Tag Archives: school shootings

The Dunblane Shooting: A Tragedy Close to Home

Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the tragic shooting at Dunblane Primary School in Scotland. This incident involved the murder of sixteen schoolchildren and their teacher, as well as the wounding of fifteen others, perpetrated by Thomas Hamilton. The Dunblane shooting was particularly shocking and horrifying, given mass shootings were — and still are — extremely rare in the United Kingdom.

As mentioned in the blog post published on the 14th of April 2014, the Dunblane incident had a lot of parallels with the school shooting that occurred in Sandy Hook Elementary School in the United States: the victims consisted of female staff members and very young children aged five and six; the attacks were perpetrated by adult males, using hollow point bullets as their ammunition. Although the incidents occurred sixteen years apart, the similarities between them meant a comparison could always be drawn between the earlier tragedy in Dunblane, Scotland and the later one in Newtown, Connecticut. Some of the families of the Sandy Hook victims drew upon support and friendship from a handful of the Dunblane parents. Both incidents were so high-profile and shocking that they gave traction to proposals for gun legislation; although the response in the United Kingdom to the Dunblane shooting was far more notable for its blanket ban on the private ownership of handguns, unless ‘good reasons,’ such as pest control for farmers, could be cited.

At the time of the Dunblane shooting, I was also a primary school student (albeit slightly older than the victims) living in Glasgow, Scotland. The resonance and close geographical proximity of the incident meant I was thereafter scared in school, feeling that another attack was likely at my school. One of my teachers used to ask the class where they would hide in the event of a shooting and options for finding help; this further cemented my theory that a shooting at my school was imminent. I also witnessed the changes made to school security policies in the aftermath of Dunblane. Due to the salience of the memory of that time in my life, the Dunblane incident was something I could never forget. Thankfully, there was never another school shooting attack in Scotland or the United Kingdom as a whole since then. Conversely, the United States suffered a spate of them, starting to really become a trend in the 1990s. School shootings also occurred in other countries, including Canada, Germany and Finland. Being horrified by all of these tragic incidents, I decided that something should be done about the problem. With that in mind, I decided to pursue a research project looking at policy solutions to try to prevent school shootings: this eventually became a doctoral thesis. Even though this particular project is finished, I am still pursuing avenues to find a solution to such a horrific crime. There are still too many children out there who are scared to go to school.

This blog post is dedicated to the victims of the Dunblane shooting, their families and the wider Dunblane community.Those who have lost their lives in Dunblane and all other school shootings should never be forgotten.

[This blog post was put together with further reading about the Dunblane and Sandy Hook shootings. The next posting on the 31st March will return to a discussion about policy proposals.]

Mental Illness, Gun Purchases and Policy Action

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.]

 

  • Entman Robert M. (1993) ‘Framing: toward clarification of a fractured paradigm.’ Journal of Communication 43(4), 51-58.
  • Klocke, Brian and Glenn W. Muschert. (2010) ‘A Hybrid Model of Moral Panics: Synthesizing the Theory and Practice of Moral Panic Research.’ Sociology Compass 4(5), 295-309.
  • Robinson, P. (2002) The CNN Effect: The myth of news, foreign policy and intervention. London, New York: Routledge.

 

Children, Gun Policy and School Shootings: A Lack of Action

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.]

 

  • Entman Robert M. (1993) ‘Framing: toward clarification of a fractured paradigm.’ Journal of Communication 43(4), 51-58.
  • Robinson, P. (2002) The CNN Effect: The myth of news, foreign policy and intervention. London, New York: Routledge.
  • Wondemaghen, Meron. (2014) Media Construction of a school shooting as a social problem.’ Journalism 15(6), 696-712.

 

“It’s a fantasy”: Will Concealed Carry Guarantee Protection?

The quotation part of this title was said by one of the gun violence prevention (GVP) group representatives to whom I spoke, evincing that they perceived the concealed carry and protection linkage to be idealistic in nature. Another interviewee made a similar point that, unlike law enforcement, individual citizens are not specifically trained to respond to dangerous situations. The purpose of this blog is to challenge the ideas presented in the past couple of posts about concealed carry allowing for successful self-defence against a school shooter and other threats.

One GVP group representative pointed out that students might mistake concealed carry shooters for the school shooter’s accomplice. Similarly, debates became quite heated in the YouTube discussions with regards to whether students with concealed carry permits could viably defend against an armed attacker. One source of conflict centred on the ability of students to adequately defend without inadvertently hitting an innocent bystander. Other YouTube users rebuffed such concerns, stating that concealed carry permit holders were well-trained and thus would be able to shoot the school shooter without hitting any innocent bystanders.

Another dispute in YouTube discussions was how law enforcement would know whether the persons firing guns were attacking or defending. Several of my interviewees from GVP groups drew similar conclusions that a situation involving concealed carry holders firing back would likely create an ‘O.K. Corral situation,’ where law enforcement cannot distinguish between the two groups. Such sentiments take the form of an ‘anticipatory state’ where people are surmising about potential dangers which could arise in a certain scenario. (1) The YouTube commentators’ counter-responses to the concerns that law enforcement would not be able to distinguish between the ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ relied on preconceptions held about the inadequacy of law enforcement. Further to this, the idea that the school shooter and concealed carry ‘protectors’ would be so easily distinguishable relates to what the theorist Robert Spitzer calls the ‘Good Guy-Bad Guy Myth’ where an imagined separation exists between the two and one can easily tell them apart. (2)

Perhaps an explanation for this idealistic separation lies in the dichotomy between ‘criminals’ and ‘law-abiding citizens’ terms also prolific throughout YouTube comments. In such discussions, the ‘Criminal Other’ is a ‘Boogeyman’ onto which anxieties can be projected (3). In this case, YouTube users emotively refer to those within that group as ‘psychopaths’ or ‘psychotic’ and have the preconceptions that criminals, especially school shooters, will be able to circumvent the law to obtain guns and will kill indiscriminately. This is where the ‘law-abiding citizen’ fantasy figure comes in: the ‘ideal’ gun owner who is responsible, controlled, well-trained and willing to protect others. Relating these findings to Walter Lippmann’s notion of the ‘stereotype,’ showing these good guy-bad guy perceptions are something people are told about and hence imagine before they actually experience it. (4) In reality, it seems that a concealed carry permit holder firing their gun would likely cause further problems, whether it be from inadvertently hitting an innocent bystander or being mistaken as an attacker by other concealed carry holders and/or law enforcement — considering all of this gives credence to the idea documented in the title’s quotation that successful self-defence from concealed carry is a fantasy.

[This blog is the final in a series of discussions about concealed carry on campus. It was formed using analyses from interviews with GVP group members and YouTube comments. The next post will move on to look at the role of law enforcement in schools in preventing and managing school shooting attacks.]

  1. Farrall, S. D., J. Jackson and E. Gray. (2009) Social Order and the Fear of Crime in Contemporary Times. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 155.
  2. Spitzer, R. J. (2012) The Politics of Gun Control (fifth edition). Boulder, Colorado; London: Paradigm Publishers, 176.
  3. Farrall, S. D., J. Jackson and E. Gray. (2009) Social Order and the Fear of Crime in Contemporary Times. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 151.
  4. Lippman, W. (1922) Public Opinion. Free Press: New York.

“When seconds matter, police are just minutes away”: Doubts about Law Enforcement

The often-quoted sentiment in the title exemplifies the cynicism surrounding the ability of law enforcement to protect individuals. The post published on the 13th July 2015 demonstrated that a number of YouTube commentators blamed the ban on allowing students and staff at Virginia Tech University for the high death toll from the tragic 2007 shooting. What may be extrapolated from this is that the concept of defending one’s self is inextricably linked to individuals, rather than the police — this is particularly remarkable, considering law enforcement is an institutional body entrusted with the responsibility of protecting the public. The purpose of this blog post is to uncover the reasons why this is the case.

As posts published throughout July and August 2015 have highlighted, YouTube users are familiar with previous school shootings and draw upon those ‘second hand’ experiences to form ideas about what might transpire during such an incident. The relatively short time period in which school shootings occur is likely a driving factor. Some YouTube users made sardonic comments that pizza would be delivered before the police arrived. Commentators drew upon knowledge of past school shootings, pointing out that most of these ended before law enforcement arrived. There is some truth to this: only 27% of thirty-seven school shootings were stopped by law enforcement and several studies have documented the proclivity of school shooters to kill themselves before law enforcement intervention.(1)

Further to this, YouTube users were particularly scathing of the abilities of law enforcement on college and university campuses to offer protection, purporting they were ‘tiny forces’ with ‘little experience’ and thus ‘not equipped’ to act as first responders to a school shooting situation. Something which acutely concerned users was the fact that in some states campus police are ‘unarmed,’ meaning they do not have access to lethal weapons (firearms). The Secret Service (2002) report, however, found that only 8% of school shootings required law enforcement to discharge weapons. (2)

The outcome of these sentiments then translates into the idea that police are just there to ‘clean up the crime scene’ of all those killed before they arrived. Accordingly, numerous YouTube commentators appeared to believe that the purpose of the police is not to act as ‘bodyguards’ or ‘prevent crimes’ but to ‘enforce the law’ by investigating crimes after they transpire and acting as a visible deterrent to criminals. As documented in empirical studies, fear — in this case of a school shooting or even just general crime on campus — is a catalyst for eroding trust and confidence in the police. (3) Such a sentiment, hence, paves the way for the notion that the individual is the only one who can be trusted to protect themselves — this will be elucidated in the next post in relation to the issue of students and concealed carry.

[This blog post was put together from analyses of YouTube comments and further reading around fear and government studies of lessons to be learned from previous school shooting incidents. The next blog post will bring together all the elements discussed in posts throughout July and August 2015.]

(1). See the following studies: Lankford, A. (2013a). ‘A comparative analysis of suicide terrorists and rampage, workplace, and school shooters in the United States from 1990 to 2010.’ Homicide Studies: An Interdisciplinary & International Journal, 17 (3), 255-274; Lankford, A. (2013b) ‘Mass Shooters in the USA, 1996-2010. Differences between attackers who live and die.’ Justice Quarterly; Vossekuil, B., R. A. Fein, M. Reddy, R. Borum, and W. Modzeleski. (2004) The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States. Washington.

(2) Vossekuil, B., R. A. Fein, M. Reddy, R. Borum, and W. Modzeleski. (2004) The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States. Washington.

(3) Farrall, S. D., J. Jackson and E. Gray. (2009) Social Order and the Fear of Crime in Contemporary Times. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Gray, E., J. Jackson and S. Farrall (2011) ‘Feelings and Functions in the Fear of Crime: Applying a New Approach to Victimisation Insecurity.’ British Journal of Criminology 51, 75-94.

Changing the Landscape of Emergency Management Legislation

During ‘crises’ — something as horrific and unexpected as a school shooting fits that criteria — immediate strategies have to be formed; prevailing narratives then have a direct impact on which coping strategies are selected.[1] As documented in the blog post published 16th February 2015, school shooting incidents have elucidated flaws in emergency management plans; this requires legislative response. In Colorado, the site of the Columbine school shooting (1999), the General Assembly passed the ‘Safe Schools Act’ (2000), requiring each school district board in the state to adopt a emergency management plan, crisis management procedures, and employee training. This framework had to adhere to the ‘National Incident Management System’: a federal-level framework of four principles for responding to crises consisting of organisational structures and strategies, intended to allow first responders from different jurisdictions and agencies to be able to coordinate more effectively.[2]

Following the 2007 Virginia Tech school shooting, legislation was implemented the year after at the state-level. All institutions falling within the purview of higher education were mandated to have emergency management plans and coordinate these with local community ones; every year the president or vice-president of every institution is to review and make any necessary revisions to ensure it remains current, and the institution shall carry out a drill; after a period of four years, the plan is to be reviewed and submitted to the state ‘Department of Emergency Management.’

Although Colorado had already taken action in the past, the Virginia Tech shooting (2007) prompted the Governor of Colorado to make school safety a priority item once again. In 2008, he signed a bill which established the Colorado School Safety Resource Center to provide assistance and funding to schools in preparing for and responding to emergency situations. An existing Colorado statute was amended to include the addition of a sub-section provisioning funds for the school mapping information to first responders.

Moreover, the Colorado ‘Safe Schools Act’ (2000) was amended in 2008 to include the requirement that all school districts had to incorporate components of the ‘National Response Framework’ into emergency management plans. The actions to be taken were: devising a plan to meet the date of compliance (1 July 2009); adopting the ‘National Incident Management System,’ the federal-level framework for dealing with emergencies and the ‘Incident Command System,’ as the management structures to organise and organise crisis responses; form relationships and communicate with local responders to check adherence to local, county and state level plans; define the roles and responsibilities of community partners through memoranda of understanding (known as MOU’s); engage in practice schedules, such as drills and tabletop (i.e. simulation) exercises; partake in an annual inventory of emergency equipment. Revised Statutes in the 2012 Colorado General Assembly made the legislative declaration that “emergency response and crisis management measures should be implemented in all communities within the state to protect students and school personnel.” The importance of emergency management plans, training and response means that legislation is an expected response to flaws; the next blog will discuss this in relation to law enforcement tactics.

[This blog was put together by analysing legislative documents from Colorado and Virginia. Future blogs will look at a different dimension of emergency management, by exploring the response of law enforcement to school shooting incidents.]

[1] Fairclough, Isabela. and Norman Fairclough. (2012) Political Discourse Analysis: A Method for Advanced Students. London, New York: Routledge, 3, 16.

[2]  Definition taken from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (n.d.) ‘National Incident Management System,’ https://www.fema.gov/national-incident-management-system

 

Managing the Risks of School Shootings: Flaws to Avoid

Continuing the theme of the last two blogs of emergency management plans and training — something which is crucial to managing something as deadly as a school shooting — this post elucidates what to avoid when planning for and responding to acts of violence. Since something like ‘risk’ cannot be entirely eliminated, what organisations should strive to achieve instead is a level of ‘safety,’ i.e. what is deemed to be “an acceptable level of risk.”[1] In terms of school shootings, this means planning for which actions to take in a crisis should be located within the wider rubric of school violence; as well as accounting for potential spectacular events, which are rarer but more likely to be lethal in nature.

A common flaw of emergency management plans in educational institutions where school shootings have already taken place is not considering the possibility of such an event occurring in the first place: for instance, Columbine High School and Virginia Tech University had guidance in place for fires, bomb threats and so forth; yet not for an active shooter scenario. Whilst schools may feel that ‘it can’t happen here,’ the myriad school shootings which have occurred in the United States show that these tend to occur in suburban areas with relatively little crime. Moreover, the danger in not acknowledging the risk of a school shooting is that no plans would be put into place about how to eliminate or reduce that risk.[2]

Another common mistake is outdated or incomplete information in emergency management plans. An example of this is Virginia Tech University’s plan, which, at the time of the shooting, was two years old: this meant it had outdated information in it, such as the name of a previous police chief. Another instance of incomplete information is the case of Columbine High School, where, prior to the shooting, the building layout for the school had not been included in the plans — it has been said by delayed the response of police and other rescue personnel.[3] In situations like these, it certainly seems the point that Coombs[4] makes about the danger of having a plan in place is providing a false sense of security is correct: these have limited usefulness when actually applied to a crisis.

Probably the most well-known of emergency management mistakes is the delay in emergency communication at Virginia Tech University (refer back to the blog posted on the 20th August 2014 for more information). In addition to staff error, this transpired because of a number of pre-existing flaws: there was confusion about what ‘timely’ actually meant; there was no set template(s) for emergency communication messages; there were inconsistences in the emergency communication policy and emergency management plans about who had the authority to release an emergency alert. This exemplifies the importance of the linkages between different facets of emergency management: prevention, planning, communication, training and response.

[This blog post was put together using analyses of policy documents produced after the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings, as well as further reading. The next blog post will document some of the changes made to law to eradicate these flaws.]

[1] Borghesi, Antonio and Barbara Gaudenzi. (2013) Risk Management: How to Assess, Transfer and Communicate Critical Risks. Springer: London, New York. Page 19 cited.

Vestermark, S. D. (1996). ‘Critical decisions, critical elements in an effective school security program.’ In A. M. Hoffman (ed.) Schools, violence and society. Westport, CT: Praeger, 101-122. Page 108 cited.

[2] Coombs, W. Timothy. (2012) Ongoing Crisis Communication: Planning, Managing and Responding (third edition). Thousand Oaks, CA.: Sage. Page 41 cited.

[3] For more details refer to Jefferson County Sherriff report. http://extras.denverpost.com/news/colreport/columbinerep/pages

[4] Coombs, W. Timothy. (2012) Ongoing Crisis Communication: Planning, Managing and Responding (third edition). Thousand Oaks, CA.: Sage. Page 106 cited.

“We are just waiting around as easy targets”: Anxiety about School Safety Procedures

The last blog detailed measures that can be utilised to prepare educational institutions for the occurrence of a school shooting. Discussed in this blog post will be the results of research into online commentaries of videos relating to previous school shooting attacks: these elucidate a further need to reassure students about the importance of emergency management training to their safety. In online debates, notably, there were insecurities expressed about whether school safety measures actually offer protection.

One issue, for instance, was a concern about hiding in a corner or under desks, rather than running for the nearest exit. Likely exacerbating these perceptions is knowledge of past shooting events — the mass shooting in Norway (2010) and the school shooting at Columbine High School (1999) were commonly cited  — and how others were killed. Extrapolating from this, the main ideas probably driving these reactions is a kind of helplessness at being inside where the threat is rather than running out to safety. Appropriately, a study by Fisher and Nasar’s study[1] into fear of crime on college campuses discovered that fear levels were highest in sites which offered low prospects for escape. As the last blog outlined, however, in cases where the attacker is inside the building, a ‘lockdown’ procedure is actually safer than trying to escape. With this in mind, training scenarios for educational institutions should spend a substantial amount of time explaining why taking a particular kind of action would be the safest in a particular situation, so that students are aware of why they are hiding rather than trying to escape.

In addition to this, despite the wave of school security measures implemented after high-profile school shootings like those at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech University, online users still felt that this was an area of weakness; this is evinced with statements like “schools need better security” and “security was lax as usual.” Online users were particularly incredulous that higher educational institutions do not even have metal detectors, pointing out that this made them ‘open targets’ for shooters. Considering this, some users argued in favour of universal metal detector implementation across all educational institutions. Despite this, as pointed out by my blog post ‘Creating a Market? The Commercial Products of School Shootings,’ (published 14th May 2014) the actual likelihood of metal detectors preventing school shootings is questionable. A study[2] of school safety administrators found that only 32% considered these to be effective in reducing more general school violence; this is even less likely to be the case when dealing with an active shooter event. Instead of metal detectors and other ‘target-hardening’ measures, it would be more fruitful to train students to prepare for school shootings, as well as to report any ‘warning signs’ that could prevent an attack from occurring in the first place.

[This blog post was put together by using analyses of comments from YouTube videos and some scholarly sources. The next blog post will discuss emergency management mistakes to avoid.]

[1] Fisher, Bonnie S. and Nasar, Jack L. (1992) ‘Fear of Crime in Relation to Three Exterior Site Features: Prospect, Refuge and Escape.’ Environment and Behaviour 24 (1), 35-65.

[2] Crystal A. Garcia. (2003) ‘School Safety Technology: Current Users and Perceived Effectiveness.’ Criminal Justice Policy Review 14: 30-54.

“These people [school shooters]: they’re seriously mentally ill, they’re hearing voices”: Will redefining the criteria for prohibited gun owners reduce school shootings?

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.]

“There’s nothing stopping prohibited persons until we close that background check loophole”: Will universal background checks prevent school shootings?

The quotation in the title was said by one of my gun violence prevention (GVP) interviewees. This is due to a loophole in the federal-level law the Brady Bill (1994), allowing background checks to be foregone in private transactions between individuals (such as classified advertisements) and at places like gun shows and flea markets. My GVP interviewees pointed to a lack of transparency surrounding such sales as the main motivation for prohibited persons using them. Notably, a gun show is where the Columbine perpetrators obtained three of their weapons. Robyn Anderson, a ‘straw buyer’ for the shooters who purchased the guns and then transferred them, admitted that she would not have done so had there been paperwork to fill out One of the shooters, Eric Harris, had been legally old enough to purchase the three long guns obtained. Presumably, then the Columbine shooters went through the ‘straw purchase’ method with Robyn Anderson to avoid alerting anyone to their plans. The fact that it facilitated preparations for this particular school shooting makes one think closing the gun show loophole federally — which would then act as a baseline for all the states to compile with —should at least be considered as a policy option.

A number of research studies have pointed out that ‘closing the gun show loophole’ only goes a limited way to solving the problem, as it is only addressing a small portion of private sales. (1) Taking this argument further, the interviewee quoted in the titled explained that those prohibited from buying and owning guns could also use the internet, newspaper advertisements and personal connections to circumvent the restriction. With this in mind, my gun-related interviewees overall believed that universal background checks would reduce school shootings and the more commonplace gun violence deaths, meaning it is the law which will save the most lives.

The post-Sandy Hook grassroots momentum pertaining to background checks has been described by one of my interviewees as ‘palpable,’ with it “all coming down to ‘let’s do the background checks’” for all GVP groups, which should generate solidarity and improve their chances of success. Despite not having a clear link to background checks, Sandy Hook has mobilised public support for this policy measure. This is evident in the introduction of a universal background checks bill into the Senate in spring 2013 shows this issue has been identified and acted upon. The bill failed by a narrow margin; however, interviewees were hopeful this will be successful if reintroduced in future.

Universal background checks also get the highest level of public support than any other regulatory measure. A nationwide poll carried out by the Pew Research Center found that 85% of 1500 adults supported universal background checks. (2) This support is not particularly partisan either: 86% of Republican and 92% of Democrat supporters were in favour of universal background checks. (3) It seems, therefore, that despite its divorcement from the Sandy Hook shooting itself, background check support has increased as a result of it.

This measure appears to have a higher chance of gaining public backing because it does not affect gun owners in any way: it is about regulating who can buy and own guns, rather than controlling guns themselves. This is reflected in high, non-partisan levels of public support. To sum up, universal background checks appears to be an objective that all GVP groups and politicians can get behind because it focuses on the users of guns rather than controlling guns themselves.

[This blog was put together using material from interviews with GVP groups and attendance at related events, polls and information about the ‘Brady Bill’ legislation. The next blog will look at redefining the criteria for prohibited persons in relation to mental illness, which is a common factor in school shootings.]

(1) Webster, D. W., J. S. Vernick, E. W. McGinty and T. Alcorn. (2013) ‘Preventing the Diversion of Guns to Criminals through effective Firearm Sales Laws.’ 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, 109-121.
Wintemute, G.J. (2013a) ‘Comprehensive Background Checks for Firearm Sales: Evidence from Gun Shows.’ 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, 95-107.
(2) Cited in Page, S. (2013) ‘Poll spots activism in gun control debate.’ USA Today, 15th January, News 6A (hard copy).
(3) 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.