Read my new book about the gun-related policy responses to school shooting incidents in the United States.
Available for purchase here: https://www.palgrave.com/gb/book/9783319753126
Read my new book about the gun-related policy responses to school shooting incidents in the United States.
Available for purchase here: https://www.palgrave.com/gb/book/9783319753126
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.
[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.]
In order to assess the linkage between news media coverage and subsequent policy proposals, the ‘CNN model’ is a useful starting point, allowing for the identification of “instances when media coverage comes to play a significant role in persuading policy-makers to pursue a particular policy” (Robinson, 2002: 37). The purpose of this blog post is to explore this in relation to the news media discussion around the Columbine (1999) school shooting. Findings indicate that the initial response to Columbine by the news media and politicians was framed around restricting children’s access to guns.
At the time when Columbine occurred, the previous spate of school shootings meant the conditions were optimum for a discussion about the problem of youth violence. Further, the ‘fear’ about children’s safety at school paved the way for a ‘something must be done about it’ mindset. Echoing the findings of Wondemaghen’s (2013) research, news media content contextualised the Columbine shooting within the wider trends of school shootings and youth gun violence more generally. Opinion polls from the public show a similar level of concern about youth gun violence.
The next stage of policy development was that the Clinton administration suggested ‘remedies’ (Entman 1993) centring on restricting children’s access to guns and increasing parental accountability. News media adhered to the ‘elite consensus’ scenario (Robinson 2002) by building support for a particular policy agenda. The selection of sources allowed the news media to ‘frame’ this issue: researchers in the field, advocacy groups for gun reform, and parents of survivors and those killed at Columbine were amongst the main voices to be heard. The ‘counter-movement’ of gun rights organisations and politicians strongly against gun regulation managed to dissipate the development of policy, as the proposals failed in Congress.
Paralleling Wondemaghen’s (2013) study, the news media then moved on to criticise the official response — in this case, a lack of action on children and guns — and suggested ‘alternative solutions’ to the problem: ‘closing the gun show loophole’ that allowed the Columbine perpetrators to procure their weapons. At the national level, this adhered to the criteria of ‘elite dissensus but policy certainty within executive’ (Robinson 2002), for the news media pressured the government to close the loophole but with no success. The common theme was that Democratic politicians were ‘afraid’ to take action on this issue because of the power of the National Rifle Association: this means that the ‘counter-movement’ to this form of social regulation was successful.
The ‘alternative solution’ to the lack of federal-level action on the ‘gun show loophole’ was for the voters to put the issue on the ballot in the state of Colorado; this is action which was driven by interest group Safe Alternatives to the Fifrearm Epedemic (SAFE), heavily supported by local media and received the backing of the Clinton administration. This resulted in legislation being passed in Colorado to close the ‘gun show loophole.’ These results build support for Robinson’s (2002) theory that news media has the greatest impact when policy is uncertain. Overall, the policy action was driven by the public and an interest group and thereafter supported by the media and the political actor who originally had suggested this regulatory measure as a ‘remedy’ to the problem (Entman 1993).
[This blog post was put together by tracking and analysing news media coverage and policy debates pertaining to the Columbine school shooting. Literature about policy framing was also utilised as a lens through which to assess findings. The next posting will continue this theme, by exploring the news media-policy linkage of the Virginia Tech school shooting.]
When a school shooting occurs and students and staff are killed or injured, attributions of blame are, not surprisingly, made. The most obvious and accountable recipients would be the perpetrator(s) of the school shooting attack themselves; however, there are two main issues with this. First of all, as the blog published on the 8th June 2014 documented, school shooters tend to commit suicide immediately after the attack. Secondly, and most importantly, the act of imposing legal penalties in a democratic society tends to be formalised and institutionalised. Since victims and their families are unable to ‘punish’ the perpetrators themselves, punishment is instead shifted onto other parties, such as the parents of the perpetrators, the entertainment industry, gun manufacturers, and so forth. There are, however, issues with pursuing cases against these particular groups.
In the case of parents, the monetary value of these lawsuits tends to be low in comparison to others since the amount is determined by the individuals’ insurance policies. After the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, Colorado, parents of the two perpetrators resolved lawsuits with a blanket settlement of almost one point six million dollars to be shared amongst several families of those killed; these lawsuits were predicated on claims that the parents had allegedly failed to notice that their children were making bombs and planning the attack months in advance. One of the victim’s parents, Brian Rohrbough, outlined his impetus for the lawsuit: “What I know from the Klebolds and the Harrises is they have an awful lot to answer for and neither one is willing to do so.” With that in mind, it certainly seems that the motivation behind these lawsuits could be to receive explanations from those most closely involved with the perpetrators. However, these lawsuits usually fail to be resolved, given the numerous difficulties involved in proving a parent’s culpability for crimes their children have committed.
With past lawsuits levelled against the entertainment industry, the argument has been that its violent content resulted in a ‘copycat effect’ where the perpetrators emulated what was shown. For instance, an unsuccessful lawsuit was brought against the producers of the film The Basketball Diaries and a number of video game companies by the parents of three murdered victims after the 1997 Heath High School shooting in West Paducah, Kentucky. Given that violent media content involves the expression of ideas, it falls under the realm of the ‘protection of free speech’ pursuant to the First Amendment of the US Constitution and hence these types of lawsuits tend to collapse. It has been suggested that the motivation for filing these lawsuits with low chances of success is to ‘express outrage’ at what has happened and to further the debate on the causes of such violence and ways to change or regulate violent media content.
Those involved in gun production and selling also seem to be another viable target of lawsuits, with their being held responsible for crimes committed with weapons they manufactured and sold. In the past, a successful case was brought against Bushmaster, the manufacturers of a semi-automatic weapon used in the 2002 Washington, D.C. sniper attacks, for a settlement of two and a half million dollars. This case was considered a huge loss for the gun industry and so an immunity law has since been implemented which offers gun makers and retailers protection from lawsuits, except in cases where they knowingly violated a state or federal law pertaining to guns and this then resulted in someone being injured or killed. Therefore, changes in law have made the gun industry a less viable target in the aftermath of school shootings, unless evidence exists that violations of gun laws have taken place.
With all this in mind, the school itself then seems a more viable target for lawsuits. The main arguments against the schools are that they failed to notice the warning signs given by the perpetrators and/or that they did not respond to the shooting properly. In the next blog, I will use the specific example of the lawsuit filed against Virginia Tech University for the delay in communication on the 16th April 2007.
[Material for this blog has been published in a chapter in the edited volume Reframing Punishment: Silencing, Dehumanisation and the Way Forward. The next blog will examine the issue of lawsuits following school shootings in more detail by using the specific case study of the Virginia Tech shooting.]
The Virginia Tech shooting provoked a number of ‘crisis’ or ‘emergency’ communication measures being implemented in colleges and universities, and also led to changes in federal law. In the last blog, I documented the emergency communication problems highlighted by the Virginia Tech shooting: the delay in emailing the emergency alert to staff and students; the vague nature of the first alert sent out, coupled with it failing to really inject any urgency into the message; the inconsistency between the institutional emergency management plan and emergency communication policies about the parties with the relevant authority to issue emergency alerts. In the next two blogs, I intend to take this further by looking at changes to federal and state laws, Virginia Tech University itself and how this created a market for the emergence of a mobile phone safety application.
Analysing the need to ‘take action’ after the Virginia Tech shooting brings to mind the argument of Power about secondary risk management, where institutional responses are guided by “cultural demands for control, accountability and responsibility attribution.” The lawsuit which was filed against Virginia Tech University following the delay in communication highlighted the need for accountability and responsibility. Notably, the delay in communication on April 16th 2007 was said to violate the ‘Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act’ — commonly known as the ‘Clery Act’ — (1991) applying to all colleges and universities that participate in federal financial aid programs. The purpose of the law was for transparency around crimes occurring on colleges and universities, by keeping a public crime log, publishing an annual crime report and disclosing security policies. More specially relating to the Virginia Tech incident, the ‘Clery Act’ (1991) requires that higher education institutions provide ‘timely warnings’ in emergency situations posing a threat to students and staff. As it transpired, the federal-level ‘Clery Act’ (1991) was amended in 2008 to include changes to emergency communication: notification is now required to be immediate, unless to do so would impede efforts to resolve the situation somehow; notification methods are to be publicised to staff and students, plus tested and annually reported; the authority of campus law enforcement to issue emergency messages is to be clearly defined in institutional policies. In terms of measurable effects, research conducted by Campus Safety Magazine found that, a year after Virginia Tech, 73% of survey respondents had bought or intended to purchase mass emergency notification systems. A survey by Rasmussen and Johnson found that 75% of respondents intended to incorporate mobile phone technology in their systems after the Virginia Tech shooting, compared to the 5% who had it in place prior to the incident.
At the state-level, the Virginia bill ‘First warning and emergency notification system’ (2008) mandated that emergency notification for public institutions of higher education be ‘comprehensive prompt, and reliable,’ with various communication mechanisms and the appointment of authorised, trained individuals to activate systems. In the case of Virginia Tech University institutional policies, the recommendations and subsequent changes made appear to be ‘corrective action,’ where the university sought to repair its image by reporting plans to improve its emergency communication system. In terms of improving mobile phone signals in buildings on campus, service providers sent over technicians to improve tower capacity. Sirens were also installed at two additional locations throughout the campus. Most notably, at the time of the shooting, VTU was in the process of updating the notification system, but the event — and perhaps the accompanying controversy and lawsuits about the delay in emergency communication — meant the process was expedited and so ‘VT Phone Alerts’ was fully installed and configured by July 2007. This system allows for users to either opt-in or out of subscribing to the system. Those opting in choose three contact methods ranked in order of preference: text messages, instant messages, emails (including non-university addresses), phone calls to office/residence, phone call to mobile phones, and phone calls to elsewhere (e.g. parents’ numbers). At the time of August 2007, almost eleven thousand students, faculty and staff had subscribed to the ‘VT Phone Alerts’ system. Further changes have been implemented since then. In 2008, digital signs linking with the ‘VT Phone Alerts’ system were added to classrooms; the year of 2009 saw the introduction of the ‘VT Desktops Alerts’ system sending a message to laptops/computers connected to the internet, both on and off campus; the system was expanded to six regions in Virginia in 2010. The most recent notification system consists of contacting mobile phones, telephones and instant messaging supplements, other systems of emails, desktop alerts sirens/loudspeakers, hotline, website, electronic message boards. Under these circumstances, policies have a ‘legitimising’ function outlining the course of action needed to fix the problem, where the implementation of these gives authority to the decision-making body.
[This blog was put together by analysing legislative documents and the institutional policies of Virginia Tech University, as well as other studies and academic scholars. It was first published in my doctoral thesis and will likely appear in future publications.]