“There’s nothing stopping prohibited persons until we close that background check loophole”: Will universal background checks prevent school shootings?

The quotation in the title was said by one of my gun violence prevention (GVP) interviewees. This is due to a loophole in the federal-level law the Brady Bill (1994), allowing background checks to be foregone in private transactions between individuals (such as classified advertisements) and at places like gun shows and flea markets. My GVP interviewees pointed to a lack of transparency surrounding such sales as the main motivation for prohibited persons using them. Notably, a gun show is where the Columbine perpetrators obtained three of their weapons. Robyn Anderson, a ‘straw buyer’ for the shooters who purchased the guns and then transferred them, admitted that she would not have done so had there been paperwork to fill out One of the shooters, Eric Harris, had been legally old enough to purchase the three long guns obtained. Presumably, then the Columbine shooters went through the ‘straw purchase’ method with Robyn Anderson to avoid alerting anyone to their plans. The fact that it facilitated preparations for this particular school shooting makes one think closing the gun show loophole federally — which would then act as a baseline for all the states to compile with —should at least be considered as a policy option.

A number of research studies have pointed out that ‘closing the gun show loophole’ only goes a limited way to solving the problem, as it is only addressing a small portion of private sales. (1) Taking this argument further, the interviewee quoted in the titled explained that those prohibited from buying and owning guns could also use the internet, newspaper advertisements and personal connections to circumvent the restriction. With this in mind, my gun-related interviewees overall believed that universal background checks would reduce school shootings and the more commonplace gun violence deaths, meaning it is the law which will save the most lives.

The post-Sandy Hook grassroots momentum pertaining to background checks has been described by one of my interviewees as ‘palpable,’ with it “all coming down to ‘let’s do the background checks’” for all GVP groups, which should generate solidarity and improve their chances of success. Despite not having a clear link to background checks, Sandy Hook has mobilised public support for this policy measure. This is evident in the introduction of a universal background checks bill into the Senate in spring 2013 shows this issue has been identified and acted upon. The bill failed by a narrow margin; however, interviewees were hopeful this will be successful if reintroduced in future.

Universal background checks also get the highest level of public support than any other regulatory measure. A nationwide poll carried out by the Pew Research Center found that 85% of 1500 adults supported universal background checks. (2) This support is not particularly partisan either: 86% of Republican and 92% of Democrat supporters were in favour of universal background checks. (3) It seems, therefore, that despite its divorcement from the Sandy Hook shooting itself, background check support has increased as a result of it.

This measure appears to have a higher chance of gaining public backing because it does not affect gun owners in any way: it is about regulating who can buy and own guns, rather than controlling guns themselves. This is reflected in high, non-partisan levels of public support. To sum up, universal background checks appears to be an objective that all GVP groups and politicians can get behind because it focuses on the users of guns rather than controlling guns themselves.

[This blog was put together using material from interviews with GVP groups and attendance at related events, polls and information about the ‘Brady Bill’ legislation. The next blog will look at redefining the criteria for prohibited persons in relation to mental illness, which is a common factor in school shootings.]

(1) Webster, D. W., J. S. Vernick, E. W. McGinty and T. Alcorn. (2013) ‘Preventing the Diversion of Guns to Criminals through effective Firearm Sales Laws.’ In D. W. Webster and J. S. Vernick. Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis. Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press, 109-121.
Wintemute, G.J. (2013a) ‘Comprehensive Background Checks for Firearm Sales: Evidence from Gun Shows.’ In D. W. Webster and J. S. Vernick. Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis. Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press, 95-107.
(2) Cited in Page, S. (2013) ‘Poll spots activism in gun control debate.’ USA Today, 15th January, News 6A (hard copy).
(3) McGinty, E. E., D. W. Webster, J. S. Vernicle, and C. L. Barry. (2013) ‘Public Opinion on Proposals to Strengthen U.S. Gun Laws: Findings from a 2013 Survey.’ In D. W. Webster and J. S. Vernick. Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis. Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press, 239-257.

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.

“I think we should forget about more gun control, what we need is bullet control”(1): Could regulation of bullets reduce school shootings?

A neglected aspect of the gun debate in the U.S. is the notion of ‘bullet control’: this would take the form of conducting background checks for buying ammunition. The selling point is if someone owned a gun and became ineligible after committing a felony, this would prevent them from buying ammunition for that gun. Since ideology has been defined as an interest-linked perspective, there exists a ‘struggle for legitimacy’ (i.e. confirmation of that particular ideological perspective) predicated on existing divisions within society (2). Something like ‘bullet control,’ therefore, could possibly depoliticise the issue away from the debate on ‘gun rights’ and ‘gun control.’ A number of my interviewees, however, were sceptical about this being a way to circumvent the politics of gun regulation, believing the National Rifle Association would fight against it.

Ammunition regulation used to be a part of the federal-level ‘Gun Control Act’ (1968) prohibiting mail order sales and requiring a log of ammunition sales. This ended, however, in 1986 due to the ‘Firearm Owners’ Protection Act’ diluting elements of the 1968 law. This means it will now fall to individual states to make decisions regarding the regulation of ammunition. California, for example, has just implemented a law mandating: the marking of bullets, background checks for purchases, and recording buyer information. Notably, the gun violence prevention groups to whom I spoke indicated that California was the progressive ‘model’ for gun regulations to aspire to, as this state is able to take further steps than the rest of the nation. As a whole, California, District of Columbia, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York require licenses to purchase or possess ammunition.

Suggestions were made from gun violence prevention groups about regulating the quantities of bullets able to be sold. This seems particularly applicable to school shootings since the Virginia Tech shooter carried almost four hundred bullets with him; whilst the Columbine perpetrators fired almost two hundred rounds and wore utility belts containing clips of 9mm bullets. Taxation of bullets was dismissed as a viable strategy, however, since mass shooters are unlikely to be deterred from their goal based on the cost of ammunition. An alternative strategy is perhaps New York’s recent law requiring logs of purchases, so the police can be informed if someone is stockpiling bullets.

Another recommendation was restricting bullets that increase the severity of wounds. There seems to be a link between harm-inducing bullets and school shootings. The Virginia Tech shooter used 9mm ‘hollow point bullets,’ which penetrate further parts of the body rather than exiting it and are designed to inflict higher levels of damage than ordinary bullets. Similarly, the Sandy Hook shooter used bullets the same size as those used by military troops designed to tear bone and tissue apart. Tighter regulations of these could, at the very least, serve to reduce the severity of injuries in a school shooting situation; henceforth, framing the problem in terms of medical costs. Furthermore, a legal scholar (3) claimed that limiting certain bullets, such as .50 calibre ones, would be constitutional because it would not affect self-defence; meaning this is definitely something which could viably be pursued as a legislative goal.

[This blog was compiled through a number of sources: interviews with gun violence prevention groups and other experts in matters relating to gun legislation; studies by legal scholars; data about state laws. The next blog post will look at using YouTube as a tool to analyse school shootings.]

(1) The quote in the title appeared in episode ‘2162 Votes’ (2005) in season seven of the fictional television show The West Wing.
(2) Philo, G. (2007) ‘Can Discourse Analysis Successfully Explain the Content of Media and Journalistic Practice?’ Journalism Studies 8(2), 175-196.
(3) Volokh, E. (2009) ‘Implementing the Right to Keep and Bear Arms for Self-Defense: An Analytical Framework and Research Agenda.’ UCLA Law Review 56, 1443-1549.

“Something is wrong in this country”: Why do most school shootings occur in the U.S.?

The above statement was made by Tom Mauser, the father of a Columbine victim, a few days after the 1999 attack.[1] The notion of school shootings being a particular problem for the United States is exemplified by the results of a study looking at global trends up until 2011: the United States suffered from 76 school shootings; whereas the combined total for incidents around the world was 44. The countries with the second and third highest levels of attacks were Canada and Germany respectively.[2] What is particular interest here is the fact that the three countries with the greatest amount of incidents are all democratic and economically prosperous. Notably, gun crime, particularly in the U.S., is usually associated with minority groups in poorer, urban areas. School shootings, by contrast, tend to occur in White, middle-class, suburban locations, where crime rates are generally pretty low. This is clearly not a problem caused by economic deprivation.

So, why do these events occur most often in the U.S.? Is there something ‘wrong’ with that nation? Applying Hofstede’s often-quoted cultural model[3] to school shootings shows a correlation between incidents and nations with two characteristics: high individualism, predicated on a sense of self-importance, personal privacy and a need for individual gratification; lower power distance, where the unequal distribution of power between social groups is rarely challenged.  There are, of course, limitations to Hofstede’s model, particularly the assumption that values are universally held throughout each nation and culture is a transferable entity, which can be ascribed to each country.

Looking at the U.S. does suggest the explanation may partially lie in cultural expectations. It is an individualistic society, meaning there are fewer tendencies to talk through problems. Ideals about masculinity are entrenched in a violent boy culture, evident in historical trends such as young boys carrying chips of wood on their shoulders defying others to knock it off and engage in a physical altercation. In the school environment, boys who meet the requirements of ‘hyper-masculinity,’ by displaying athletic prowess, toughness and dominance are rewarded with the status of popularity. Hegemonic ideals of masculinity are further explicated in gun usage, where firing a weapon is an overt way to assert power over others. Given the U.S. has the highest level of gun ownership in the world, using guns may also be seen as a means of ‘performing’ one’s national identity.

Creating the optimum conditions for school shootings to occur, therefore, are the following factors evident in U.S. culture: individualism, lower power distance, a violent culture predicated on elements of hypermasculinity and high levels of gun ownership, usage and accessibility. As previous blogs documented, school shooters tend to have ‘fragile male identities,’ meaning the attack on their institution becomes a ‘solution’ to their ‘problems’ and a way for them to make their statement. Trying to prevent school shootings, henceforth, requires a shift in cultural preconceptions — this is something which is currently underway, to some extent, in gun violence prevention circles and will be explored in future blog posts.

[Material for this blog was taken from Hofstede’s cultural model, studies about school shootings, U.S. gun culture and theories about masculinity. Future blogs will look at how GVP groups are trying to challenge cultural perceptions about gun usage in order to reduce school shootings and other types of gun crime occurring.]

[1] This was quoted in Michael Moore’s documentary Bowling for Columbine.

[2] Cited in N. 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, 10.

[3] Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and

organizations across nations (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Punishing Educational Institutions for School Shootings: The Case of Virginia Tech University and ‘Timely Warnings’

As the last blog documented, the attributions of blame after a school shooting tend to focus on parties that are claimed to have failed to notice the warning signs given by the perpetrators and/or respond to the shooting properly. School shooting lawsuits are predicated on varying degrees of blame: firstly, the assumption that the schools are partly to blame for not pre-empting the shooting (whilst full responsibility for the attack would lie with the perpetrators who carried them out); secondly, that they are either partly or wholly responsible for their response to the attack. Establishing this blame against schools is the lawsuit which has a twofold purpose: getting the school to accept some responsibility regarding their negligence (i.e. acknowledging that they have failed to properly fulfil their institutional duties) and receiving monetary compensation. The accountability dimension has the additional purpose of making an example of the schools in question and, by implication, motivating other schools to ensure that such an attack does not occur on their premises. This idea is backed up by Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory that the primary purpose of punishment is to deter others. The imposition of a ‘negative wage,’ an undesirable payment of compensation settled by the wrongdoer, is the secondary component of this punishment. Monetary compensation paid by the wrongdoer has been the case in early Roman, Norse and English law and was typically awarded to the head of a household when a person or animal in their household was unjustly killed. Interestingly, in most languages, the notions of payment and punishment have been interconnected: for instance, in English there is the phrase ‘pay the penalty.’

The postings on the 23rd and 30th July discussed the delay in alerting staff and students the day of the Virginia Tech incident. As it transpired, the delay in communication constituted a violation of federal law, resulting in Virginia Tech being fined fifty-five thousand dollars by the U.S. Department of Education. The university appealed this and it was decided in early 2012 by the Education’s Chief Administrative Judge that the fine should be overturned. In late 2012, however, this fine was partially reinstated by the U.S. Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, who ruled that the university should pay a twenty-seven and a half thousand dollar fine for their alleged failure to provide a ‘timely warning’ on the day of the attack. The argument by the attorney of the claimants was that, upon hearing about the WAJ dorm shootings, the university locked down its Center for Professional and Continuing Education and cancelled that day’s bank deposits. These actions were said to have demonstrated ‘concerns that the crime might represent a continuing threat to the campus,’ yet steps were not taken to relay this information to students and staff until later on. In addition to this, ‘the respondent had not located the suspect, had not found the weapon, and was confronted with the distinct possibility that the gunman was armed and still at large.’

With that line of thought in mind, a number of the families of those killed and injured in the Virginia Tech incident filed claims for the attacks and received an eleven million dollar settlement from the state. Recently, the parents of two students killed brought a case against the university predicated on the basis that their daughters may have survived if communication had been more prompt. According to the attorney of the families, the evidence of the error was ‘the bodies of the young people on the floors of Norris Hall.’ Virginia Tech President, Charles Steger, and other VT officials attempted to counteract that charge by stating the VTPD investigation was misleading, because it concluded that the WAJ murders were the result of a domestic dispute rather than the start of a school shooting. In the end, the jury found the university negligent and the two families were awarded damages. The mother of one of the victims was quoted as stating: ‘Today we got what we wanted. The truth is out there.’ This gives further credence to the idea that these lawsuits act as a means of highlighting answerability.

[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 post will return to the issue of threat assessment and managing threats post-incident.]

Lawsuits and School Shootings: Punishment, Blame and Accountability

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.]

LiveSafe: The Transformation of Emergency Communication

As the blogs posted on the 23rd and 30th July discussed, the Virginia Tech incident gave salience to the issue of ‘emergency alerts’ during crises. This led to a transformation in ‘emergency communication’ in Virginia Tech University’s policies and higher education institutions throughout the nation. It also created a gap in the market for the emergency communication smartphone application LiveSafe (www.LiveSafe.ly). This is available to download for free anywhere in the U.S., therefore is technically for everyone to use; however, its main usage is around higher education institutions and a couple of high schools in the East Coast. The image below shows the home screen of the app:

WVU Home Sceen

Its features mainly centre on reporting potential threats or being able to deal with a crisis should it occur. The features of this app allow: people to report crimes or other incidents such as car accidents and features a two way communicative feature with the police; tracking of users’ locations; a mass emergency notification resource; safety mapping of incidents.

LiveSafe Homescreen

The screenshot below is the most recent version of how to submit tips in a non-emergency situation.

WVU Tip Select

This is then translated into the ‘map’ feature, which can be seen by all subscribers. Incidents such as shooting incidents, fires and car accidents are initially reported through the ‘dashboard’ feature and information like pictures, videos and audio shows up on the computers of affiliated law enforcement organisations allowing them to investigate incidents. Once the police have verified an incident is correct, it shows up on its ‘map’ feature and this data is amalgamated for each higher education institution. The federal legislation ‘Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act’(1991) requires higher education institutions to log and publicise information about crimes committed on or near campuses in an annual crime report. The LiveSafe application, therefore, allows higher education institutions to be more transparent by drawing attention to any crime or safety problems on campuses. The rationale of it is to make safety a more natural and everyday entity. Given the findings of theorists who have studied fear of crime that precautionary action, such as being more aware and having tools to reduce victimisation, can negate anxiety about crime, it certainly seems that ‘naturalising’ safety to make it a commonplace occurrence could be useful in managing fear.

LiveSafe Map Function

Furthermore, it has a ‘broadcast tab’ feature that allows users to send messages (text, email or voice) to all other subscribers, with pre-set templates to save time. The traditional format of ‘broadcasting’ emergency alerts combines with smartphone technology in LiveSafe to allow individuals to take control of both sending and receiving crisis communication messages. This application also allows users to ‘check in’ during a crisis, providing them with an alternative to the traditional media format of making a telephone call.

LiveSafe Broadcast Feature

It also has a feature ‘call police (911)’ or ‘message police,’ which potentially be used in emergency situations where one wants to be discrete. During the Virginia Tech shooting many students had to ‘play dead’ to survive, so an inconspicuous way to communicate with emergency services would have been very useful under those circumstances. The app, however, is only to be used to contact emergency services under circumstances where there are no other options. Possibly it could also be used by users who are unable to call the police, because of language barriers (LiveSafe translates tips submitted in non-English languages) and disabilities, such as being mute.

WVU Call Police

Allowing for communication during a crisis and an alternative form of emergency calling could potentially mean that LiveSafe allows for insecurities about the risk of crime and safety concerns to be managed through taking precautions. This app may be downloaded from https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/livesafe/id653666211?ls=1&mt=8 for iphones and https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.livesafe.activities&hl=en for Android.

[This blog was put together with results from a qualitative interview with a LiveSafe spokesperson. A fuller version of this piece is published in my doctoral thesis and may appear in publications in future.]

Emergency Communication after Virginia Tech: Legitimising Laws and Policies

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.]

Emergency Communication Problems Highlighted by the Virginia Tech Shooting

The 2008 Virginia Tech shooting resulted in a transformation of emergency communication procedures by highlighting existing flaws in institutional polices and federal law — the changes made will be the subject of future blog posts. For this blog, I wish to set the scene by explicating exactly what went wrong on 16th April, 2007, when a school shooting attack occurred at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University — this will be shorted to Virginia Tech University for ease of reading.

The inquiry ordered by the Virginia Governor, Tim Kaine, into the actions of Virginia Tech University officials circumscribed the mistakes made on the day of the shooting. One of the major problems highlighted by VTRP (2007/2009) was there were inconsistencies between the institutional emergency communication policy, which listed the Policy Group (VTPG) and Police Department (VTPD) as being authorised parties for releasing emergency alerts, and the emergency management plan, denoting that the campus police department, despite having the authority to develop or request an alert, had to wait for the university’s policy group to deliberate and then either approve or reject the request — the latter option was the one followed on the day of the shooting, as campus police did not have the computer code needed to issue an emergency message campus-wide.

Another problem was there were no templates of messages for different scenarios when such a measure would have allowed for a more expeditious process of sending alerts. Virginia Tech University’s emergency management plans prior to the shooting centred on natural disasters (weather problems and fires) and acts of terrorism in a post 9/11 context, with varying levels of severity ranging from zero to three. Surprisingly perhaps, given it occurred in a post-Columbine environment, there were no provisions in place for a school shooting scenario — this could perhaps be attributable to the fact that most school shootings until that point had occurred in middle and high schools rather than colleges and universities. Consequently, the content of the emergency notification sent to staff and students at 9:26am was not very specific or urgent in its warnings:

A shooting incident occurred at West Ambler Johnston [dorm] earlier this morning. Police are on the scene and are investigating. The university community is urged to be cautious and are asked to contact Virginia Tech Police if you observe anything suspicious or with information on the case. Contact Virginia Tech Police at 231–6411. Stay tuned to the [webpage] http://www.vt.edu. We will post as soon as we have more information.

The second message sent at 9:50am, ten minutes after the perpetrator had begun shooting again, this time in Norris Hall, was more specific and direct: “A gunman is loose on campus. Stay in buildings until further notice. Stay away from all windows.” As it transpired, the VTRP (2007/2009) investigators concluded that if the emergency alert had been more urgent or advised specific actions, this could have alerted more people to suspicious activities and hence enhanced their chances of survival.

Notably, it could be argued that the most severe mistake was the delay in sending the message. In the VTRP (2007/2009) documents, a timeline of events shows that, after the dorm shooting, Virginia Tech University engaged in actions such as locking down its Center for Professional and Continuing Education and cancelling bank deposits for that day. At 8:45am, a member of the Policy Group emailed a colleague in Richmond stating “Gunman on the loose. This is not releasable yet” and, four minutes later, sent another one saying “just try to make sure it doesn’t get out.” Schools in nearby Blacksburg went into lockdown at 8:52am. Despite this, the first alert to students and staff at Virginia Tech was sent at 9:26am, twenty-one minutes after the first period started; although a technical error delayed the message for a further fifteen minutes so it was actually sent at about 9:10am. The review panel members surmised that had the message been released before 8:30am, this could then have been possibly received by students and staff before they left for the first class of the day, given most of the people would already be in class or walking to class at 9:26am and thus unlikely to have the opportunity or even the need to check their email accounts.

As it transpired, the official review came to the conclusion that the high death toll of the Virginia Tech shooting was attributable to the delay in communication and that the Policy Group and, to a lesser extent, the campus Police Department, are responsible for this. The authors of the review do acknowledge, however, that Cho is highly likely to have carried out a mass shooting that day anyway given his intentions to do so; it might have been elsewhere if the university plan had been thwarted. This chain of events resulted in Virginia Tech University changing its institutional policies, updating tits technologies and a lawsuit filed by some of the relatives of those killed — these will all be discussed in future blogs.

[Material from this blog originally appeared in a chapter in the book Reframing Punishment: Silencing, Dehumanisation and the Way Forward. Future blogs will expand on this, by noting the policy changes to institutions, law and technologies after the Virginia Tech shooting.]

Threat Assessment Model: Online Threats

The last blog spoke about using behaviour in everyday life as part of threat assessment. Internet sites can also be auspicious locations for tracking the existence of potential threats. What can be taken from analyses of online comments is the importance of language and descriptiveness when assessing potential threats on there. Clearly, YouTube videos geared towards empathising and/or idolising school shooters is going to attract a certain kind of audience — these are, therefore, more likely to contain potential threats. Evident in the findings here is that a certain number of factors indicate the possibility of a potential threat.

 

-Looking at the key agents in the statements. Who are they? Upon whom is blame and responsibility being placed? A tendency to exonerate shooters from blame and place culpability with the victims, those in the school, and society as a whole show at the very least a willingness to have some degree of empathy with shooters. This, obviously, does not necessarily mean that the user expressing those comments is a potential threat, so this needs to be in combination with the other factors listed.

-Material that fits under the rubric of the ‘revenge and bullying thesis,’ where users adopt the stance that the victims deserved it, the perpetrator was achieving justice, and that bullying was the main driving force behind the attack. Here, the shooters are being ‘romanticised’ and their attack has created, to an individual susceptible to its influence, a ‘culture script’ of action as a way to resolve their problems. What makes this have the potential to be a threat is combining this frame with statements sharing personal experience of bullying, followed by expressions of a desire to also carry out a school shooting.

-The degree of attack planning, such as sharing knowledge of ways to gain weapons legally and illegally or naming specific targets, times and dates. When users are as detailed as this, it suggests something more than just an internet troll or bored kid looking for attention, as they would be more inclined to just put “I want to carry out a similar attack,” which is very vague, has an absence of a target and attack plan, and has not considered the means to obtain resources needed to execute a shooting.

-Statements paralleling past shooters or expressing narcissistic tendencies. The former would be in the form of “everyone else is to blame for making me want to do this,” which denotes persecution and a perceived injustice, and switches agency from the potential threat-maker to other (perhaps unspecified) agents. The narcissistic statements would fit with the traits outlined in earlier blogs, with comments like “I am so much better than everyone else and I laugh at their incompetence” if this was combined with other components outlined in this model. The over-reaction aspect is perhaps less of an issue on YouTube and other internet sites because the very nature of such debates means that discussions can commonly degenerate into rants and abusive comments — of course, this only serves to worsen the problem and any negative feelings the user already has.

-What should particularly be flagged are any discussions where users appear to be encouraging each other or possibly collaborating to plan an attack together. The more detailed and descriptive the discussion, the more likely it is that this could be shaping up to become something else. These should be closely monitored and interventionary action taken if required.

 

[This blog was put together by analysing comments on YouTube videos about school shooters. It builds upon the threat assessment material detailed in previous blog postings and is best used in collaboration with the offline behaviour threat assessment model proposed.]