled into thinking night had already come and gone.

But I didn’t have such a connection I could make with just firearms, or so I thought until I saw this headline from the Associated Press, “Woman shoots interstate drivers, says God told her to because of the eclipse, Florida police say”.

It wasn’t the angle I was looking for, but it was an angle of how mental illness and guns do not mix, and as such, is of interest to those who care about how such people’s actions can impact our gun rights and ability to enjoy firearms as the larger community of law-abiding gun owners. Thankfully, nobody was killed as a result of this mad woman’s actions.

Here’s what the AP reported:

A woman checked out of a Florida hotel on Monday, told staff that she was going on a God-directed shooting spree because of the North American solar eclipse that day, and allegedly shot two drivers on Interstate 10 before being arrested, according to the state’s highway patrol.

Taylon Nichelle Celestine, 22, of Georgia, entered the highway in Bonifay… and headed west … she fired into a passing car several times, shattering windows and grazing the driver in the arm, the department said in a statement.

She then fired at a second vehicle, hitting the driver in the neck. The driver was treated at a hospital.

Troopers stopped the woman after she drove for about 16 miles (26 kilometers) and found her with an AR-15 rifle and 9mm handgun. She was arrested and booked into the Holmes county jail.

She was charged with attempted murder, aggravated battery with a deadly weapon and improper discharge of a firearm.

The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, with digital websites geared for different parts of the English-speaking world, also reported the news story, running the AP News report verbatim, until the end when it started editorializing with:

The ease with which Americans are able to stockpile guns and then potentially use them to attack strangers at random has motivated many activists to call on federal lawmakers to enact more substantial firearms restrictions. Few such measures have been adopted.

“What the hell was that?” I thought like someone discovering a used Band-Aid in their bowl of cereal. I read the precise wording of the last paragraph over again. It had clearly been written from a Brit point of view. Even more interestingly, it appeared right before an appeal at the bottom of the page from the U.S. edition editor, Betsy Reed, to donate money to the news organization citing their fairness and editorial integrity.

Ms. Reed had this to say:

Thank you for reading the Guardian, which is different from many organizations in the US media bubble. As the most important election of our lifetimes looms, I want you to know the three key reasons we are able to prioritize responsible reporting over the race for profits and clicks:

  1. With no billionaire owner to appease or shareholders to enrich, we are fully editorially independent and answerable only to you, our readers.We are not being pushed by anyone to amp up false scandals or cover the election like a reality TV contest. 
  2. We are unafraid to say plainly that US democracy is facing a unique historic threat.Instead of obsessing over who’s up and who’s down in the polls, our journalists are acutely focused on the stakes of this election: the fact that the fate of our democracy and our planet are on the line.
  3. We are keenly aware of how the media can be manipulated to promote political agendas.Our election coverage is defined in part by what we choose not to cover: we do not amplify gossipy stories drummed up by opposition researchers, platform lies and misinformation, or engage in “he said-she said” coverage without adequate context. 

The media will play a crucial role in shaping the outcome of this election – and this time, journalists must get it right. The Guardian is committed to doing so, but we can only do it with reader support. The majority of our funding comes from people like you contributing what you can.

Sounds like the folks at the Guardian, who believe they aren’t being manipulated, are fine as long as they are the manipulators. That, or Ms. Reed’s belief that The Guardian’s editorializing on firearms rights in this country isn’t part of a “political agenda” bent on “manipulation” or potentially echoing “false” narratives. And forgive me if my history is a little rusty, but it seems what the British have to say about how our country is run hasn’t really mattered since Sept. 3, 1783 when the Treaty of Paris was signed officially ending the Revolutionary War.

It also seems logic and truth—and fairness—in the gun debate have been eclipsed in the minds of both British and American mainstream journalists, and now they find themselves in a moment of darkness that has them so blind, they can’t even tell when they are lying to themselves.

Maybe that’s the real eclipse story that deserves coverage. Ms. Reed is right about one thing though, “the fate of our democracy” is on the line. The question is, who is the real enemy?


Editor: Along those lines, here’s a great, thought-provoking scene from 1995’s Crimson Tide with two of the greatest actors of our time.

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