Monthly Archives: April 2014

How Sandy Hook Changed the Political Landscape for Gun Reform

On the 16th March 1996, a school shooting took place in Dunblane, Scotland, which irrevocably changed the United Kingdom’s relationship with guns: private firearm ownership was revoked, except in circumstances where individuals could demonstrate ‘good reasons’ for needing them, such as ‘pest control’ and sports shooting. On the 14th December 2012, a school shooting paralleling the Dunblane incident occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut: adult male perpetrators carried out the attacks; similar ammunition (hollow point bullets) was used; the majority of victims were young children aged five and six. Similar to Dunblane, the horrific Sandy Hook shooting acted as a ‘focusing event,’ putting the issues of gun violence and school shootings back on the policy agenda. In the United States, the cultural and historical values attached to guns and constitutional parameters means that the policy debate Sandy Hook triggered was of a different nature to the one in the United Kingdom after Dunblane; although, it was in no way less significant.

Until that day in 2012, prospects for gun reform in the United States had stalled. Calls for action on gun laws were made following a mass shooting in July 2012 at a late night screening of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ at a cinema in Aurora, Colorado, which killed twelve people and wounded fifty-nine others. With 2012 being an election year, no action was taken by the Obama administration on this occasion. After the Sandy Hook school shooting, however, re-elected President Obama gave a very emotional press conference and appointed a team headed by vice-President, Joe Biden, to put together gun reform proposals. A bi-partisan bill was put together in early 2013 requiring background checks for gun show and internet sales; this failed to pass the Senate by five votes.

This does not mean, however, that policy action in this area has stalled. The political action committees Mayors against Illegal Guns and Americans for Responsible Solutions are funding gun reform campaigns. Other prominent groups like Moms Demand Action, whose particular focus is preventing children becoming victims of gun violence, have emerged. A number of political actors are now on board for change. Public support for universal background checks for all gun sales in polls is high and not particularly partisan in nature. A number of states have managed to introduce background checks bills into their legislatures, with Connecticut, Colorado, Maryland and New York passing landmark laws. All these factors, coupled with the risk of future school shootings occurring, strongly suggest that the tragic Sandy Hook (2012) incident will continue to generate policy responses in future.

[The statements made here are taken from the research findings of my doctoral thesis about the news media and policy responses to school shootings, as well as further background reading.]

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15 Year Since Columbine: A Legacy of Fear

It is fifteen years today since the massacre at Columbine High School, Littleton, Colorado, where thirteen people were murdered and numerous others wounded. Accounts from eyewitnesses in news reports documenting the attack conveyed the horror of the shooting; long-term news coverage portrayed school shootings as an on-going trend and a naturalised risk which could occur at any time. It now appears the term ‘Columbine’ has become shorthand for an event so horrific that it requires no explanation. Last week, a colleague of mine at a university in the United States attended an emergency meeting to deal with the threat of a student threatening to ‘pull a Columbine’ if a situation about their finances was not resolved. Following the Columbine school shooting, copycat threats escalated at an exponential rate for a number of months. These threats eventually dropped, only to spike again every year around the time of the anniversary of Columbine on the 20th April.

The threat of future attacks meant there were positive policy legacies to come from this fear: revising emergency management plans to address flaws which had been highlighted by past school shooting situations; adapting training to a potential school shooting scenario; making emergency alerts sent out in a school shooting situation clearer and detailed, with explicit instructions about actions to take; it created a market for mobile phone safety applications, such as LiveSafe, which facilitates communication in an emergency situation and allows users to alert others of an on-going incident.
Despite these positive changes, fifteen years later, discussions on social media indicate that students still feel vulnerable and anxious about the prospect of a school shooting occurring. Embracing the idea that they are likely to become victims, some students are devising potential strategies to deal with an attack, such as searching for exits and windows in classrooms to escape from. Such feelings of vulnerability have also given traction to movements like ‘concealed carry on campus,’ lobbying to allow students to carry concealed firearms in higher education institutions to negate any threats which may occur. The tragic legacy of Columbine means conquering the fear, dread and anxiety it left behind is the only way to move forward.

(The statements made here are taken from the research findings of my doctoral thesis on news media and policy responses to school shootings.)

This photograph was taken at the Columbine Memorial Site, behind the High School in Littleton, Colorado.

This photograph was taken at the Columbine Memorial Site, behind the High School in Littleton, Colorado.