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.]