Monthly Archives: August 2015

“When seconds matter, police are just minutes away”: Doubts about Law Enforcement

The often-quoted sentiment in the title exemplifies the cynicism surrounding the ability of law enforcement to protect individuals. The post published on the 13th July 2015 demonstrated that a number of YouTube commentators blamed the ban on allowing students and staff at Virginia Tech University for the high death toll from the tragic 2007 shooting. What may be extrapolated from this is that the concept of defending one’s self is inextricably linked to individuals, rather than the police — this is particularly remarkable, considering law enforcement is an institutional body entrusted with the responsibility of protecting the public. The purpose of this blog post is to uncover the reasons why this is the case.

As posts published throughout July and August 2015 have highlighted, YouTube users are familiar with previous school shootings and draw upon those ‘second hand’ experiences to form ideas about what might transpire during such an incident. The relatively short time period in which school shootings occur is likely a driving factor. Some YouTube users made sardonic comments that pizza would be delivered before the police arrived. Commentators drew upon knowledge of past school shootings, pointing out that most of these ended before law enforcement arrived. There is some truth to this: only 27% of thirty-seven school shootings were stopped by law enforcement and several studies have documented the proclivity of school shooters to kill themselves before law enforcement intervention.(1)

Further to this, YouTube users were particularly scathing of the abilities of law enforcement on college and university campuses to offer protection, purporting they were ‘tiny forces’ with ‘little experience’ and thus ‘not equipped’ to act as first responders to a school shooting situation. Something which acutely concerned users was the fact that in some states campus police are ‘unarmed,’ meaning they do not have access to lethal weapons (firearms). The Secret Service (2002) report, however, found that only 8% of school shootings required law enforcement to discharge weapons. (2)

The outcome of these sentiments then translates into the idea that police are just there to ‘clean up the crime scene’ of all those killed before they arrived. Accordingly, numerous YouTube commentators appeared to believe that the purpose of the police is not to act as ‘bodyguards’ or ‘prevent crimes’ but to ‘enforce the law’ by investigating crimes after they transpire and acting as a visible deterrent to criminals. As documented in empirical studies, fear — in this case of a school shooting or even just general crime on campus — is a catalyst for eroding trust and confidence in the police. (3) Such a sentiment, hence, paves the way for the notion that the individual is the only one who can be trusted to protect themselves — this will be elucidated in the next post in relation to the issue of students and concealed carry.

[This blog post was put together from analyses of YouTube comments and further reading around fear and government studies of lessons to be learned from previous school shooting incidents. The next blog post will bring together all the elements discussed in posts throughout July and August 2015.]

(1). See the following studies: Lankford, A. (2013a). ‘A comparative analysis of suicide terrorists and rampage, workplace, and school shooters in the United States from 1990 to 2010.’ Homicide Studies: An Interdisciplinary & International Journal, 17 (3), 255-274; Lankford, A. (2013b) ‘Mass Shooters in the USA, 1996-2010. Differences between attackers who live and die.’ Justice Quarterly; Vossekuil, B., R. A. Fein, M. Reddy, R. Borum, and W. Modzeleski. (2004) The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States. Washington.

(2) Vossekuil, B., R. A. Fein, M. Reddy, R. Borum, and W. Modzeleski. (2004) The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States. Washington.

(3) Farrall, S. D., J. Jackson and E. Gray. (2009) Social Order and the Fear of Crime in Contemporary Times. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Gray, E., J. Jackson and S. Farrall (2011) ‘Feelings and Functions in the Fear of Crime: Applying a New Approach to Victimisation Insecurity.’ British Journal of Criminology 51, 75-94.

“Gun-free zones are killing zones”: Anxiety about School Shootings and the ‘Concealed Carry on Campus’ Movement

At the crux of the ‘concealed carry on campus’ debate, discussed in the last two blog posts, is the notion of the ‘gun free zone’: a public place where guns cannot currently be carried by citizens. It tends to be the case that following a mass shooting incident, some argue that the shooter(s) chose this location because of the lack of ‘armed resistance’; conversely, others maintain that forbidding gun in certain public places is a safety measure. This post will further explore the first line of argument as it pertains to the feelings of fear and anxiety around school shootings.

As it transpired, in the sample of YouTube comments I assessed, there were thirty comments encompassing the notion that criminals purposely target gun free zones: “Shooters attack schools because they are an easy target”; “‘Gun free zones’ are an invitation for criminals.” Additionally, some YouTube users drew upon knowledge of previous school shooting events and argued that the lack of armed resistance encouraged the shooters to perpetrate their attack there. A similar argument was made by the executive director of Gun Owners of America, Larry Pratt, in a news release following the shooting at Virginia Tech University:

Pertinent here is GOA’s framing with the terms ‘deadly’ and ‘dangerous,’ presenting the gun ban as being responsible for harm caused in shootings taking place in educational establishments — this is a one-sided assessment, for it fails to take into account the potential violence that gun bans in education institutions do prevent. The interest group in favour of allowing firearms on campuses, Students for Concealed Carry, made a similar argument: “‘Gun free zones’ serve to disarm only those law-abiding citizens who might otherwise be able to protect themselves.”(2) It, therefore, appears that the notion of a ‘gun-free zone’ has been socially constructed to infer a site where people are particularly vulnerable to attack.

‘Gun free zones’ being commonly described as ‘soft’ and ‘easy targets,’ henceforth, paved the way for the notion that people will be ‘defenceless’ in ‘gun-free zones,’ with YouTube users making statements like: “The fact that we aren’t allowed to carry here forces us to be a victim”; “Gun free zones equals killing zones.” These YouTube commentators are, henceforth, equating potential victimhood with being in a ‘gun-free zone.’ The implications of this fear are covered in comments from users surmising they would be helpless in a school shooting scenario:

“How is hiding behind my desk listening to my classmates scream and hoping that the police, who are minutes away, will arrive in time to save me the best way to defend myself?”

Such statements evoke the actor’s own subjective interpretation of the physical environment and risk of victimisation affect their fear of that particular crime. (3) The main conclusion to draw from this frame is a general feeling of helplessness that there is no way to negate the threat. Key here is the anticipation of threats: even though they are horrific when they occur, school shootings are actually quite rare within the wider spectrum of gun violence; it, hence, appears that people are overestimating the risks. Moreover, this ‘probability neglect’ can thereafter lead to ‘affect rich’ reactions where people take unnecessary precautions for the level of threat posed. In the case of school shootings, key to the feelings of susceptibility to attack is the notion of not being able to control the crime should it transpire. (4) Taking all this into consideration, it is not insurmountable to see how this would then translate into concealed carry on campus as the ‘solution’ to the problem — the next blog post will explore why individuals do not trust law enforcement to protect them.

[This blog post was put together using analyses of YouTube comments from a selection of 32 videos relating to the Virginia Tech school shooting and the concealed carry on campus movement. Also examined were the press releases and statements from Gun Owners of America and Students for Concealed Carry respectively. Literature relating to fear of crime was utilised to assess the findings. Future blog posts will continue this area of discussion.]

  • (1) Gun Owners of America (GOA) (April 2007) ‘Virginia Tech Shooting — Gun Bans Are The Problem, Not The Solution.’ Available at: http://www.gunowners.org/pr0704.htm
  • (2) Students for Concealed Carry on Campus. (n.d.) ‘About: Who We Are.’ Available at: http://concealedcampus.org/about/
  • (3) Ferraro, K. F. (1995) Fear of Crime: Interpreting Victimization Risk. New York: University of New York, 9.
  • (4) Information taken from reading the following sources: Sacco, V. F.and W. Glockman. ‘Vulnerability, Locus of Control and Worry about Crime.’ Canadian Journal of Community Mental Health, 6(1) (1987): 99-111; Sunstein, C. R. (2005) Laws of Fear: Beyond the Precautionary Principle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Warr, M. (2000) ‘Fear of Crime in the United States: Avenues for Research and Policy.’ Measurement and Analysis of Crime and Justice.