Tag Archives: school shootings

The Infamy of Columbine: Twenty Years On

Twenty years have passed since twelve students and one teacher were murdered by two students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. It seems that the word ‘Columbine’ is so infamous that is requires no explanation. Arguably, there were school shootings prior to the 1999 attack at Columbine High School that were just as shocking: for instance, the Westside Middle School attack in 1998 perpetrated by students aged eleven and thirteen years old. Over the past two decades since Columbine, there have been numerous horrendous school shootings, including ones at Sandy Hook Elementary School and Parkland High School. There have also been mass shooting incidents with a higher death tool such as the Pulse Nightclub massacre and the Las Vegas Strip shooting. None of these, however, have ever quite had the impact of Columbine.

There are a number of reasons for this. Columbine is so infamous. To start with, the news coverage was different to previous school shootings. Broadcast news stations showed footage from the scene of the attack as it unfolded, documenting schoolchildren leaving the school, SWAT teams storming the building and those who had been shot escaping. In one notable example, footage captured a student who had been shot jumped out the window of the library. After the shooting, Columbine continued to generate interest in the news. Debates unfolded about school violence and culture, Gothic culture, bullying, violence in films and mental health. The shooting at Columbine High School was the top news story of 1999, with 68% of viewers claiming they were following it ‘very closely.’ (1)

Columbine also had a notable impact on policy debates. There was strong criticism of the law enforcement response to the attack; additionally, gaps in the existing in emergency management plan for the school were highlighted. This led to changes in emergency management planning across the United States and law enforcement tactics for these types of shooting incidents. Measures to report threats such as the hotline Safe2Tell were set up to. Security measures like metal detectors were also installed in schools throughout the United States. Despite it giving salience to the issue of youth gun violence, gun legislative responses to Columbine were modest in nature. Age restrictions and child safety requirements on firearms were passed in a handful of states. The background checks system was tightened in Oregon and Colorado, the state in which Columbine occurred. There was no action at the federal action, with the policies of the Clinton administration failing to make it through Congress. Twenty years on, Tom Mauser, one of the parents of a victim of the Columbine shooting, is still campaigning for tighter gun laws, wearing the shoes his son, Daniel, died in. (2)

Unfortunately, Columbine also appears to have motivated school shootings that have occurred in the past two decades. It is claimed to have inspired seventy-four ‘copycat’ plots, twenty-one of which actually became mass shootings in schools and other locations. (3) Furthermore, in a compiled list of school shootings from 1999-2007, seven out of nine in the United States and six out of eleven occurring elsewhere in the world referenced the Columbine incident. (4) Some of the other more noteworthy attacks like the shootings at Virginia Tech University in 2007 and Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 have involved perpetrators who were interested in the Columbine perpetrators. Thwarted school shooting plots, such as one at Radnor High School devised by a female student, have involved individuals fascinated with the Columbine perpetrators. There was even a threat made against Columbine High School itself this week, made by a female perpetrator who was said to be ‘obsessed’ with the Columbine incident. (5) It appears that the Columbine shooters have become somewhat of a role model for the disenfranchised.

Lessons have been learned from this incident. Policies have been changed. Sadly, further attacks have been inspired by this attack. On the twentieth anniversary of the Columbine shooting, the most important thing is to remember the victims and their families, the survivors and all others affected by the attack. The bravery and dedication showed by those impacted by Columbine is commendable. As said by then-President Clinton “Columbine was a momentous event in the history of our country…Even in the midst of tragedy, we’ve seen the best, the best there is to see about our nation and about human nature.”

[This blog post was written for the twentieth anniversary of the Columbine attack. It was written based on previous research conducted by the researcher relating to school shootings. Regular blog posts will resume in summer 2019.]

 

(1) Pew Research Center (1999) “Columbine Shooting Biggest News Draw of 1999.’”http://www.people-press.org/1999/12/28/columbine-shooting-biggest-news-draw-of-1999/

(2) Christopher Bucktin. (2019) ‘Dad of Columbine shooting victim wears shoes his son died in as he fights gun laws.’ The Mirror, 13th April. https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/dad-columbine-shooting-wears-shoes-14308219

(3) Follman, Mark. 2015. “Inside the Race to Stop the Next Mass Shooter.” Mother Jones November/December edition. http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2015/09/mass-shootings-threat-assessment-shooter-fbi-columbine

(4) Larkin, Ralph W. 2009. “The Columbine Legacy: Rampage Shootings as Political Acts.” American Behavioural Scientist 52: 1309-1326.

(5) BBC News. (2019) “Denver schools close as FBI hunt ‘Columbine-obsessed’ woman.” 17th April. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-47959374

Snapshot 1 (14-04-2019 19-29)

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Responding Across Cultures: Are European school shooting responses different to American ones?

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.]

Cultures Apart? Does a European School Shooting Differ from an American One?

In a blog posted on the 1st of October 2014, the reasons why the United States has the highest number of school shootings in the world were outlined. A culture rooted in individualism, hyper-masculinity and high levels of private gun ownership were said to be contributing factors to an elevated rate of incidents. This post will compare and contrast trends in school shootings in the United States with those in Europe to determine whether cultural differences affect the motivations and unfolding of school shootings.

 

To narrow the selection from the high population of incidents, this post will only focus on a selection of those occurring from the 1990s onwards. Starting off with the European incidents, the Dunblane Primary School attack in 1996 was the only school shooting to have ever occurred in the United Kingdom. This involved an outside adult male perpetrator who killed sixteen children and their teacher. The perpetrator had been suspended from youth clubs he ran due to suspicions about his ‘intentions towards young boys’ and had felt extremely aggrieved by this, even writing to the Queen and his local politician to complain. It may be surmised that the primary school and a class of its youngest students aged five and six was targeted because they represented innocence. The other European school shootings have mainly taken place in Germany and Finland. Beginning with German incidents, the 2002 Erfurt massacre resulted in sixteen deaths, most of which were teachers. The perpetrator had recently been expelled from the school and this was an act of revenge against the institution. In the 2006 Emsdetten shooting five were killed by a student who felt he was ostracised and labelled a ‘loser’ at the school. The perpetrator posted an advanced warning about his intentions in an internet forum and also left material to be found after the massacre. Another German school shooting was in 2009 in Winnenden, where the perpetrator was a former student whose poor grades had meant he was unable to enter an apprenticeship. Twelve were killed at the school and the perpetrator then fled the scene and went onto shoot other people outside, ending up in a shootout with police in a car showroom. In Finland, the Jokela school shooting in 2007 resulted in eight murders. The perpetrator, who had been bullied at school, showed an intense interest in other school shooters and a hatred of humanity. He also uploaded his manifesto online prior to the massacre. Another high-profile incident resulting in ten victims took place in Finland in 2008 at a university in Kauhajoki. Similar to the Jokela attacker, the perpetrator admired school shooters and expressed hatred towards mankind.

 

Our attention will now turn to a handful of the incidents that have occurred in the United States from the 1990s onwards. One of the most shocking of these was the Westside Middle School massacre in 1998 in which five were murdered. The reason this was shocking was because the perpetrators themselves were aged eleven and thirteen and went to a degree of planning: letting off the fire alarm and then shooting people when they left the building. Another school shooting occurred in Heath High in 1997 and involved the perpetrator firing a gun into a prayer circle of girls. The Pearl High incident in 1997 resulted in the murder of the perpetrator’s mother and two girls at the school. In the case of these three incidents, perpetrators were said to have felt persecuted by other students and suffered from bullying. Additionally, they had their romantic advances spurred by girls: the Pearl High shooter killed his ex-girlfriend and the Heath High perpetrator shot a girl he had a crush on during his attack. The Columbine High School Shooting in 1999 is arguably the most infamous of all school shootings in the United States due to its shock nature and the fact that parts of it played out on live television. Another incident occurred in Red Lake High School in 2005, where the perpetrator killed his grandfather and companion at home and then went on to kill another seven at his school. The perpetrators of the Columbine and Red Lake school shootings had expressed disdain for mankind, admiration for extreme ideologies and believed they were superior to others in their intellect.

 

Comparing the motivations of the European school shooters with the United States ones finds these are relatively similar. The Finnish school shooters appeared to be admirers of the Columbine school shooters and shared similar ideas about humanity. If a difference had to be flagged, it could possibly be that a couple of the European cases involved expelled students and were perhaps more clear-cut examples of ‘revenge’ than some of the other cases. Overall, the themes of bullying, rejection, feeling like a ‘loser’ are prevalent throughout all the case studies discussed here.

 

[This blog compared a number of European and American case studies to determine whether there were any differences in motivations of school shooters. Information about individual cases was used. The next blog post will follow up on this by examining the responses to school shootings across different cultures.]

United States Election Special: Why Clinton is Best for Gun Control

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:

  • Renewing the ‘assault weapons ban,’ restricting the use of weapons that allow for more rounds to be fired. School shooters commonly use such weapons to have a greater chance of injuring or killing people in a short period of time.
  • Strengthening background checks, particularly in the case of mental illness. This was an issue with the Virginia Tech school shooter, who had previously been ‘temporarily detained’ at a mental institution and was ineligible to purchase firearms under federal law. Virginia state law, however, at that time prescribed that one had to have bene ‘committed’ to an institution; hence, allowing for him to circumvent restrictions and buy firearms.
  • The criminalisation of straw-buying, where one purchases guns on behalf of other people, would also be a positive move. Notably, the Columbine shooters used a ‘straw-buyer’ to procure their weapons at a gun-show, where no paperwork was required to be filled out. Since one of the shooters was legally old enough to purchase firearms, it may be postulated from this that ‘straw-buying’ was perhaps a strategy to prevent alerting anyone to their plans.

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.]

 

  1. Hillary for America. (2016) ‘Gun violence prevention: it is past time we act on gun violence.’ https://www.hillaryclinton.com/issues/gun-violence-prevention/
  2. Michele Gorman. (2016) ‘Hillary Clinton meets with Sandy Hook Families, Vows to Push for Gun Control within Second Amendment.’ Newsweek, 21sthttp://europe.newsweek.com/hillary-clinton-meets-sandy-hook-families-vows-push-gun-control-within-second-450976
  3. Gabby Giffords. (2016) ‘Why Mark and I are Supporting Hillary Clinton for president.’ Hillary for America 2016, 11th https://www.hillaryclinton.com/feed/why-mark-i-are-supporting-hillary-clinton-president/
  4. Michele Gorman. (2016) ‘Hillary Clinton meets with Sandy Hook Families, Vows to Push for Gun Control within Second Amendment.’ Newsweek, 21st April.  http://europe.newsweek.com/hillary-clinton-meets-sandy-hook-families-vows-push-gun-control-within-second-450976
  5. George Zornick. (2016) ‘This Will Be a Historic (and Terrifying) Election for Gun Control.’ The Nation, 24 May. https://www.thenation.com/article/this-will-be-a-historic-and-terrifying-election-for-gun-control/

Thwarted attacks: the phenomenon of near-misses

This blog post will examine the phenomenon of thwarted school shooting attacks, bringing a conclusion to the theme of copycat attacks. As mentioned in the blog posted on the 26th May 2016, there tends to be a spike in threats following a high-profile school shooting. Sometimes these threats are fabrications intended to attract attention; other times, they are real and concrete, requiring intervention to prevent them becoming deadly attacks. The difficulty of trying to conduct research into thwarted school shootings is it will involve studying attacks that did not actually transpire. Probably the most effective approach is to only study incidents where there is some degree of proof that the incident would have taken place. (1) This post will look at some of the instances where copycat threats became thwarted school shootings.

 

Following the Columbine school shooting, there was a spike in copycat threats across the United States. Those which could actually be considered ‘thwarted,’ however, are the ones with some degree of planning involved. An example of this occurred less than a month after the Columbine school shooting, where a 15 year old boy at Kennedy High School was alleged to have plotted an incident: the plan was to handcuff a target list of people to desks and shoot off their hands or shoot them in the head and then go into the hallway and shoot other students. This planned massacre was thwarted because the boy told two students (which a third one overheard) at the school, threatening to kill them if they reported it; the three students thereafter came forward with the information. The preparation of the target list and the boy’s access to a rifle in his home showed that the likelihood of this attack taking place was higher than other copycat threats. Around this time, a copycat Columbine-style massacre plotted by four current and former students at Adams City High School was also impeded. The seriousness of the purported threat was documented in a written plan, drawings and a map of the school given to the authorities by an unnamed informant.

 

What can be taken from these examples is that following a high-profile school shooting like Columbine, staff members, law enforcement officers and students at the school have heightened awareness about the possibility of copycat attacks. This is positive in the sense that they are perhaps more likely to come forward with information pertaining to threats, no matter whether these are hoaxes or serious copycat attacks. Such a sense of attentiveness to threats will not be permanent, however, with it likely to fade when the high-profile school shooting begins to receive less media coverage and public and political attention. This highlights the need for permanent vigilance when hearing about potential school shooting threats, particularly those with detailed plans and other concrete actions (such as procuring a firearm).

  1. Daniels, J. A., A. Volungis, E. Pshenishny, P. Gandhi, A. Winkler, D. P. Cramer et al., (2010). ‘A qualitative investigation of averted school shooting rampages.’ The Counseling Psychologist 38 (1), 69–95; Daniels, J. A. and J. W. Page. (2013) ‘Averted School Shootings.’ In N. Bockler et al. (eds.) School Shootings: International Research, Case Studies and Concepts for Prevention. Springer Science-Business Media: New York, 421-439.

 

[This blog post was put together using school shooting literature and media reports about copycat threats. It concludes the thread on copycat attacks for the moment.]

Female School Shootings: A New Phenomenon?

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.]

Reducing Gun Violence: The Importance of Interest Groups

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.

 

  1. van Dijk, T. A. (1998) Ideology: a multidisciplinary approach. London; Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  2. Birkland, T. A. (1997) After Disaster: Agenda Setting, Public Policy and Focusing Events. Washington DC: Georgetown University Press; Kingdon, J. W. (1993/2004) Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies (second edition). New York: Longman.

 

[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 Humanisation of Gun Violence Victims

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.

 

  1. Gardner, D. (2008) Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear. London: Virgin Books Ltd, 94.
  2. Aaroe, Lene. (2011) ‘Investigating Frame Strength: The Case of Episodic and Thematic Frames.’ Political Communication 28(2), 210.
  3. See, for instance, the following studies: Aaroe, Lene. (2011) ‘Investigating Frame Strength: The Case of Episodic and Thematic Frames.’ Political Communication 28(2), 207-226; Entman R. M. (1993) ‘Framing: toward clarification of a fractured paradigm.’ Journal of Communication 43(4), 51-58; Gross, K. (2008) ‘Framing Persuasive Appeals: Episodic and Thematic Framing, Emotional Response and Policy Opinion.’ Political Psychology 29(2), 169-192.
  4. Galtung, J. and M. Ruge. (1965/1973) ‘Structuring and Selecting News.’ In SCohenand J. Young (eds.) The Manufacture of News: Social Problems, Deviance and the Mass Media. Newbury Park, California: Sage, 62-72.

 

[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.]

“The more rounds you can fire…the more victims you can create”: Restricting High Capacity Magazines

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.

 

  • 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.

 

[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.]