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
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 few blogs have discussing the phenomenon of ‘copycatting’ in relation to school shootings. This post will look at the recent trend of females threatening to become school shooters — something rather unprecedented, considering almost all previous perpetrators have been male. As discussed in the blog posted on the 11th of June 2014, masculinity is one of the socio-cultural factors contributing to school shootings. This blog will explicate the details of female school shooting copycatters and critique whether this could be considered a new and worrying phenomenon.
In November 2014, a 17 year old girl at Radnor High School, Pennsylvania, had expressed a desire in her journal to become the ‘first female school shooter.’ When examining previous incidents, it becomes evident why she would have thought her massacre would be noteworthy. In 1979, a girl, Brenda Spencer, shot children walking to Cleveland Elementary School; there was also Laurie Dann who shot children in Hubbard Woods Elementary School in Illinois. It is questionable, however, whether these qualify as ‘school shootings’: the rationale for Spencer seemed to be the convenience of the victims, given she shot them from her bedroom window across the street; whilst Dann appeared to be attacking the school she believed her former sister-in-law’s children attended. For an event to be defined as a ‘school shooting,’ the attack should be against the institution itself, with victims targeted for their symbolic value. The closest to ‘female school shooters’ could be construed as Latina Williams, who killed two peers at Louisiana Technical College, and Professor Amy Bishop, who carried out an attack at the University of Alabama. Despite this, Professor Bishop targeted her colleagues because she had recently been denied tenure and Latina Williams did not leave any notes or other evidence explaining her motives; this suggests that perhaps they were not aspiring to become ‘school shooters.’
The planned attack at Radnor High School was thankfully thwarted. The girl in question had showed a fascination with the Columbine school shooting, writing to the parents of one of the perpetrators, Dylan Klebold, to describe her ‘emotional connection’ with him. Almost a year after this case, another story emerged about two teenage girls alleged to have planned a shooting at Mountain Vista High School, which is fewer than ten miles away from Columbine High School geographically. One of the girls involved wrote in her journal that she wished she could have participated in the Columbine school shooting and referenced the film Natural Born Killers, cited by the perpetrators of this massacre in their own writings. The fascination with the Columbine shooters has appeared in other school shootings, such as Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook. The appeal of these perpetrators to females, however, is an emerging and worrying trend. Sue Klebold, mother of Dylan, said she has received mail in the past from girls who claim they love him and want to have his baby. Although these fan letters are not really anything new — some women have married death row prisoners in the past — the worry is that females fascinated by the Columbine or other school shooters, then take the next step of trying to ‘become them’ via a similar attack.
The implication of this for assessing threats is that those coming from females should be taken just as seriously as those from boys and men. The planned attack at Mountain Vista High School had involved the drawing up of a map of the school, denoting the locations of law enforcement — this exemplifies the seriousness of that threat. Gender is, therefore, something which must not be overlooked when assessing school shooting threats.
[This blog post was put together with research and pre-existing knowledge about actual and planned school shooting incidents. The next post will continue with the copycatting theme, by looking at thwarted attacks.]
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 quote cited in the title, said by one of the experts on gun-related legislation I interviewed, highlights the difference of school shootings from other types of gun violence in the U.S. A commonality in school shootings and other types of spree incidents does tend to be mental illness: the Virginia Tech University shooting (2007); the Northern Illinois University shooting (2008); the mass shooting in Tuscon, Arizona (2011); the Aurora Theatre shooter in Colorado (2012); the ‘Navy Yard’ shootings in Washington, D.C. (2013). In all of these examples, the perpetrators legally procured firearms: my gun violence prevention interviewees claimed that this was due to limitations in existing laws.
One interviewee pointed to the restrictiveness of the criteria for disqualification under the federal-level “Gun Control Act” (1968): being admitted to a psychiatric institution or being formally adjudicated by a court as a danger. For instance, the Virginia Tech shooter was prohibited from purchasing firearms under federal law; however, because he had only ‘temporarily detained’ at a mental institute rather than ‘committed,’ he was able to circumvent the federal restrictions and be eligible to buy firearms under state law at that time. Following the attack, the Governor of Virginia, using executive order, changed the law to prescribe that anyone found to be a danger to themselves or others by a court-ordered review — regardless of whether or not it was voluntary — should be prohibited. It was suggested by another interviewee that the specific criteria for firearm purchase exclusion at both the federal and state levels should mandate a broader scope of the threat posed by individuals, based on their history and whether they have expressed intentions to harm themselves or others.
Citizens themselves could also play a part by monitoring those closest to them and taking precautions to ensure untoward things do not happen, suggested one of my interviewees. This is particularly relevant when considering the Sandy Hook elementary school shooter had severe mental illness, yet was able to access his mother’s firearms to kill her and the victims at the school. The careful monitoring of those closest to them could also encourage those with mental illnesses to seek treatment before they carry out violent actions. Notably, the Virginia Tech school shooter (2007) did not pursue treatment on his own; rather, it was his remark to his suitemates “I might as well kill myself” that resulted in him getting mentally assessed.
In order to put mental health on the government agenda, interviewees recommended framing it as a ‘public health issue’ centred on school and other types of mass shootings. The issue of mental health and guns would then have to be based on a reconceptualisation of public safety based on the increasing number of mass shooting incidents, particularly those where the perpetrator legally procured a gun despite a history of mental illness. When it comes to school shooters, it is possible that putting barriers in the way of those who are mentally ill and have the potential to act violently could allow for interventionary efforts to help the individual before it culminates in a shooting incident.
[This blog used results from interviews with representatives from gun violence prevention groups and other experts in gun-related legislation. Further adding to this post were studies about the legal changes after the Virginia Tech shooting and general readings about past mass/school shooting incidents. The next blog post will examine how emergency management could play a part in reducing the severity of school shootings.]