On February 14, 2018, Nikolas Cruz, a former student at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, entered the school and shot 17 people dead, wounding at least 15 others (Grinberg & Levenson, 2018). In the wake of the shooting, there was again anger from the general public, but a lack of action from elected officials. Instead, a familiar pattern emerged, whereby elected officials, predominantly Republicans, sought to cast blame for the shooting in any number of directions, anywhere except the widespread and easy availability of guns designed to kill large amounts of people quickly. Public debate took its usual pattern of people pointing out that guns are the one variable that distinguishes the United States from other modern democracies, and school shootings mainly occur in the United States. Indeed, there appears to be a more significant public response to Parkland, in terms of organized student response to legislative action; it is possible that this shooting will represent a turning point in the debate (Meyer, 2018).
This essay will examine the issue of school shootings, looking at a variety of potential causal factors. The Parkland shooting, along with the Columbine shooting in Colorado in 1999, and other school shootings such as Sandy Hook, will be used to examine some of the issues at play.
One of the issues raised in the course of the recent debate is that of mental health. It seems reasonable to conclude that somebody who would perpetrate a school shooting would not be of sound mental health. One of the counterarguments to the mental health argument, that most mentally ill people do not commit acts of violence, does not address the point. The issue at hand is the incidence of mass shooters being of poor mental health.
The shooter in Parkland, Nikolas Cruz, was reported as possible having sought help for mental health issues, which has stoked the mental health argument. There are two points to address with this, however. The first is that the American Psychological Association has pointed out that a very small percentage of violent crimes are committed by the mentally ill (Ducharme, 2018). This would seem to imply that even if mental illness was perfectly addressed in American society, there would still be a large number of mass shootings. Given that mental illness treatment is chronically underfunded (Szalavitz, 2012), America is unlikely to ever test this hypothesis. The mental health argument is either inaccurate, a red herring or both, even if there are anecdotes about the mentally ill committing these crimes. The mental health argument also opens up the further question of why someone who is mentally ill can access a semi-automatic weapon.
Parenting and Social Disorder
The social disorder argument holds that specific aspects of American society are to blame for creating the conditions that facilitate school shootings. An extension of the "it's the shooter, not the gun" argument, the social disorder hypothesis has some intuitive logic to it. First, social order has traditionally been upheld by a variety of influences – parents, communities, religious institutions, and the legal system among them. There are substantial differences in different societies around the world in terms of willingness to commit crimes. In Japan, for example, there is a low crime rate, largely attributed to the social shaming that goes with committing crimes. People are conditioned from birth not to commit crimes. In other societies, there is no such conditioning from any institution, and the result in a very high level of violence. America falls more in the middle, where there is some social order, but also a degree of social disorder. School shootings represent a unique form of disorder, far beyond ordinary crimes, a unique form of disorder that is disruptive on a national scale. It can be argued, however, that there are individuals in every society who are prone to such strongly deviant acts, but in most societies their crimes involve far fewer victims, and far less publicity. There are exceptions – serial killers, for example – but for the most part the massive destruction from mass shooters exceeds the destruction caused by equivalent deviants in other society.
A specific subset of the social disorder argument blames the parents. This argument seems entirely knee jerk. It fails to account for some key factors. First, some school shooters, such as the shooters at Columbine, have stable family lives. Nikolas Cruz was orphaned at the time of the shooting, his mother having recently died and his adoptive father dead for a few years – there is a surprisingly little a parent can do from the grave. But accounts show that his mother had repeatedly called the police to deal with him, indicating that it was not lax parenting that was the cause of his problems (Moyer, 2018). Furthermore, the parenting and social control arguments hold much less weight when the shooter is an adult, as is the case with most mass shootings. The parenting narrative appears to be a red herring, and unsubstantiated by fact.
This is not to discount entirely the nature of life in America as contributing to violence. There are a number of factors that could result in higher rates of violence in general, such as wealth inequality, systemic racism, harshness and loneliness of modern suburban life can all contribute to strong emotional responses or even lead down a path towards violence reactions. Violent entertainment is often cited as a potential factor – and the rise of violent entertainment has certainly correlated with the rise in mass shootings. While studies seem to show that violent entertainment does not affect most people, there might be just enough people who are affected, and who act out on their responses. Furthermore, media attention on mass shootings has increased significantly. These shootings have become the proverbial media circuses, drawing more attention to the idea of school shootings, to details about how they are committed. Someone who might in another era have had an entirely different response to their circumstances, emotions and thoughts now has the idea planted in their head to get a gun and go on a murder spree. Massive media attention has effectively contributed to the normalization of mass shootings in American society (Hutchins, 2018).
There is evidence that law enforcement, including the FBI, missed clear and obvious signs that Cruz was violent and potentially planning something like a mass shooting. Thus, some blame for the Parkland shooting was laid at the feet of law enforcement, including by the President (Watkins, 2018). However, there is little evidence to show that law enforcement errors were contributing factors in very many other school shootings. This argument may hold some weight in the Parkland shooting but does not appear to be a major contributing factor overall.
The United States possesses 48% of all privately-owned guns in the world, and has by far the highest per-capita number of guns (Hutchins, 2018). Gun laws in the US are relatively weak, meaning that it can be very easy, depending on the state, to obtain a weapon, relatively to other nations. Cruz, despite suspicions of mental illness and history of poor behavior, was able to purchase the weapons he used (McLaughlin & Park, 2018). Sources have pointed out that in most parts of the US, military-style guns are classed as long guns and obtainable at age 18, because that class also includes traditional hunting rifles. Further, such weapons are used in very few gun crimes in general, despite being the apparent weapon of choice for mass shootings (Beckett, 2018). Given that school shooters are often relatively young – those who are either in school or recently left it are most likely to actually care about what goes on in a school. Adults have moved on. Does this mean that raising the age limit to buy military-style weapons alone might reduce school shootings? It could, but there are other mass shootings to consider as well, and those shooters have ranged in age into their 60s.
The laws regarding military-style weapons are considered out of date because they group those weapons in with hunting rifles (Beckett, 2018), but they are also relatively new, as the assault weapon ban was repealed only recently, which would have provided an opportunity to enact limits on their purchase.
One of the most prominent arguments in this debate centers around the role that the gun lobby, predominantly the NRA and gun manufacturers, play in shaping the debate at the political level. There is a disconnect between the public opinion on gun control, which in recent years has mostly been between 50-60% in favor of greater gun control, and public policy on the matter (Pew, 2017). Even during periods when support for gun control was relatively high, there were few laws passed reflecting that support. Instead, gun control laws have been progressively weakened, to the point where even basic common sense restrictions are viewed with hostility by the gun lobby and by those who are influenced by its messaging. This group includes not only a substantial amount of the voting public, but politicians as well, and with politicians in favor of lower degrees of gun control, no meaningful political action is taken to reduce the supply of guns, or the ease of their availability. It is not that America is unable to enact strict gun controls the way countries like Australia or the UK do, it's that America cannot even enact the most basic provisions, including some relatively minor ones that might reduce mass shootings significantly. Any new restriction on gun ownership or sale is vilified using slippery slope arguments – the reality is that the discourse in the public sphere is largely irrational, resulting from hyperbolic messaging on behalf of the gun lobby and its political allies.
While much of the discourse has been attempts to parse out blame, be those attempts serious or simply red herrings, there have also been attempts to arrive at solutions. One idea is increasing security at schools. Suggestions are wide-ranging, from metal detectors to full lockdown during the school day, and armed guards or even armed teachers. Most of these suggestions are problematic. First, schools are often in some state of lockdown. Increased lockdown might not be sufficient, as there is still a need to move people in and out of the school building. A shooter could simply time the attack for when students are vulnerable. Armed guards are often present at schools, including Stoneman Douglas, but the reality is that there is little they can do in an active shooter scenario. Being trained is one thing but having the experience to know how to handle such a situation is another entirely. It is theoretically possible to recruit and train enough people the right away – it would be very expensive to do so but it is at least theoretically possible.
Gun control measures are the other means of addressing the issue. While there are many contributing factors and underlying causes that might bring someone to want to commit such a crime, there is only one means by which a school shooting, or mass shooting can be committed, and that is with a military-style weapon. To be sure, a handgun or any other weapon can be used to kill someone, or even several people, but mass slaughter, especially by someone without any training, can really only be perpetrated with the aid of a weapon designed for the task. The objective of such control would focus on removal of access to that particular class of weapons. A school shooting could still occur, but there would be fewer casualties. Further, the fact that committing such an act would result in a lower death toll may discourage some would-be killers – they might not feel so inclined if they have to do it with a handgun and limited rounds, or better yet without a gun. It is patronizing to say that someone who wants to kill can do so with a knife; the reality is that it takes a lot more determination or insanity to try to stab scores of people to shoot them with a weapon capable of killing dozens of people every minute., at a distance.
There are certainly challenges with this option. We know that the NRA donates a lot of money to politicians, and those politicians tend to vote in the NRA's interests. The so-called pro-2nd Amendment voter is more of an issue voter than the gun control voter, so there is tremendous political power at the ballot box. There is definitely some cognitive dissonance required to vote specifically against gun control and claim to be against school shootings – putting your own personal enjoyment of firearms ahead of the lives of countless children is really quite something, but here we are.
Only when the voting power of people seeking gun control becomes equivalent to that of the no gun control crowd will things change at the political level. The same Pew poll that showed a general trend of more Americans supporting gun control than those aligned as pro-2A noted strong support for the latter position. That they vote on that issue more than the gun control proponents means that they, along with the gun lobby that frames the narrative, control the issue at the political level. This is where the general support for gun control breaks down – the will is there in a general sense, but it is not operationalized into coherent policy at the national-level. Forget saying that gun control is the solution; if America really wants to address the problem of school shootings it has to start with the start, and that is to address the issue that people who hold pro-gun control views cannot agree on a defined course of action and then vote on it. Thankfully, today's students – those who have grown up seeing their peers die senselessly, and having spent their formative years undergoing active shooter drills at school – are tomorrow's voters.
Beckett, L. (2018). Most Americans can buy an AR-15 rifle before they can buy a beer. The Guardian. Retrieved February 19, 2018 from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/feb/16/americans-age-to-buy-ar15-assault-rifle-mass-shootings
Ducharme, J. (2018). Stop blaming school shootings on mental illness, top psychologist warns. Time Retrieved February 19, 2018 from http://time.com/5162927/mass-shootings-mental-health-apa/
Grinberg, E. & Levenson, E. (2018). At least 17 dead in Florida school shooting, law enforcement says. CNN. Retrieved February 19, 2018 from https://www.cnn.com/2018/02/14/us/florida-high-school-shooting/index.html
Hutchins, A. (2018). Florida school shooting: Charting the normalization of gun attacks on US kids. Macleans. Retrieved February 19, 2018 from http://www.macleans.ca/politics/worldpolitics/florida-school-shooting-charting-the-normalization-of-gun-attacks-on-u-s-kids/
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Moyer, M. (2018). No, lax parenting is not to blame for school shootings. Slate. Retrieved February 19, 2018 from https://slate.com/human-interest/2018/02/its-ridiculous-to-blame-lenient-parenting-for-school-shootings.html
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