Read my new book about the gun-related policy responses to school shooting incidents in the United States.
Available for purchase here: https://www.palgrave.com/gb/book/9783319753126
Read my new book about the gun-related policy responses to school shooting incidents in the United States.
Available for purchase here: https://www.palgrave.com/gb/book/9783319753126
The previous blog post compared and contrasted a handful of European school shootings with American ones and found that there was not much difference in the motivations and actions of perpetrators. This post will follow up on that looking at the aftermath of school shootings across different cultures.
Starting with European incidents, the Jokela school shooting in 2007 was discussed at length in a blog post published on the 25th of September 2017. The aftermath of this school shooting involved a number of recommendations centring on creating a better school environment and helping students: improving student welfare and ensuring the relevant authorities (e.g. social work) cooperate; clarifying mental health disorders such as adolescent anxiety; devising and implementing school safety plans; formulating programs to tackle bullying. More importantly, a report by the Ministry of Justice in Finland acknowledged that the perpetrator ‘copied school killings perpetrated in the USA’ with his use of a firearm with him being a legal gun owner. Recommendations, therefore, centred on more stringent checking of who is permitted to have a gun permit and greater use of fixed-term permits. Another point raised in this report was the fact that the perpetrator engaged in online discussions about school shootings prior to his attack and also used the internet to promote his manifesto. It was advised that administrators of online communities should stage interventions in such cases and moderate content more closely. Looking at the German Winnenden school shooting (2009) finds that this lead to the passage of gun legislation intended to improve handgun security: a nation-wide registry of gun owners, increased age limits for purchasing guns and unannounced inspections at homes to check guns were stored securely. Since the perpetrator stole his firearm from his father, this case also led to a lawsuit being filed against the father. As it transpired, his father was found guilty of involuntary homicide caused by negligence with a weapon. Another example was the Dunblane school shooting in the United Kingdom in 1996, which led to a more or less ‘blanket ban’ on handguns in the UK. Current gun owners were encouraged to return their guns after the 1997 law was passed and the criteria on who was allowed to own a gun became very strict, with people requiring a valid reason for doing so.
Looking at the United States now finds that earlier school shootings in the 1990s (e.g. Heath High School, Pearl High School, Westside Middle School) led to a ‘Conference on School Safety’ held at the White House in 1998. Responses centred on anti-bullying programs, reducing youth violence more generally, greater parental involvement and creating networks of support within the community. When the Columbine school shooting occurred in 1999, this expanded the scope for debate to violent entertainment media, ‘goth culture’ and gun laws. There were some provisions in place regulating violent media for a while and schools began developing emergency management plans to deal with active shooter incidents. Zero tolerance disciplinary measures were also implemented across a number of schools for carrying weapons, wearing certain types of clothing or any other action deemed ‘risky.’ Proposals were raised around children and guns but these never gained traction in Congress. The main changes to guns came at the state-level following Columbine. School shootings since then have resulted in changes to mental health laws and some restrictions on guns at the state-level. Similar to the Winnenden school shooting, some incidents in the United States have resulted in the parents of victims filing lawsuits against the parents of the perpetrators (e.g. Columbine) or in some cases other targets like the film industry on the basis of it influencing the actions of the shooter (e.g. Heath High School).
Contrasting the responses to school shootings across cultures is indicative of the differences. The motivations of school shooters are rooted in feelings of marginalisation, possibly being bullied and the need to get ‘revenge’ against the institution, no matter which country the attack took place in. When it comes to the aftermath, however, European countries have taken overt steps to tighten gun laws in response to school shooting incidents. In the United States, this has not really been the case for the entire nation; any gun restrictions have arisen at the state-level only. The similarities between the U.S. and European countries have been to improve the school culture and provide assistance to students who are struggling with mental health or other personal problems. In ensuring that responses to school shootings help to avert and negate future attacks, countries should try working together and sharing strategies about what has worked best for them.
[This post was put together by reading about cases in Europe and the United States. The next blog will continue the global theme by examining patterns and motivations in Canadian school shootings.]
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:
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.]
The last two blog posts documented some of the ways in which interest groups can frame gun violence for it to gain traction in the policy sphere. It now needs to be highlighted why gun violence prevention interest groups are so important to the process. Further to this, the occurrence of a highly publicised event like a school shooting or other form of mass shooting allows for suggestions around changes needed to gun legislation to be made by these groups. This blog post will explore both of these points in further detail.
In a democratic society like the United States, citizens are pertinent to the policy-making process through a number of activities: lobbying/campaigning, engaging in debates, pressurising politicians to take action and submitting a request for a bill to be passed. Interest groups provide a space for citizens to engage in ‘policy advocacy,’ promoting change on a particular issue(s). These organisations can also act as ‘conduits,’ passing information between members of the public and lawmakers.
When the focus of an interest group is specific and narrow in nature, such as gun policy, it means that positions tend to be polarised. Taking the example of the Virginia Tech University school shooting elucidates this point. An interest group focusing on gun rights, such as the Gun Owners of America, claimed that arming students would have prevented the high death toll. Conversely, the gun violence prevention groups like Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence pushed for action on gun legislation, indicative of the shooter being able to purchase weapons despite being temporarily detained at a mental health facility.
The actions, resources and membership of an interest group are, therefore, predicated on its ideological facets: “…many ideologies [are] developed precisely in order to sustain, legitimate, or manage group conflicts, as well as relationships of power and dominance” (1). Members of an interest group may propagate their interests in the political sphere, by working with political actors to draft legislative bills and endorsing and, sometimes funding, candidates who will support their goals for state and local campaigns.
The real power from interest groups comes when they are actually able to influence public opinion and mobilise action on policy action. This is more likely to occur following a ‘focusing event’: something which is rare, unexpected and shocking (2). A school shooting fits this criteria, as an incident which is actually quite atypical within the wider rubric of gun violence; yet allows for ‘gun violence’ to appear on the political agenda and influence public sentiment. Illustrating this is what occurred in Colorado, where gun violence prevention interest groups lobbied for landmark gun laws, including reducing magazine sizes to ten rounds and universal background checks for all sales. This state had previously suffered from some high-profile incidents: the Columbine school shooting, the hostage situation at Platte Canyon High School and the mass shooting at the movie theatre in Aurora. Although the issue of gun violence had already been on the minds of voters for the 2012 election, it was the Sandy Hook school shooting that put the issue on the agenda for the Colorado Legislature in 2013. As documented in the blog post published on the 30th of April 2014, the Sandy Hook school shooting had also allowed for a nation-wide debate on gun reform. Without the mechanism of interest groups to convey information to the public, work with political actors, and lobby for particular changes to law, it would be more difficult to try and gain policy traction when high profile incidents occur.
[This blog post was the final in a series around gun policy. It was put together using literature around interest groups, focusing events and social policy. The next post will look at thwarted school shootings that are said to have been ‘inspired’ by the Columbine shooters.]
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.
[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.]
As mentioned in previous blogs, the advocacy work of gun violence prevention groups is invaluable to passing gun legislation. What can be problematic, however, is when an interest group has a singular focus like gun policy, positions tend to be polarised into extreme opposites. The reaction to the Sandy Hook school shooting is the perfect illustration of this: gun violence prevention groups claimed that tighter gun restrictions were needed to prevent future incidents; gun rights organisations purported that the reason why so many had been killed was the teachers had not been armed with firearms. The purpose of this blog post is to elucidate a way in which the two can work together to achieve progress on gun safety.
One of my interviewees previously acted as an advisor to a GVP interest group and found that the fact that many of these advocates do not own guns makes it harder for gun owners to trust them and their motives. Given there are high levels of public support in the United States for the right to bear arms, GVP groups cannot hope to persuade people by disregarding it. In fact, ignoring such a ‘common sense’ (1) — for those who believe in it — interpretation of the second amendment would likely result in a ‘hegemonic struggle’ (2) for the domination of the ‘individual rights paradigm,’ denoting that every individual has the right to own firearms. An alternative strategy is to instead incorporate a message of a right to the bear arms but there is also a responsibility to ensure that criminals and the mentally ill do not obtain guns. This also means that GVP groups should not shy away from discussing rights, freedoms and the constitution.
This reshaping of ideologies would also involve getting gun owners on board. An activism event held by Mayors Against Illegal Guns in late 2013 had gun owners speaking in favour of universal background checks for all sales (including those at gun shows and private transactions). Notably, those who spoke claimed that universal background checks was a non-partisan issue, appealing to both Republicans and Democrats; it also would not stop law-abiding gun owners procuring firearms. The gun violence prevention groups I interviewed and MAIG are all coalescing on universal background checks. It was claimed that this has the most public support, which is backed up with the results of polls, and also is a relatively ‘uncontroversial’ regulatory measure that politicians and gun owners are more likely to endorse. The ‘rights and responsibilities’ message can be seen clearly in this policy proposal: those who wish to own a gun and meet the criteria will still have the right to do so; whilst there is still a degree of responsibility in ensuring prohibited persons are unable to procure weapons.
[This blog post was put together using the results of interviews with GVP interest groups and other experts in gun policy/framing, as well as participant observation of the MAIG event. Literature about framing was also used to make sense of the findings. The next post will focus on another framing approach that should have some impact.]
The quotation in the title was stated by one of the gun violence prevention experts to whom I spoke, highlighting the potential deadliness of high-capacity magazines. Due to their potential to fire off multiple rounds without the need to reload, these are commonly used in school shootings, as well as other incidents involving multiple deaths: for instance, the shooter in the Aurora cinema in Colorado, an event which killed 12 and injured 70, had a magazine that was able to fire off a hundred rounds. This blog post will advance the argument that the high death toll in school and other mass shootings is related to high capacity magazines.
The definition of a ‘school shooting’ denotes an intention to kill and injure as many people in an education institution as possible in a short period of time. It could, thus, be argued that high capacity magazines and semi-automatic weapons, allowing for multiple rounds to be fired, facilitate this process. For instance, the perpetrator of the shooting at Virginia Tech University — considered the worst mass shooting in the United States, due to its high death toll of thirty-two — used a magazine holding thirty bullets and shot his victims, both those killed and injured, multiple times. During the Columbine school shooting, the perpetrators fired almost two hundred rounds; other school massacres from Sandy Hook through to Red Lake have involved the use of semi-automatic weapons to allow for continuous firing. Having the potential to fire multiple rounds pertains exactly to the goals of a school shooter to murder as many as possible.
Another issue to be considered is that when a shooter has to change a magazine, this gives an opportunity for them to be stopped. An example of this is the 2011 mass shooting involving former Congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords, in Tuscon, Arizona, when the shooter was tackled by individuals when he ran out of bullets and had to change the magazine on his weapon. The Red Lake High school shooting involved a student both grappling with the perpetrator to retrieve his weapon and stabbing him in the stomach with a pencil, heroic actions which are believed to have saved the lives of others. It is unknown whether the shooter was changing magazines at this point; although if he had been, this would have provided the distraction needed to take forceful action against him.
Despite all this, legislative action on limiting high capacity magazines has been slow. President Obama put together a package following the Sandy Hook shooting, which included a proposal to limit magazines to ten rounds. This failed to gain any noticeable support in the Senate, so it was subsequently dropped. Conversely, there is actually a modest degree of public support for limiting large capacity magazines to ten rounds: 68% of those surveyed by McGinty et al. (2013), with 48% being gun owners and 19% members of the National Rifle Association (1). Notably, there was a law implemented in the state of Colorado in 2013 that limited gun ammunition magazines to fifteen rounds. This is particularly significant considering Colorado has suffered a number of mass shootings over the years, including the Columbine and Aurora Theatre incidents. Candidates in the 2012 Colorado election were asked by citizens about what action they were prepared to take on gun violence, so this was clearly an auspicious moment to try to pass this kind of legislation. There were, however, counterchallenges to the Colorado legislation from Concerned Citizens for a Safer Colorado, claiming it violated the right to self-defence; this group unsuccessfully tried to overturn the magazine limit. In future, it may be the case that it will fall to individual states, rather than the federal government, to enact similar legislation around high capacity magazines.
[This blog was put together using results from interviews with gun violence prevention experts and further readings pertaining to school shootings and gun legislation. The next series of posts will explore ways to frame the gun violence debate in order to gain policy traction.]