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
In the blog post published on the 22nd of June 2014, I outlined the ways in which promotion of an identity constructed before a school shooting is a ‘performance’ intended for a particular audience. This post will follow up on this, by looking at the specific example of the Jokela High School incident on the 7th of November 2007. In this case, the eighteen year old perpetrator, Pekka-Eric Auvinen, put together a manifesto package explaining his motives. Prior to this, he engaged in online discussions about school shooters and gave some indication that he would perpetrate his own attack.
Eight were killed in the attack perpetrated by Auvinen in an attack on the upper (secondary) school within the Jokela School Centre. Similar to other school shootings, this incident had been planned well in advance. Preparations for Jokela were thought to have started in March 2007 based on Auvinen’s diary entry at that time, which stated intent to carry out an ‘operation against humanity.’ Also included in that diary entry was a desire for this ‘operation’ to be infamous with a lasting impact on society and to inspire others to carry out similar acts.
These sentiments were echoed in online debates Auvinen engaged in, taking place in internet communities dedicated to discussing the Columbine school shooting. Auvinen’s interest in this particular attack was explicated in him making a video about the incident: for instance, he put together a montage from the surveillance camera footage of the Columbine attack. Researchers found that the ties to these online groups magnified Auvinen’s desires and went some way to encouraging him to follow through with these in a proper attack. (1) Corresponding with others interested in school shooters has been a feature of other school shootings: for instance, the perpetrator of the Sandy Hook attack compiled a spreadsheet about school shooters and discussed them in detail with others online. (2) In the case of the Jokela school shooter, a clear intention to carry out a school shooting was expressed; although this lacked concrete details such as a date and location.
With him having a potential audience within the online community he was part of, Auvinen then uploaded materials to the internet: one of these was a manifesto entitled ‘Natural Selector’s Manifesto.’ (3) Throughout internet discussions, Auvinen had been prone to paraphrasing the quotations of Columbine attacker, Eric Harris about natural selection and being ‘God-like.’ Similar to Harris, in this manifesto, he made scathing comments about certain types of social groups and decried the human race in general. In addition to this document, the final media package constructed the night before his attack included a more detailed manifesto comparing his actions to ‘political violence’ to promote an ideology, videos featuring various mass murderers and a goodbye note for his family. With his fascination with radical ideology and terrorism, Auvinen had originally expressed a desire to target the Parliament in Finland; however, he felt that an attack in a school would create more ‘publicity.’ (4)
Considering all of this, it is clear that the online discussions helped both to cultivate an audience for Auvinen and provide him with further details about school shooters. It was clear he admired the Columbine school shooter, Eric Harris, and this was echoed in his manifesto comments about ‘natural selection’ and humanity. This was exemplified further in Auvinen preparing a detailed final manifesto to portray himself and his beliefs in a certain way before carrying out the attack and sending this to the media with the belief that this would bring maximum publicity.
[This blog post looked at a specific school shooting incident in Finland. Continuing the international theme, the next post will compare and contrast European school shootings with those occurring in the United States.]
Before the attack, the perpetrator, Marc Lepine, wrote a suicide note expressing strong contempt for feminists, stating that “they had always ruined his life.” Within the note, he listed nineteen women in Quebec that he wanted to kill. In particular, his rage appeared to be directed at women in three occupational groups: soldiers, police officers and engineers. Since these have traditionally been defined as ‘masculine’ roles, he perhaps extrapolated from this that females pursuing these jobs were ‘feminists’ trying to transgress gender expectations. Moreover, Lepine also had a personal connection to the military and engineering, both of which had rejected him. These rejections likely contributed to the fragility of his male identity (1).
During the attack, he ordered males and females to separate sides of the classroom and thereafter ordered the men to leave. Once alone with the females, he said to them “You’re all a bunch of feminists. I hate feminists.” After he had shot these students, he walked through the building and killed another seven females. In total, he killed fourteen females in the university. Notably, the site of the attack being EcolePolytechnique University and its target of female students were significant, given this institution had turned down his application to an engineering course and instead accepted female students. Following the shooting, a number of surviving students, suffering from the events that they had witnessed, committed suicide with some of them citing the attack as the reason why they were doing so.
It could, therefore, be said that this school shooting was an exercise in misogyny intended to make a political statement about the role of women in society, particularly in what were traditionally ‘male roles.’ Despite this, news coverage after the shooting only focused on his mental health problems, portraying him as a ‘madman.’ Moreover, the attention paid to this incident in scholarly literature and the news media has been far less than other incidents. (2) It may be surmised that had the situation been reversed — a female school shooter expressing hatred against men and their role in society — the incident would have received greater coverage and public commentary. That does not mean, however, that the massacre has not had an impact. It could be argued that Lepine has become a ‘hero’ to some. For instance, a threat to execute the ‘deadliest school shooting ever’ was sent to Utah State University in 2014, because it planned to host a talk from a feminist vlogger. Within the threat letter, Marc Lepine was described as “a hero to men everywhere for standing up to the toxic influence of feminism on Western masculinity.” (3) There are also dedication pages to Lepine on the internet, for disenfranchised voices. Considering the fact that this massacre was almost thirty years ago, it gives credence to claims from gender theorists that masculinity is in ‘crisis.’ This would be even more the case in contemporary society with the advent of third wave feminism, focusing on complete equality with men for all women. (4)
The commonality throughout all school shootings is the fact that almost all perpetrators are male and the motivations of perpetrators are entrenched within understandings of what it means to be a ‘man.’ To that extent, the EcolePolytechnique University massacre exemplifies the ‘failed man crisis,’ entrenched within the perpetrator’s diminished prospects, a lack of success with females and other personal issues.
[This blog post was the beginning of a new theme on school shootings taking place outside the United States. The next post will examine an attack that occurred in Germany in 2002, where the perpetrator targeted staff members at his former school.]
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.
‘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.]
The previous blog post discussed the legislative changes made after the Virginia Tech shooting as they pertain to mental health monitoring. Following these changes, claimants then began to describe the initial response to the shooting as inadequate. For instance, a TIME article published in April 2008 claimed that “the vast majority of violent crimes are committed by people who are not technically mentally ill” and so “sharing mental health data is not a comprehensive solution.” Conversely, the main issue trying to be pushed by the news media was ‘closing the gun show loophole’ in Congress. This post will discuss the reasons why this policy proposal failed to gain any traction following the Virginia Tech shooting.
Feature article writers surmised about the possibility that, had the mental health loophole not been in place in state law, the Virginia Tech shooter could have circumvented restrictions anyway by purchasing firearms from a gun show. The selections of voices utilised by the news media were relatives of survivors and those killed in the Virginia Tech shooting, with one stating “We are begging the Senate to pass this bill”; a Virginia Tech survivor and activist, Colin Goddard, tried to highlight this issue by himself going to gun shows in Texas, Ohio and Virginia and testing their system. Interest groups specialising in gun violence prevention, such as Brady Campaign to Stop Gun Violence and Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, were ‘selected’ and made their points that ‘easy access’ to firearms was facilitated by the ‘big loophole’ where private dealers can circumvent background checks. There was even a feature article written by a relative of a girl killed during the shooting, which made this point: “I look back over the past 1,097 days since my sister died and wonder how it is still legal for criminals and people with serious mental illness to buy guns without passing a background check.” He carried out a similar experiment to Colin Goddard and was able to purchase ten guns in less than an hour with no background check or identification needed: “It was as easy as buying a bag of chips at a grocery store; simple cash and carry.”
Adhering to the ‘elite dissensus but policy certainty within the executive’ scenario of Robinson’s (2002) model — where the news media puts pressure on the government to change but to no avail — political actors reshaped the debate away from the prospect of gun regulation. (1) At the time of the Virginia Tech shooting, there seemed to be the perception that any form of gun regulation would equate to political failure, particularly in key swing ‘purple’ states like Florida. What transpired after Virginia Tech was that Democrats were said to be ‘silent’ on this issue and, when they did respond, they adopted similar stances to Republicans. For instance, Rahm Emanuel, previously a top aide to Clinton and who had pushed the assault weapons ban, stated: “There are successful laws [already] on the books. They have to be enforced.” This is a way, therefore, for politicians to ‘take action’ to tackle gun violence, without any implementing anything.
Tracing the lack of action back to its origins, prior to Virginia Tech, there was a political climate where Democrats were reluctant to take any action on guns and instead proclaimed their support for gun owners’ rights. In their analysis of post 9/11 news frames, a study by Schnell and Callaghan found that there has been a shift to ‘pro-gun’ sentiment that attempts to deride existing gun regulations. (2) It, therefore, seems that the reason why the media-policy relationship fit the ‘elite dissensus but policy certainty within executive’ state as specified by Robinson’s (2002) model was the political climate at the point in time when Virginia Tech occurred.
[This post was put together by critically assessing a sample of feature articles published up to five years after the Virginia Tech shooting. Relevant studies informed the analysis. The next blog post will focus on the Dunblane Primary School shooting on its twentieth anniversary.]
(1) Robinson, P. (2002) The CNN Effect: The myth of news, foreign policy and intervention. London, New York: Routledge.
(2) Schnell, Frauke and Karen Callaghan. (2005) ‘Terrorism, Media Frames and Framing Effects: A Macro and Micro Level Analysis.’ In Karen Callaghan and Frauke Schnell. Framing American Politics. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 123-147.
The debate around children and guns, as documented in the blog posted on 28/01/16, shifted onto another perceived ‘dangerous’ social group of the mentally ill after the Virginia Tech school shooting. The perpetrator of that attack had been issued with a temporary detention order a year and a half prior to the shooting, where a Virginia magistrate found him to present “an imminent danger to self or others as a result of mental illness.” Under Virginia law, however, because Cho was only “temporarily detained” rather than “committed,” he was able to circumvent the federal restrictions and be eligible to buy firearms.
After this massacre, school and other types of mass shootings were depicted as a problem by the news media via aggregations of those killed by such incidents. The ‘elite consensus’ stance (Robinson 2002) of the media — evident in them supporting changes to mental health criteria — paved the way for political actors to reframe the Virginia Tech shooting into an issue of mental health and needing to improve weaknesses relating to gun purchases in this area. The focus on mental health had more of a chance of gaining policy traction than other gun initiatives suggested by the relatives and survivors of the Virginia Tech shooting: renewing the assault weapon ban and closing the gun show loophole in Virginia and nationally. One ‘remedy’ to the problem (Entman 1993) was directly related to closing the loophole defining prohibited persons that allowed the shooter to legally procure his firearms in the state of Virginia, despite his having been detained at a mental institute. The Governor of Virginia acted upon this recommendation using executive order to change Virginia state law so it encompassed voluntary detainment and treatment by those found to be a danger to themselves and/or others.
The other idea was to improve the federal ‘background checks’ database by encouraging individual states to submit mental health records. There was support from the NRA — typically an opponent to gun regulations — with one anonymous source claiming “we have no problem with mental health records being part of the NICS” and its executive director, Wayne LaPierre, arguing “We’re strongly in support of putting those records in the system.” One ‘counter-voice’ was the gun-rights group Gun Owners of America, who were concerned the bill was “a denial of civil liberty.” Likewise, mental health organisations were concerned about it stigmatising people with mental illness. The chief executive of Mental Health America said the bill was “going to do harm” because it failed to consider that mentally ill people could be treated. The Virginia Citizens Defense League head said that it might discourage people from seeking mental health treatment. As it transpired, the president signed into law, the ‘NICS Improvement Amendments Act’ (2008), strengthening the ability of the Attorney General to procure information from federal agencies and departments regarding prohibited persons, requiring annual reports are provided to Congress, and authorizing incentives for states, tribes and court systems to provide records for the NICS. Financial grants totalling almost forty million dollars were divided up and awarded to twenty-five states from 2009-2011. The ‘counter-movements’ (Klocke and Muschert 2010) were not powerful enough to resist this action, likely because the ‘elite consensus’ scenario was in place where both the media and the government were in agreement about the actions to be taken (Robinson 2002), and had additional support from typical opponents like the NRA.
[This blog post was put together using analyses of news media coverage and policy debates around the time of the Virginia Tech shooting; alongside literature about policy framing and the ‘CNN model.’ The next blog post will continue this theme, by documenting the lack of traction on a particular gun policy after the Virginia Tech shooting.]
In order to assess the linkage between news media coverage and subsequent policy proposals, the ‘CNN model’ is a useful starting point, allowing for the identification of “instances when media coverage comes to play a significant role in persuading policy-makers to pursue a particular policy” (Robinson, 2002: 37). The purpose of this blog post is to explore this in relation to the news media discussion around the Columbine (1999) school shooting. Findings indicate that the initial response to Columbine by the news media and politicians was framed around restricting children’s access to guns.
At the time when Columbine occurred, the previous spate of school shootings meant the conditions were optimum for a discussion about the problem of youth violence. Further, the ‘fear’ about children’s safety at school paved the way for a ‘something must be done about it’ mindset. Echoing the findings of Wondemaghen’s (2013) research, news media content contextualised the Columbine shooting within the wider trends of school shootings and youth gun violence more generally. Opinion polls from the public show a similar level of concern about youth gun violence.
The next stage of policy development was that the Clinton administration suggested ‘remedies’ (Entman 1993) centring on restricting children’s access to guns and increasing parental accountability. News media adhered to the ‘elite consensus’ scenario (Robinson 2002) by building support for a particular policy agenda. The selection of sources allowed the news media to ‘frame’ this issue: researchers in the field, advocacy groups for gun reform, and parents of survivors and those killed at Columbine were amongst the main voices to be heard. The ‘counter-movement’ of gun rights organisations and politicians strongly against gun regulation managed to dissipate the development of policy, as the proposals failed in Congress.
Paralleling Wondemaghen’s (2013) study, the news media then moved on to criticise the official response — in this case, a lack of action on children and guns — and suggested ‘alternative solutions’ to the problem: ‘closing the gun show loophole’ that allowed the Columbine perpetrators to procure their weapons. At the national level, this adhered to the criteria of ‘elite dissensus but policy certainty within executive’ (Robinson 2002), for the news media pressured the government to close the loophole but with no success. The common theme was that Democratic politicians were ‘afraid’ to take action on this issue because of the power of the National Rifle Association: this means that the ‘counter-movement’ to this form of social regulation was successful.
The ‘alternative solution’ to the lack of federal-level action on the ‘gun show loophole’ was for the voters to put the issue on the ballot in the state of Colorado; this is action which was driven by interest group Safe Alternatives to the Fifrearm Epedemic (SAFE), heavily supported by local media and received the backing of the Clinton administration. This resulted in legislation being passed in Colorado to close the ‘gun show loophole.’ These results build support for Robinson’s (2002) theory that news media has the greatest impact when policy is uncertain. Overall, the policy action was driven by the public and an interest group and thereafter supported by the media and the political actor who originally had suggested this regulatory measure as a ‘remedy’ to the problem (Entman 1993).
[This blog post was put together by tracking and analysing news media coverage and policy debates pertaining to the Columbine school shooting. Literature about policy framing was also utilised as a lens through which to assess findings. The next posting will continue this theme, by exploring the news media-policy linkage of the Virginia Tech school shooting.]