Category Archives: Uncategorized

Mental Illness, Gun Purchases and Policy Action

The debate around children and guns, as documented in the blog posted on 28/01/16, shifted onto another perceived ‘dangerous’ social group of the mentally ill after the Virginia Tech school shooting. The perpetrator of that attack had been issued with a temporary detention order a year and a half prior to the shooting, where a Virginia magistrate found him to present “an imminent danger to self or others as a result of mental illness.” Under Virginia law, however, because Cho was only “temporarily detained” rather than “committed,” he was able to circumvent the federal restrictions and be eligible to buy firearms.

After this massacre, school and other types of mass shootings were depicted as a problem by the news media via aggregations of those killed by such incidents. The ‘elite consensus’ stance (Robinson 2002) of the media — evident in them supporting changes to mental health criteria — paved the way for political actors to reframe the Virginia Tech shooting into an issue of mental health and needing to improve weaknesses relating to gun purchases in this area. The focus on mental health had more of a chance of gaining policy traction than other gun initiatives suggested by the relatives and survivors of the Virginia Tech shooting: renewing the assault weapon ban and closing the gun show loophole in Virginia and nationally. One ‘remedy’ to the problem (Entman 1993) was directly related to closing the loophole defining prohibited persons that allowed the shooter to legally procure his firearms in the state of Virginia, despite his having been detained at a mental institute. The Governor of Virginia acted upon this recommendation using executive order to change Virginia state law so it encompassed voluntary detainment and treatment by those found to be a danger to themselves and/or others.

The other idea was to improve the federal ‘background checks’ database by encouraging individual states to submit mental health records. There was support from the NRA — typically an opponent to gun regulations — with one anonymous source claiming “we have no problem with mental health records being part of the NICS” and its executive director, Wayne LaPierre, arguing “We’re strongly in support of putting those records in the system.” One ‘counter-voice’ was the gun-rights group Gun Owners of America, who were concerned the bill was “a denial of civil liberty.” Likewise, mental health organisations were concerned about it stigmatising people with mental illness. The chief executive of Mental Health America said the bill was “going to do harm” because it failed to consider that mentally ill people could be treated. The Virginia Citizens Defense League head said that it might discourage people from seeking mental health treatment. As it transpired, the president signed into law, the ‘NICS Improvement Amendments Act’ (2008), strengthening the ability of the Attorney General to procure information from federal agencies and departments regarding prohibited persons, requiring annual reports are provided to Congress, and authorizing incentives for states, tribes and court systems to provide records for the NICS. Financial grants totalling almost forty million dollars were divided up and awarded to twenty-five states from 2009-2011. The ‘counter-movements’ (Klocke and Muschert 2010) were not powerful enough to resist this action, likely because the ‘elite consensus’ scenario was in place where both the media and the government were in agreement about the actions to be taken (Robinson 2002), and had additional support from typical opponents like the NRA.

 

[This blog post was put together using analyses of news media coverage and policy debates around the time of the Virginia Tech shooting; alongside literature about policy framing and the ‘CNN model.’ The next blog post will continue this theme, by documenting the lack of traction on a particular gun policy after the Virginia Tech shooting.]

 

  • Entman Robert M. (1993) ‘Framing: toward clarification of a fractured paradigm.’ Journal of Communication 43(4), 51-58.
  • Klocke, Brian and Glenn W. Muschert. (2010) ‘A Hybrid Model of Moral Panics: Synthesizing the Theory and Practice of Moral Panic Research.’ Sociology Compass 4(5), 295-309.
  • Robinson, P. (2002) The CNN Effect: The myth of news, foreign policy and intervention. London, New York: Routledge.

 

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.

Creating a Market? The Commercial Products of School Shootings

Bulletproof backpacks, reinforced glass doors, metal detectors: these are all part of an industry centred on averting and negating school shootings. The climate of fear around the possibility of future attacks occurring —discussed in the blog ‘15 Years Since Columbine: A Legacy of Fear,’ published on the 15th April 2014 — creates demand for these products. This is even more likely with knowledge that outside perpetrators (those who are not current or former students or staff) were able to enter schools through the front door: the 2006 Platte Canyon High hostage situation (Bailey, Colorado) involved an outsider entering the school and holding a number of female students at gunpoint for hours and eventually killing one of the young girls and himself; the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting (Newtown, Connecticut), where an external attacker shot his way through the front door and killed twenty children and six members of staff.
The most immediate response is to ‘target-harden’ educational institutions through renovation or reinforcement of the property’s infrastructure in an attempt to secure it from external attackers and prevent insiders from bringing weapons into the school. When it comes to external attackers, responses tend to centre on obtaining bullet-proof glass doors or adding additional locks and alarms to entrances and classrooms. At the ‘Briefings’ event in summer 2013, a stall had been set up for a company selling reinforced glass and a demonstrator video was shown of multiple rounds being fired into a glass door, until eventually a baseball bat and sledgehammer were used to break through. Something like a door which takes multiple bullets, a baseball and a sledgehammer to enter is an axiomatic choice for target-hardening: it would slow down the attacker and alert people inside to the intrusion. The problem lies in the fact that most school shootings are perpetrated by students or staff. In terms of more school homicides more generally, as explained by the director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at ‘The Briefings’ event, fewer than one in five deaths occurred inside the building, with the majority taking place in the school parking lot.
In relation to stopping students and staff bringing weapons into schools, metal detectors and handheld wands and x-ray baggage machines are the obvious security choices. The usefulness of such security devices, however, in reducing school violence in general, never mind school shootings, is unclear. There is, firstly, the issue of such expensive equipment only being as effective as the people operating them. Furthermore, experts presenting at a school safety event in 2006, ordered by then-president, George W. Bush, concluded that students would always find a way to circumvent metal detectors. More worryingly, there is the possibility that metal detectors might aid an attack: any internal attacker would know about this daily routine and be able to use it to their advantage to gun down a large number of victims. Risk management must always consider how security mechanisms could go awry or be used to the advantage of attackers.
The final option is perhaps the most disquieting one, for it has a direct link to the danger children will face from gunfire. The Sandy Hook school shooting provoked a 300-400% increase in sales for ‘Bullet Blocker,’ a site which sells bulletproof backpacks and inserts to go in existing backpacks to act as shields for schoolchildren. This business was founded after the Columbine shooting in 1999, when the creator sought a way to protect his own children. The fact that a market exists for these types of products speaks volumes about the legacy of fear originating in the 1999 Columbine attack and further exacerbated by later horrendous shootings at schools. The fact that students themselves are feeling vulnerable (see earlier blog ‘15 Years Since Columbine: A Legacy of Fear’) means that commerical products like bulletproof backpacks are likely to become another commonplace strategy to deal with the threat of potential school shootings.

[Findings for this blog come from presentations at ‘The Briefings,’ literature reviewed and other studies. Special thanks go to my friend, BL, for giving me the idea for this blog and the organisers and presenters of ‘The Briefings.’]

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.]

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.