United States Election Special: Why Clinton is Best for Gun Control

This blog is a United States Election special, documenting the reasons why I favour Hillary Clinton over the other presidential candidates. The release of this post is timed to coincide with the ongoing Republican and the upcoming Democratic conventions. The argument will be made that Clinton is the preferred candidate: this will be solely based on her record and stance on gun control, rather than any other policies. Also discussed will be the support she has shown to relatives of gun violence victims, particularly those who have been killed in school shootings.

 

Throughout Clinton’s career, gun violence prevention has always been at the forefront. When she was first lady at the time of the Clinton administration (1992-2000), she advocated the Brady Bill and was also active in post-Columbine discussions, co-convening a White House summit on school safety. As a Senator, she voted for legislation to close loopholes in existing gun legislation and to renew the assault weapons ban. Hillary’s campaign page for her 2016 presidential run states: “About 33, 000 Americans are killed by guns each year. That is unacceptable.” It further maintains she will take the following ‘sensible action’ on gun laws: strengthen background checks, by closing current loopholes (e.g. gun shows and internet sales not requiring background checks) in the system; hold gun dealers and manufactures to account; prevent certain groups of people (e.g. terrorists, those with severe mental illness) from procuring guns; reinstating the ‘assault weapons ban’; making ‘straw buying’ a federal crime. (1) Previous blog posts have documented that the gun violence prevention measures that would have the greatest chance at reducing school shootings:

  • Renewing the ‘assault weapons ban,’ restricting the use of weapons that allow for more rounds to be fired. School shooters commonly use such weapons to have a greater chance of injuring or killing people in a short period of time.
  • Strengthening background checks, particularly in the case of mental illness. This was an issue with the Virginia Tech school shooter, who had previously been ‘temporarily detained’ at a mental institution and was ineligible to purchase firearms under federal law. Virginia state law, however, at that time prescribed that one had to have bene ‘committed’ to an institution; hence, allowing for him to circumvent restrictions and buy firearms.
  • The criminalisation of straw-buying, where one purchases guns on behalf of other people, would also be a positive move. Notably, the Columbine shooters used a ‘straw-buyer’ to procure their weapons at a gun-show, where no paperwork was required to be filled out. Since one of the shooters was legally old enough to purchase firearms, it may be postulated from this that ‘straw-buying’ was perhaps a strategy to prevent alerting anyone to their plans.

With this in mind, it seems that Clinton’s plan for gun violence prevention measures would have the greatest chance at reducing or preventing school shootings.

 

It is perhaps unsurprisingly then that Clinton has received the greatest levels of support from families of gun violence victims. In a recent campaign video, for instance, a young girl whose mother was the principal at Sandy Hook Elementary School and died in the school shooting made the following claim: “No one is fighting harder to reform our gun laws than Hillary.” (2) Additionally, former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords — who was shot in the head during a mass shooting in Tuscon, Arizona in 2011 — and her husband Mark Kelly haveendorsed Hillary, arguing she is the candidate with the “toughness and determination to stand up to the corporate gun lobby.” (3) By contrast, the former Democratic contender, Bernie Sanders, has received criticism from Sandy Hook families for comments that gun manufacturers should not be sued when the weapons produced are subsequently used in crimes. The sister of Victoria Soto, a teacher who was killed during the Sandy Hook shooting, called the comments from Sanders ‘offensive, insensitive and disrespectful.’ (4) The Republican candidate, Donald Trump, has strongly criticised Hillary for her gun control plan, claiming it would leave citizens defenceless. By contrast, his intention is to loosen existing gun restrictions, purporting that more guns would increase protection. (5)

 

Overall, considering Clinton’s gun control plan, endorsements and record in this area, it certainly seems that she is the strongest presidential candidate in order to tackle gun violence.

 

[This blog was put together by reading related news stories and campaign pages. It was a one-off election special. The next blog post will return to the topic of school shootings, moving onto the global theme of incidents occurring outside the United States.]

 

  1. Hillary for America. (2016) ‘Gun violence prevention: it is past time we act on gun violence.’ https://www.hillaryclinton.com/issues/gun-violence-prevention/
  2. Michele Gorman. (2016) ‘Hillary Clinton meets with Sandy Hook Families, Vows to Push for Gun Control within Second Amendment.’ Newsweek, 21sthttp://europe.newsweek.com/hillary-clinton-meets-sandy-hook-families-vows-push-gun-control-within-second-450976
  3. Gabby Giffords. (2016) ‘Why Mark and I are Supporting Hillary Clinton for president.’ Hillary for America 2016, 11th https://www.hillaryclinton.com/feed/why-mark-i-are-supporting-hillary-clinton-president/
  4. Michele Gorman. (2016) ‘Hillary Clinton meets with Sandy Hook Families, Vows to Push for Gun Control within Second Amendment.’ Newsweek, 21st April.  http://europe.newsweek.com/hillary-clinton-meets-sandy-hook-families-vows-push-gun-control-within-second-450976
  5. George Zornick. (2016) ‘This Will Be a Historic (and Terrifying) Election for Gun Control.’ The Nation, 24 May. https://www.thenation.com/article/this-will-be-a-historic-and-terrifying-election-for-gun-control/
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Thwarted attacks: the phenomenon of near-misses

This blog post will examine the phenomenon of thwarted school shooting attacks, bringing a conclusion to the theme of copycat attacks. As mentioned in the blog posted on the 26th May 2016, there tends to be a spike in threats following a high-profile school shooting. Sometimes these threats are fabrications intended to attract attention; other times, they are real and concrete, requiring intervention to prevent them becoming deadly attacks. The difficulty of trying to conduct research into thwarted school shootings is it will involve studying attacks that did not actually transpire. Probably the most effective approach is to only study incidents where there is some degree of proof that the incident would have taken place. (1) This post will look at some of the instances where copycat threats became thwarted school shootings.

 

Following the Columbine school shooting, there was a spike in copycat threats across the United States. Those which could actually be considered ‘thwarted,’ however, are the ones with some degree of planning involved. An example of this occurred less than a month after the Columbine school shooting, where a 15 year old boy at Kennedy High School was alleged to have plotted an incident: the plan was to handcuff a target list of people to desks and shoot off their hands or shoot them in the head and then go into the hallway and shoot other students. This planned massacre was thwarted because the boy told two students (which a third one overheard) at the school, threatening to kill them if they reported it; the three students thereafter came forward with the information. The preparation of the target list and the boy’s access to a rifle in his home showed that the likelihood of this attack taking place was higher than other copycat threats. Around this time, a copycat Columbine-style massacre plotted by four current and former students at Adams City High School was also impeded. The seriousness of the purported threat was documented in a written plan, drawings and a map of the school given to the authorities by an unnamed informant.

 

What can be taken from these examples is that following a high-profile school shooting like Columbine, staff members, law enforcement officers and students at the school have heightened awareness about the possibility of copycat attacks. This is positive in the sense that they are perhaps more likely to come forward with information pertaining to threats, no matter whether these are hoaxes or serious copycat attacks. Such a sense of attentiveness to threats will not be permanent, however, with it likely to fade when the high-profile school shooting begins to receive less media coverage and public and political attention. This highlights the need for permanent vigilance when hearing about potential school shooting threats, particularly those with detailed plans and other concrete actions (such as procuring a firearm).

  1. Daniels, J. A., A. Volungis, E. Pshenishny, P. Gandhi, A. Winkler, D. P. Cramer et al., (2010). ‘A qualitative investigation of averted school shooting rampages.’ The Counseling Psychologist 38 (1), 69–95; Daniels, J. A. and J. W. Page. (2013) ‘Averted School Shootings.’ In N. Bockler et al. (eds.) School Shootings: International Research, Case Studies and Concepts for Prevention. Springer Science-Business Media: New York, 421-439.

 

[This blog post was put together using school shooting literature and media reports about copycat threats. It concludes the thread on copycat attacks for the moment.]

Female School Shootings: A New Phenomenon?

The last few blogs have discussing the phenomenon of ‘copycatting’ in relation to school shootings. This post will look at the recent trend of females threatening to become school shooters — something rather unprecedented, considering almost all previous perpetrators have been male. As discussed in the blog posted on the 11th of June 2014, masculinity is one of the socio-cultural factors contributing to school shootings. This blog will explicate the details of female school shooting copycatters and critique whether this could be considered a new and worrying phenomenon.

In November 2014, a 17 year old girl at Radnor High School, Pennsylvania, had expressed a desire in her journal to become the ‘first female school shooter.’ When examining previous incidents, it becomes evident why she would have thought her massacre would be noteworthy. In 1979, a girl, Brenda Spencer, shot children walking to Cleveland Elementary School; there was also Laurie Dann who shot children in Hubbard Woods Elementary School in Illinois. It is questionable, however, whether these qualify as ‘school shootings’: the rationale for Spencer seemed to be the convenience of the victims, given she shot them from her bedroom window across the street; whilst Dann appeared to be attacking the school she believed her former sister-in-law’s children attended. For an event to be defined as a ‘school shooting,’ the attack should be against the institution itself, with victims targeted for their symbolic value. The closest to ‘female school shooters’ could be construed as Latina Williams, who killed two peers at Louisiana Technical College, and Professor Amy Bishop, who carried out an attack at the University of Alabama. Despite this, Professor Bishop targeted her colleagues because she had recently been denied tenure and Latina Williams did not leave any notes or other evidence explaining her motives; this suggests that perhaps they were not aspiring to become ‘school shooters.’

The planned attack at Radnor High School was thankfully thwarted. The girl in question had showed a fascination with the Columbine school shooting, writing to the parents of one of the perpetrators, Dylan Klebold, to describe her ‘emotional connection’ with him. Almost a year after this case, another story emerged about two teenage girls alleged to have planned a shooting at Mountain Vista High School, which is fewer than ten miles away from Columbine High School geographically. One of the girls involved wrote in her journal that she wished she could have participated in the Columbine school shooting and referenced the film Natural Born Killers, cited by the perpetrators of this massacre in their own writings. The fascination with the Columbine shooters has appeared in other school shootings, such as Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook. The appeal of these perpetrators to females, however, is an emerging and worrying trend. Sue Klebold, mother of Dylan, said she has received mail in the past from girls who claim they love him and want to have his baby. Although these fan letters are not really anything new — some women have married death row prisoners in the past — the worry is that females fascinated by the Columbine or other school shooters, then take the next step of trying to ‘become them’ via a similar attack.

The implication of this for assessing threats is that those coming from females should be taken just as seriously as those from boys and men. The planned attack at Mountain Vista High School had involved the drawing up of a map of the school, denoting the locations of law enforcement — this exemplifies the seriousness of that threat. Gender is, therefore, something which must not be overlooked when assessing school shooting threats.

 

[This blog post was put together with research and pre-existing knowledge about actual and planned school shooting incidents. The next post will continue with the copycatting theme, by looking at thwarted attacks.]

Copycat Threats: Real or Fake?

As documented in the last blog post, the highly publicised nature of school shootings means that they are prone to creating ‘copycats.’ The amount of threats made tends to increase exponentially following a previous attack. Copycatters may try to ‘out-do’ the previous school shooting with the intention of gaining more media attention. (1) The purpose of this blog post is to explore the distinction between the threats that are empty in nature, with the sole intention of gaining attention or causing trouble; compared to those that do actually pose serious danger.

In the book The Copycat Effect, the author attributes copycatting to “thoughtless, sensational media,” claiming coverage of high-profile incidents like school shootings triggers a series of copycat attacks. Further to this, it is argued that the news media insidiously deflects any culpability for this, by instead discussing other ‘blame factors,’ such as violent video games or school culture. (2) The last blog post debated the extent to which the news media are to blame and questioned how credible this explanation really was when taken in isolation.

An important point to remember about the ‘copycat’ explanation is that the recognition to be ‘gained’ from media attention is not a sufficient enough reason for someone to carry out a school shooting. Notably, it is likely that carrying out an attack following a previous high-profile school shooting would keep the issue salient in the news for a while longer; yet, it would not guarantee particular notoriety for that particular incident. In fact, it would likely mean a discussion about school shootings in general or comparing and contrasting the two incidents that had occurred within a short period of time. Extrapolating from this means there must be additional motivating factors for copycatters whose massacres actually transpire; herein lies the basis for testing the credibility of threats made.

Every threat should be examined — even when claimed to be said in ‘humour’ or a moment of anger — because school shootings and other attacks do occur. When a copycat threat is made following a high profile incident, the threat itself, the context in which it was made and the threatener must all be critically assessed. Examining the content within the threat and its context gives some indication of its risk level: Does the threat give specific details, such as a location, methods (e.g. bombing or shooting), date and time? To who was the threat made and is this someone the threatener is likely to confide in? Was the threat said in a moment of emotional distress? Was the threat made repeatedly? Coupling this with information about the person(s) making the threat should provide a fuller picture: Does the threatener have the ability to carry out the threat? Is the threatener suffering from any personal problems and/or mental health issues that have been altering their recent behaviour? Do they have a motive and desire to follow through with the threat? Have those closest to the threatener noticed any changes in behaviour and/or similar threats being made? Is there any evidence of plans being plan to carry out the attack (e.g. purchasing firearms)?

Taking all that into consideration should go some way to fundamentally distinguishing between genuine and fake threats. A disingenuous copycat threat is likely to be said for a variety of reasons: gaining attention, attempting to be ‘humorous’ or controversial or perhaps intimidation of the school and people within it. A copycat threat where the threatener intends to follow through could be seen as a pre-warning to an attack.

[This blog was put together using relevant literature and threat assessment knowledge. The next post will continue this theme by looking at a recent case involving female copycatters.]

(1) Newman, K. S., Fox, C., Harding, D. J., Mehta, J. and Roth, W. (2004) Rampage: the social roots of school shootings. Basic Books: New York, 154, 250.
(2) Coleman, L. (2004) The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow’s Headlines. London, New York: Paraview Pocket Books.

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.]

 

The Humanisation of Gun Violence Victims

The statement that gun violence is a problem within the United States is irrefutable. The statistic of thirty-two deaths every day from gun violence — the equivalent of an incident like the Virginia Tech University shooting occurring three hundred and sixty-five times — provides evidence of its prevalence. Despite this, it can be difficult for policies aimed at reducing gun violence to gain traction. The ‘human interest approach’ to gun violence is one way to persuade people of the significance of the problem. The purpose of this blog post is to advance the arguments around why this technique is likely to work.

 

The discrepancy between the high levels of gun violence in the United States contrasted with lower levels of public concern may be explained by the idea that statistics are representations of “people with the tears dried off” (1). To clarify, whilst statistics document the extent of the problem, the idea that these alone can motivate change now seems to be redundant. This might be explained by a number of theorists who have examined the way news and other forms of stories are ‘framed.’ Putting the issue of gun violence into context by citing statistical evidence is a form of ‘thematic framing,’ addressing the larger trends involved. Since thematic frames do not, however, “provide specific characters at which receivers may direct their emotional reactions,” they can struggle to engage an audience. (2) Conversely, ‘episodic framing,’ which looks at individual stories, is more likely to elicit emotional reactions of sympathy and pity. (3)

 

Applying framing arguments to gun violence finds that a ‘human interest approach’ of representing the victims as real and identifiable people will have a greater chance of engaging the audience. (4) For interest groups working in the field of gun violence prevention, it seems a more persuasive technique would be to firstly use the emotional argument to engage people and then use statistical evidence to document the severity of the problem. Another way is to hear about the experiences of the relatives of victims. An example of this is the sister of Vicky Soto, a teacher killed in the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012, telling an audience at a Mayors Against Illegal Guns activism event about her loss and why this has motivated her to campaign for stronger gun laws. Other people who have lost children or other family members in school shootings have also become involved in campaigning for gun safety, speaking out about their personal experiences.

 

Taking this into consideration, it certainly seems that combining stories of individual gun violence victims with the voices of those affected by this loss would be compelling enough to generate a powerful emotional reaction. In order to create policy change, however, action would need to be taken quite expeditiously, for there is a strong possibility that this intense response would only be short-term in nature and the public would move onto something else. This highlights the need for sustained and engaging debates after high profile incidents of gun violence covered extensively in news media coverage, alongside the constant reporting of the thirty-two victims killed every day in ‘smaller’ incidents.

 

  1. Gardner, D. (2008) Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear. London: Virgin Books Ltd, 94.
  2. Aaroe, Lene. (2011) ‘Investigating Frame Strength: The Case of Episodic and Thematic Frames.’ Political Communication 28(2), 210.
  3. See, for instance, the following studies: Aaroe, Lene. (2011) ‘Investigating Frame Strength: The Case of Episodic and Thematic Frames.’ Political Communication 28(2), 207-226; Entman R. M. (1993) ‘Framing: toward clarification of a fractured paradigm.’ Journal of Communication 43(4), 51-58; Gross, K. (2008) ‘Framing Persuasive Appeals: Episodic and Thematic Framing, Emotional Response and Policy Opinion.’ Political Psychology 29(2), 169-192.
  4. Galtung, J. and M. Ruge. (1965/1973) ‘Structuring and Selecting News.’ In SCohenand J. Young (eds.) The Manufacture of News: Social Problems, Deviance and the Mass Media. Newbury Park, California: Sage, 62-72.

 

[This blog was put together by using empirical research with activists in the field of gun violence prevention and reading literature around framing. The next blog post will discuss the role interest groups play in the process.]