Monthly Archives: May 2016

The Copycat Effect: Is the Media to Blame?

‘Copycatting’ is the act of replicating something which was previously successful. In relation to school shootings, this would involve attempting to pull off a similar attack to a highly-publicised one. More problematically, the incidents with the higher death tolls tend to get more attention. This could be said to set a ‘bar’ by which future school shootings are measured, with copycatters aiming to go a step further with their attack. What will be debated in this blog post is whether the news media can be held accountable, given its saturated coverage can make an event infamous in the first place.

 

The former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, once said that “Publicity is the oxygen of terrorism.” As an event intended to generate infamy and publicity, this statement could also be applied to school shooting attacks. It could be argued that if these attacks were not covered in the news media, there would be no ‘script’ for future perpetrators to follow. The prominence given to the story is also pertinent, with school shootings generally gaining ‘front page’ status and saturated broadcast coverage. In the case of the Columbine school shooting, the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper declined to put the story on the front page in case it encouraged others. Likewise, the National Enquirer showed a colour photograph of the two shooters lying in a pool of blood in order to ‘de-glamourise’ their actions. Probably the most notable example of this link is the Virginia Tech school shooting, where the perpetrator sent a copy of his manifesto to broadcast news station NBC prior to the attack. This then led to the dilemma of whether to show this footage; in the end, NBC decided to broadcast it, arguing it was in the public’s interest to see it.

 

It is notable that threats for further school shooting attacks occur shortly after an incident and sometimes on the anniversaries of when they took place. Following the shooting at Columbine High School, bomb threats made at schools peaked over 5000. There were also numerous examples of individual incidents across the country. A 17 year old boy wore a trench coat and walked round his school pretending he had a gun in Houma, Louisiana. In Oxon Hill High School, Virginia, a 15 year old boy threatened to blow up the school if he continued to receive poor grades in algebra. These are just a couple of examples of the types of copycat hoaxes that transpired.

 

Overall, it is debatable to what extent the news media can be held responsible. On the one hand, if the media failed to report the story and to attach a degree of significance to it, they would fail in their duty as ‘public watchdogs.’ There is a danger, however, in portraying school shootings — particularly those with high death tolls — as a way to gain infamy. The advent of social media has made this particularly dangerous, with there being even greater potential for news of school shootings to spread widely and quickly. As an explanation for school shootings on its own, the news media and copycat correlation seems particularly rudimentary. A better way to look at it is that the media provides a platform for school shooters and threateners to promote a particular presentation of themselves, the extent of which is dependent on the amount of coverage generated. More will be said on the way school shooters ‘use’ the media in blog posts later in the year.

 

[This blog post was put together using readings about the Columbine and Virginia Tech school shootings. The next post will look at copycat threats in more detail and what action can be taken against them.]

Reducing Gun Violence: The Importance of Interest Groups

The last two blog posts documented some of the ways in which interest groups can frame gun violence for it to gain traction in the policy sphere. It now needs to be highlighted why gun violence prevention interest groups are so important to the process. Further to this, the occurrence of a highly publicised event like a school shooting or other form of mass shooting allows for suggestions around changes needed to gun legislation to be made by these groups. This blog post will explore both of these points in further detail.

 

In a democratic society like the United States, citizens are pertinent to the policy-making process through a number of activities: lobbying/campaigning, engaging in debates, pressurising politicians to take action and submitting a request for a bill to be passed. Interest groups provide a space for citizens to engage in ‘policy advocacy,’ promoting change on a particular issue(s). These organisations can also act as ‘conduits,’ passing information between members of the public and lawmakers.

 

When the focus of an interest group is specific and narrow in nature, such as gun policy, it means that positions tend to be polarised. Taking the example of the Virginia Tech University school shooting elucidates this point. An interest group focusing on gun rights, such as the Gun Owners of America, claimed that arming students would have prevented the high death toll. Conversely, the gun violence prevention groups like Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence pushed for action on gun legislation, indicative of the shooter being able to purchase weapons despite being temporarily detained at a mental health facility.

 

The actions, resources and membership of an interest group are, therefore, predicated on its ideological facets: “…many ideologies [are] developed precisely in order to sustain, legitimate, or manage group conflicts, as well as relationships of power and dominance” (1). Members of an interest group may propagate their interests in the political sphere, by working with political actors to draft legislative bills and endorsing and, sometimes funding, candidates who will support their goals for state and local campaigns.

 

The real power from interest groups comes when they are actually able to influence public opinion and mobilise action on policy action. This is more likely to occur following a ‘focusing event’: something which is rare, unexpected and shocking (2). A school shooting fits this criteria, as an incident which is actually quite atypical within the wider rubric of gun violence; yet allows for ‘gun violence’ to appear on the political agenda and influence public sentiment. Illustrating this is what occurred in Colorado, where gun violence prevention interest groups lobbied for landmark gun laws, including reducing magazine sizes to ten rounds and universal background checks for all sales. This state had previously suffered from some high-profile incidents: the Columbine school shooting, the hostage situation at Platte Canyon High School and the mass shooting at the movie theatre in Aurora. Although the issue of gun violence had already been on the minds of voters for the 2012 election, it was the Sandy Hook school shooting that put the issue on the agenda for the Colorado Legislature in 2013. As documented in the blog post published on the 30th of April 2014, the Sandy Hook school shooting had also allowed for a nation-wide debate on gun reform. Without the mechanism of interest groups to convey information to the public, work with political actors, and lobby for particular changes to law, it would be more difficult to try and gain policy traction when high profile incidents occur.

 

  1. van Dijk, T. A. (1998) Ideology: a multidisciplinary approach. London; Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  2. Birkland, T. A. (1997) After Disaster: Agenda Setting, Public Policy and Focusing Events. Washington DC: Georgetown University Press; Kingdon, J. W. (1993/2004) Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies (second edition). New York: Longman.

 

[This blog post was the final in a series around gun policy. It was put together using literature around interest groups, focusing events and social policy. The next post will look at thwarted school shootings that are said to have been ‘inspired’ by the Columbine shooters.]