“When is enough enough?” – Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers
“We call BS.” – Emma González, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School senior
A new year, a new bloody record: Wednesday, February 14, 2018 now marks the deadliest high school shooting in the history of the United States, surpassing the infamous Columbine High School massacre of April 1999. In another expression of senseless violence, at least 17 people lost their lives when a former student opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Broward County, Florida.
While the people of Broward County struggle to heal, how can the country as a whole heal? With the calendar year less than seven weeks old (a period that included the end of many winter breaks), the Broward County massacre already marked the 17th school shooting of the year. Only in the United States do school shootings happen so frequently. And even here, that rate exceeds the number of school shootings through the 14th day of February in each previous year since 2013, when Everytown for Gun Safety started keeping count, and far exceeds the average of 9.2 school shootings through February 14 between 2013 and 2017. The Gun Violence Archive, which has compiled statistics since 2014 and uses a more restrictive definition of school shootings that excludes incidents that took place after hours, also counts the Broward County massacre as the 17th school shooting this year (and provides a slightly higher average of 9.25 school shootings through February 14 between 2014 and 2017).
This is a nation at peace domestically. How many gravestones, crosses and urns should there be marking the remains of schoolchildren and educators slain by guns of war?
We must do better. The deadliest K-12 school shooting in the United States occurred just six years ago at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where the perpetrator was also armed with a semi-automatic rifle. After that December 2012 shooting, determined pushes to tighten gun laws failed to make it into the books at the federal level and in most states of the union. In many states, gun laws actually became more lax. Family members whose loved ones were killed in that attack, such as those at the organization Sandy Hook Promise, remind us that a lot can be done to prevent gun violence with a focus on mental health and wellness and on basic gun safety. Tragically, even these lifesaving measures, which have little to no effect on gun laws and gun ownership, are often not implemented.
But we shouldn’t kid ourselves. Of all the variables that exist, an abundance of research points to only one variable that can explain the high rate of mass shootings in the United States: “its astronomical number of guns.”
The strong international correlation between gun ownership and mass shootings (also between gun ownership and gun murders) holds whether or not you include the United States in the statistics; it also holds when comparing states and municipalities within the United States. The correlation even holds when controlling for overall crime, homicide and other crime rates. Criminals in the United States are more likely to kill because they are more likely to carry guns, confront guns and find guns to pick up near the scene of the crime, not because the country has more crimes or criminals. Mental health statistics, number of video gamers, racial diversity and immigration rates also do not correlate with gun deaths. With mental health, there may even be an inverse correlation, as suicide rates and the number of mass shootings are actually inversely related. Weak gun controls in the United States only aggravate the death rate.
A day after the massacre in Sandy Hook, Newtown, Spanish psychiatrist Lola Morón published an article for El País challenging the notion that social withdrawal, shyness and isolation can convert someone into a killer. She concluded with the following paragraph: “I ask myself why parts of the U. S. media are so bent on finding a psychiatric diagnosis for a murderer who had been living side-by-side with firearms since infancy, and who to commit this massacre dressed himself in military fatigues. Perhaps the issues in question have more to do with the naturalness with which the use of arms is lived than with the existence or not of mental disorders.” In the high school shooting in Broward County, the perpetrator had federally funded military training from a young age, regularly talked and posted about guns and using them; and at the scene of the crime, he carried smoke grenades in addition to his semi-automatic weapon and wore a gas mask. To bring gun deaths in the United States in line with the rest of the developed world, we must change gun culture in this country.
At the center of entrenching gun culture in the United States is the influential National Rifle Association (NRA). The NRA’s chief strategy seems to involve expanding the unrestricted ownership and use of guns in the United States. In this regard, the organization acts as the sophisticated lobby for small arms manufacturers at the national, state and local level. The organization also claims the support of gun owners, though gun owners and even NRA members are regularly polled to be in favor of various specific gun control regulations that the NRA strongly opposes. According to a Quinnipiac University National Poll conducted after the shooting in Broward County, just 55% of gun households believe that the NRA “supports policies that are good for the U.S.”; in keeping with the trend, a majority of gun households surveyed in this poll supported tightening or enacting various gun controls or bans.
In an “Important Statement” issued four days after the Sandy Hook school massacre, the NRA called a “major news conference” to be held seven days after the tragedy. At this press conference, NRA Executive Vice President and CEO Wayne LaPierre offered the NRA’s solution to gun violence in schools: put ‘good guys with guns’ in every last primary, elementary, middle, junior high and high school in the United States of America. LaPierre justified this proposal by noting that Secret Service guns “protect our President”. To LaPierre, anybody with professional gun training or who happens to be a firefighter is fit for armed security in schools after going through an NRA-funded training program. From this, the NRA’s National School Shield program was born, a program that remains committed to putting armed school personnel in as many schools as are willing to sign on. LaPierre also called for cutting foreign aid to fund the stationing of armed police officers in each and every school in the United States.
LaPierre’s speech conveniently ignored the facts: the statistics show that mental health statistics and crime rates cannot explain the extraordinary gun violence in the United States. Yet in an era of declining crime rates and expanded mental health services, he blamed gun violence on the mentally ill and supposedly rampant crime: “How can we possibly even guess how many [more killers], given our nation's refusal to create an active national database of the mentally ill? And the fact is, that wouldn't even begin to address the much larger and more lethal criminal class: Killers, robbers, rapists and drug gang members who have spread like cancer in every community in this country.” Of course, the speech also ignored the realities of lethal crossfire that kills innocents in the event of a shooting, accidental discharges from guns kept on school property, guns kept on school property that are used by a shooter, shootings of unarmed individuals believed to be a threat, law enforcement mistakenly shooting armed defenders or the simple fact that a murderous assailant with a gun will always have a tactical advantage over an armed defender.
LaPierre expected to be called crazy and took no questions. He mentioned that he had made the same suggestion five years prior after the April 2007 Virginia Tech massacre and was called just that. The Virginia Tech massacre was at the time the deadliest shooting carried out by a lone shooter in the history of the United States (since surpassed by the June 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando and the October 2017 Las Vegas shooting), and it remains the deadliest school shooting in the United States. LaPierre’s press conference was in fact ridiculed both at home and abroad. But as crazy as his arguments are in light of the clear evidence that warns against the proliferation of guns, LaPierre and the NRA leadership have put their message squarely in the mainstream.
At her confirmation hearing, incumbent Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos shocked the nation with the reply, “I would imagine that there’s probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.” She was responding to a simple, binary question from Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut: “You can’t say definitively today that guns shouldn’t be in schools?” According to the nationwide poll conducted after the shooting in Broward County, 20% of the country and 38% of Republicans believe that “armed teachers in schools” “would do more to reduce gun violence in schools” than either “stricter gun laws” or “metal detectors at school entrances”.
The picture of how mainstream guns in schools now are is perhaps clearest in Newtown Public Schools itself. Two police officers are now stationed at schools in the district, which also hired armed and unarmed security officers after the December 2012 massacre. When the Newtown High School senior class of 2016 was asked in a survey about school security whether they “normally see school security officers in the building and on campus on days when school is in session,” 99.66% of respondents answered affirmatively. A community which lived through such extreme violence cannot be blamed for putting guns in schools, but as exceptional as their situation is, the fact remains that that Newtown is an iconic symbol for the rest of the country.
School attitudes in Newtown seem to support the deployment of guns. Some 19% of the class of 2016 took up the opportunity the survey provided to suggest further changes to security. “Only 5% of those responses indicated a desire to reduce security levels,” compared to 19% who called for arming the guards who didn’t carry firearms or 14% who called for more guards. Faculty and staff were asked to answer a more direct question in a SurveyMonkey poll about safety and security during the 2016-17 school year. They were asked to what extend they agreed or disagreed with the statement: “Having an armed security officer on campus during school hours makes me feel safe in the school building.” Out of 335 respondents, 262 agreed with the statement, 148 of whom agreed strongly, compared to only 19 who disagreed, just 5 of whom disagreed strongly (46 declared neutrality or no opinion while 8 thought the question not applicable).
The good news is that national public opinion is moving decisively against guns. According to the nationwide poll conducted after the shooting in Broward County, support for “stricter gun laws” now more than doubles opposition, with 66% supporting to 31% opposing. That is a difference of 19 percentage points from responses to the same question a little over two years ago in December 2015. According to the same poll, 59% of the country thought that “[i]f more people carried guns,” the United States would be “less safe,” compared to just 33% who thought that the country would be safer. Public opinion is coming around to the strong statistical correlation between gun ownership and gun murders. In December 2015, only 47% thought the country would be “less safe” in the same scenario, while 44% thought the country would be “safer."
Back to LaPierre’s speech: “The NRA is going to bring all of its knowledge, dedication and resources to develop a model National School Shield Emergency Response Program for every school that wants it. From armed security to building design and access control to information technology to student and teacher training, this multi-faceted program will be developed by the very best experts in their fields.” Just look at how intense the “naturalness with which the use of arms is lived”! Should every building and security system in the United States be designed to thwart shooters? What sort of a developed country is the United States if the very architecture of its schools must be designed to mitigate the effects of mass shootings?
I graduated from a U. S. international high school in São Paulo, Brazil. The school is one block away from Paraisópolis, one of the largest favelas in the country. (‘Favela’ is a term used to describe shantytowns in urban areas of Brazil which lack basic social services; some have no governmental presence at all.) The school has open air hallways, so it isn’t designed to limit the death rate of a shooting, but like many public spaces and businesses in São Paulo, the school is walled and has armed guards. The situation is worse at the U. S. international high school in Rio de Janeiro, which overlooks Rocinha, another one of the largest favelas in the country. That school regularly has to cancel classes because of gang violence, police operations or even military operations in Rocinha.
The walls and guards didn’t make me feel safe. Every time I passed them I was reminded that, while walking along the sidewalk, at any point someone could ride up to me on a motorcycle, point a gun to my chest and demand my wallet. I didn’t feel safe when I saw guards with fully automatic weapons walking the halls of malls. I was reminded that even the most luxurious malls in São Paulo – even a bank within the international airport – have been successfully robbed by armed gunmen. Seeing armed security everywhere I turned and police armed with military gear reminded me that the Brazilian state had ignored inequality and injustice for decades, allowing favelas to grow out of control over generations; and I was reminded that the state, critically, had failed to enforce proper gun controls, allowing a daunting situation to become truly terrifying.
In the United States, inequality is skyrocketing: 99% of all new income in this country goes to the wealthiest 1% of society. Economic inequality, coupled with some of the laxest gun control laws among developed countries that allow more people to buy more powerful guns, could prove to be a formula that makes the United States more closely resemble Brazil with every passing decade.
The NRA is working to make sure that our lax gun laws stay with us, and the organization’s leaders should be expected to exploit the latest tragedy in Broward County to shamelessly push to further normalize guns in our society. Sure enough, the President of the United States has already called for giving bonuses to teachers and coaches who keep guns in the classroom and suggested that anywhere from 10% to 40% of teachers in the country should be armed. If the NRA chooses not to make moves this time, it is only because they think that they’ve already won.
Let’s prove them wrong.