Monthly Archives: October 2014

“These people [school shooters]: they’re seriously mentally ill, they’re hearing voices”: Will redefining the criteria for prohibited gun owners reduce school shootings?

The quote cited in the title, said by one of the experts on gun-related legislation I interviewed, highlights the difference of school shootings from other types of gun violence in the U.S. A commonality in school shootings and other types of spree incidents does tend to be mental illness: the Virginia Tech University shooting (2007); the Northern Illinois University shooting (2008); the mass shooting in Tuscon, Arizona (2011); the Aurora Theatre shooter in Colorado (2012); the ‘Navy Yard’ shootings in Washington, D.C. (2013). In all of these examples, the perpetrators legally procured firearms: my gun violence prevention interviewees claimed that this was due to limitations in existing laws.

One interviewee pointed to the restrictiveness of the criteria for disqualification under the federal-level “Gun Control Act” (1968): being admitted to a psychiatric institution or being formally adjudicated by a court as a danger. For instance, the Virginia Tech shooter was prohibited from purchasing firearms under federal law; however, because he had only ‘temporarily detained’ at a mental institute rather than ‘committed,’ he was able to circumvent the federal restrictions and be eligible to buy firearms under state law at that time. Following the attack, the Governor of Virginia, using executive order, changed the law to prescribe that anyone found to be a danger to themselves or others by a court-ordered review — regardless of whether or not it was voluntary — should be prohibited. It was suggested by another interviewee that the specific criteria for firearm purchase exclusion at both the federal and state levels should mandate a broader scope of the threat posed by individuals, based on their history and whether they have expressed intentions to harm themselves or others.

Citizens themselves could also play a part by monitoring those closest to them and taking precautions to ensure untoward things do not happen, suggested one of my interviewees. This is particularly relevant when considering the Sandy Hook elementary school shooter had severe mental illness, yet was able to access his mother’s firearms to kill her and the victims at the school. The careful monitoring of those closest to them could also encourage those with mental illnesses to seek treatment before they carry out violent actions. Notably, the Virginia Tech school shooter (2007) did not pursue treatment on his own; rather, it was his remark to his suitemates “I might as well kill myself” that resulted in him getting mentally assessed.

In order to put mental health on the government agenda, interviewees recommended framing it as a ‘public health issue’ centred on school and other types of mass shootings. The issue of mental health and guns would then have to be based on a reconceptualisation of public safety based on the increasing number of mass shooting incidents, particularly those where the perpetrator legally procured a gun despite a history of mental illness. When it comes to school shooters, it is possible that putting barriers in the way of those who are mentally ill and have the potential to act violently could allow for interventionary efforts to help the individual before it culminates in a shooting incident.

[This blog used results from interviews with representatives from gun violence prevention groups and other experts in gun-related legislation. Further adding to this post were studies about the legal changes after the Virginia Tech shooting and general readings about past mass/school shooting incidents. The next blog post will examine how emergency management could play a part in reducing the severity of school shootings.]

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“There’s nothing stopping prohibited persons until we close that background check loophole”: Will universal background checks prevent school shootings?

The quotation in the title was said by one of my gun violence prevention (GVP) interviewees. This is due to a loophole in the federal-level law the Brady Bill (1994), allowing background checks to be foregone in private transactions between individuals (such as classified advertisements) and at places like gun shows and flea markets. My GVP interviewees pointed to a lack of transparency surrounding such sales as the main motivation for prohibited persons using them. Notably, a gun show is where the Columbine perpetrators obtained three of their weapons. Robyn Anderson, a ‘straw buyer’ for the shooters who purchased the guns and then transferred them, admitted that she would not have done so had there been paperwork to fill out One of the shooters, Eric Harris, had been legally old enough to purchase the three long guns obtained. Presumably, then the Columbine shooters went through the ‘straw purchase’ method with Robyn Anderson to avoid alerting anyone to their plans. The fact that it facilitated preparations for this particular school shooting makes one think closing the gun show loophole federally — which would then act as a baseline for all the states to compile with —should at least be considered as a policy option.

A number of research studies have pointed out that ‘closing the gun show loophole’ only goes a limited way to solving the problem, as it is only addressing a small portion of private sales. (1) Taking this argument further, the interviewee quoted in the titled explained that those prohibited from buying and owning guns could also use the internet, newspaper advertisements and personal connections to circumvent the restriction. With this in mind, my gun-related interviewees overall believed that universal background checks would reduce school shootings and the more commonplace gun violence deaths, meaning it is the law which will save the most lives.

The post-Sandy Hook grassroots momentum pertaining to background checks has been described by one of my interviewees as ‘palpable,’ with it “all coming down to ‘let’s do the background checks’” for all GVP groups, which should generate solidarity and improve their chances of success. Despite not having a clear link to background checks, Sandy Hook has mobilised public support for this policy measure. This is evident in the introduction of a universal background checks bill into the Senate in spring 2013 shows this issue has been identified and acted upon. The bill failed by a narrow margin; however, interviewees were hopeful this will be successful if reintroduced in future.

Universal background checks also get the highest level of public support than any other regulatory measure. A nationwide poll carried out by the Pew Research Center found that 85% of 1500 adults supported universal background checks. (2) This support is not particularly partisan either: 86% of Republican and 92% of Democrat supporters were in favour of universal background checks. (3) It seems, therefore, that despite its divorcement from the Sandy Hook shooting itself, background check support has increased as a result of it.

This measure appears to have a higher chance of gaining public backing because it does not affect gun owners in any way: it is about regulating who can buy and own guns, rather than controlling guns themselves. This is reflected in high, non-partisan levels of public support. To sum up, universal background checks appears to be an objective that all GVP groups and politicians can get behind because it focuses on the users of guns rather than controlling guns themselves.

[This blog was put together using material from interviews with GVP groups and attendance at related events, polls and information about the ‘Brady Bill’ legislation. The next blog will look at redefining the criteria for prohibited persons in relation to mental illness, which is a common factor in school shootings.]

(1) Webster, D. W., J. S. Vernick, E. W. McGinty and T. Alcorn. (2013) ‘Preventing the Diversion of Guns to Criminals through effective Firearm Sales Laws.’ In D. W. Webster and J. S. Vernick. Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis. Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press, 109-121.
Wintemute, G.J. (2013a) ‘Comprehensive Background Checks for Firearm Sales: Evidence from Gun Shows.’ In D. W. Webster and J. S. Vernick. Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis. Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press, 95-107.
(2) Cited in Page, S. (2013) ‘Poll spots activism in gun control debate.’ USA Today, 15th January, News 6A (hard copy).
(3) McGinty, E. E., D. W. Webster, J. S. Vernicle, and C. L. Barry. (2013) ‘Public Opinion on Proposals to Strengthen U.S. Gun Laws: Findings from a 2013 Survey.’ In D. W. Webster and J. S. Vernick. Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis. Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press, 239-257.

Debating School Shootings: What YouTube Reveals

In this post, I want to highlight the usefulness of appropriating the video-sharing/social media website YouTube to study people’s understandings of school shootings. Comments on this website offer a ‘snapshot’ — they are not a comprehensive representation, given their limited space and people’s selectiveness of what they choose to write — into people’s perceptions both at the time of the school shooting incidents and periods afterwards. Notably, YouTube is an auspicious site for debates amongst users, given its relatively simple interface, some degree of anonymity for users and threads of comments. YouTube has already been the subject of analysis in only a handful of school shooting related studies. (1)

What makes YouTube particularly compelling for researchers is that it allows for people’s true feelings about the perpetrators and the shootings to be expressed without any censoring — the only exception to this would be flagging comments as ‘spam, but those can still be read anyway by clicking on the ‘show’ link. This would not be the case with other avenues of public discussion, for example ‘letters to the editor’ sent to news media outlets, as these go through an editorial process like other news content. It also gives an insight into the particular language used to describe school shootings and their perpetrators. The downside to that is that commentators sometimes use ‘colourful’ language, poor grammar and post in a ‘rant’ like format. On some occasions, users may be internet trolls deliberately engaging in debates with shocking or offensive to get a reaction from others.

Bockler and Seeger (2) sought out users expressing admiration for school shooters and thereafter interviewed them to find out why they felt this way. In the blogs posted on the 25th and 29th of June 2014, I discussed the feelings expressed on YouTube about school shooters, with dangerous principles, such as the ‘revenge and bullying theory’ and admiration for school shooters, being advanced by users. Extrapolating from this material, I designed a threat assessment model to be used to analyse material posted online about school shootings — refer back to the post published on the 16th July 2014 for a reminder of this. As documented in the blog posted on the 2 July 2014, the main problem with YouTube, however, is that it is nothing is really known about users except what they post and it is questionable how much of that is actually true. This means that the threat assessment model I proposed would be most effective when it is coupled with offline behaviours and threats, requiring a deeper analysis of users’ lives.

The study by Lindgren (3) examined patterns in school shooting discussions, discovering that monthly comments on videos would increase exponentially following a notable incident (i.e. high media coverage). Accordingly, this was something I noticed in my own research examining comments from June 2012-June 2013: activity peaked after high-profile mass shooting incidents at the Aurora Theatre, Colorado and Sandy Hook Elementary School, Connecticut. The resulting dialogues focused on a myriad of blame factors for these incidents occurring: gun laws, violent entertainment media, bullying, high school culture, the wider culture and the parents of perpetrators. Interestingly, it seemed to be a common acceptance amongst YouTube users that school shooters tend to be male, with some disputing essentialist notions of masculinity like sexual and athletic prowess, and the use of weapons — the blog posted on 11th of June 2014 spoke about the gendered nature of school shootings.

To sum up, future research should aim to utilise this research tool to examine dialogues between users as they unfold. Doing so will help capture the voice of the general public in how they react to school shooters and the way they make sense of incidents — this will then facilitate attempts to reduce the problem, particularly in trying to deter those who express admiration for school shooters.

[This blog was put together by looking at previous research linking YouTube and school shootings and my past blog entries falling under the same purview. The next two blog postings will examine gun legislation suggested as ways to reduce school shootings.]

  • Böckler, N. and T. Seeger (2013) ‘Revolution of the Dispossessed: School Shooters and their Devotees on the Web.’ In Böckler, T. Seeger, P. Sitzer and W. Heitmeyer (eds.) (2013) School Shootings: International Research, Case Studies and Concepts for Prevention. New York: Springer Science + Business Media, 309-339.

Lindgren, S. (2011) ‘YouTube Gunmen? Mapping participatory media discourse on school shooting videos.’ Media, Culture, Society 33, 123-136.

  • Böckler, N. and T. Seeger (2013) ‘Revolution of the Dispossessed: School Shooters and their Devotees on the Web.’ In Böckler, T. Seeger, P. Sitzer and W. Heitmeyer (eds.) (2013) School Shootings: International Research, Case Studies and Concepts for Prevention. New York: Springer Science + Business Media, 309-339.
  • Lindgren, S. (2011) ‘YouTube Gunmen? Mapping participatory media discourse on school shooting videos.’ Media, Culture, Society 33, 123-136.

“I think we should forget about more gun control, what we need is bullet control”(1): Could regulation of bullets reduce school shootings?

A neglected aspect of the gun debate in the U.S. is the notion of ‘bullet control’: this would take the form of conducting background checks for buying ammunition. The selling point is if someone owned a gun and became ineligible after committing a felony, this would prevent them from buying ammunition for that gun. Since ideology has been defined as an interest-linked perspective, there exists a ‘struggle for legitimacy’ (i.e. confirmation of that particular ideological perspective) predicated on existing divisions within society (2). Something like ‘bullet control,’ therefore, could possibly depoliticise the issue away from the debate on ‘gun rights’ and ‘gun control.’ A number of my interviewees, however, were sceptical about this being a way to circumvent the politics of gun regulation, believing the National Rifle Association would fight against it.

Ammunition regulation used to be a part of the federal-level ‘Gun Control Act’ (1968) prohibiting mail order sales and requiring a log of ammunition sales. This ended, however, in 1986 due to the ‘Firearm Owners’ Protection Act’ diluting elements of the 1968 law. This means it will now fall to individual states to make decisions regarding the regulation of ammunition. California, for example, has just implemented a law mandating: the marking of bullets, background checks for purchases, and recording buyer information. Notably, the gun violence prevention groups to whom I spoke indicated that California was the progressive ‘model’ for gun regulations to aspire to, as this state is able to take further steps than the rest of the nation. As a whole, California, District of Columbia, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York require licenses to purchase or possess ammunition.

Suggestions were made from gun violence prevention groups about regulating the quantities of bullets able to be sold. This seems particularly applicable to school shootings since the Virginia Tech shooter carried almost four hundred bullets with him; whilst the Columbine perpetrators fired almost two hundred rounds and wore utility belts containing clips of 9mm bullets. Taxation of bullets was dismissed as a viable strategy, however, since mass shooters are unlikely to be deterred from their goal based on the cost of ammunition. An alternative strategy is perhaps New York’s recent law requiring logs of purchases, so the police can be informed if someone is stockpiling bullets.

Another recommendation was restricting bullets that increase the severity of wounds. There seems to be a link between harm-inducing bullets and school shootings. The Virginia Tech shooter used 9mm ‘hollow point bullets,’ which penetrate further parts of the body rather than exiting it and are designed to inflict higher levels of damage than ordinary bullets. Similarly, the Sandy Hook shooter used bullets the same size as those used by military troops designed to tear bone and tissue apart. Tighter regulations of these could, at the very least, serve to reduce the severity of injuries in a school shooting situation; henceforth, framing the problem in terms of medical costs. Furthermore, a legal scholar (3) claimed that limiting certain bullets, such as .50 calibre ones, would be constitutional because it would not affect self-defence; meaning this is definitely something which could viably be pursued as a legislative goal.

[This blog was compiled through a number of sources: interviews with gun violence prevention groups and other experts in matters relating to gun legislation; studies by legal scholars; data about state laws. The next blog post will look at using YouTube as a tool to analyse school shootings.]

(1) The quote in the title appeared in episode ‘2162 Votes’ (2005) in season seven of the fictional television show The West Wing.
(2) Philo, G. (2007) ‘Can Discourse Analysis Successfully Explain the Content of Media and Journalistic Practice?’ Journalism Studies 8(2), 175-196.
(3) Volokh, E. (2009) ‘Implementing the Right to Keep and Bear Arms for Self-Defense: An Analytical Framework and Research Agenda.’ UCLA Law Review 56, 1443-1549.

“Something is wrong in this country”: Why do most school shootings occur in the U.S.?

The above statement was made by Tom Mauser, the father of a Columbine victim, a few days after the 1999 attack.[1] The notion of school shootings being a particular problem for the United States is exemplified by the results of a study looking at global trends up until 2011: the United States suffered from 76 school shootings; whereas the combined total for incidents around the world was 44. The countries with the second and third highest levels of attacks were Canada and Germany respectively.[2] What is particular interest here is the fact that the three countries with the greatest amount of incidents are all democratic and economically prosperous. Notably, gun crime, particularly in the U.S., is usually associated with minority groups in poorer, urban areas. School shootings, by contrast, tend to occur in White, middle-class, suburban locations, where crime rates are generally pretty low. This is clearly not a problem caused by economic deprivation.

So, why do these events occur most often in the U.S.? Is there something ‘wrong’ with that nation? Applying Hofstede’s often-quoted cultural model[3] to school shootings shows a correlation between incidents and nations with two characteristics: high individualism, predicated on a sense of self-importance, personal privacy and a need for individual gratification; lower power distance, where the unequal distribution of power between social groups is rarely challenged.  There are, of course, limitations to Hofstede’s model, particularly the assumption that values are universally held throughout each nation and culture is a transferable entity, which can be ascribed to each country.

Looking at the U.S. does suggest the explanation may partially lie in cultural expectations. It is an individualistic society, meaning there are fewer tendencies to talk through problems. Ideals about masculinity are entrenched in a violent boy culture, evident in historical trends such as young boys carrying chips of wood on their shoulders defying others to knock it off and engage in a physical altercation. In the school environment, boys who meet the requirements of ‘hyper-masculinity,’ by displaying athletic prowess, toughness and dominance are rewarded with the status of popularity. Hegemonic ideals of masculinity are further explicated in gun usage, where firing a weapon is an overt way to assert power over others. Given the U.S. has the highest level of gun ownership in the world, using guns may also be seen as a means of ‘performing’ one’s national identity.

Creating the optimum conditions for school shootings to occur, therefore, are the following factors evident in U.S. culture: individualism, lower power distance, a violent culture predicated on elements of hypermasculinity and high levels of gun ownership, usage and accessibility. As previous blogs documented, school shooters tend to have ‘fragile male identities,’ meaning the attack on their institution becomes a ‘solution’ to their ‘problems’ and a way for them to make their statement. Trying to prevent school shootings, henceforth, requires a shift in cultural preconceptions — this is something which is currently underway, to some extent, in gun violence prevention circles and will be explored in future blog posts.

[Material for this blog was taken from Hofstede’s cultural model, studies about school shootings, U.S. gun culture and theories about masculinity. Future blogs will look at how GVP groups are trying to challenge cultural perceptions about gun usage in order to reduce school shootings and other types of gun crime occurring.]

[1] This was quoted in Michael Moore’s documentary Bowling for Columbine.

[2] Cited in N. Böckler, T. Seeger, P. Sitzer and W. Heitmeyer (eds.) (2013) School Shootings: International Research, Case Studies and Concepts for Prevention. New York: Springer Science + Business Media, 10.

[3] Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and

organizations across nations (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.