Trigger warning: This article contains discussions of gun violence and mass shootings, particularly in schools, which some may find triggering.
“You better get out of here. Things are going to start getting messy.” Those were the approximate words from the young man who was preparing to commit a school shooting to a student who saw the gunman (who shall be referred to as X) in the stairwell of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida as he prepared his AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. That student fled to warn a coach. In the meantime, X triggered the school’s fire alarm, and just before the end of the school day, students began leaving their classrooms in line with fire drill protocol. X then proceeded to the first floor of the school, where he murdered 11 people and injured 13 others in less than two minutes. Subsequently, he shot up the second floor but hit no one. On the third floor, X murdered 6 more people and injured 4 others in roughly 45 seconds, all the while students hid in classrooms listening to the blood-curdling screams of their terrified peers and the pop-pop-pop of bullets riddling the school, piercing the walls, the only barriers between themselves and the shooter. Some recorded the event and posted what they were experiencing on social media, others contacted their loved ones, unsure of whether they would make it out of the school alive. The Parkland school shooting is one of the deadliest mass shootings in a school in American history. Alyssa Alhadeff, Scott Beigel, Martin Duque Anguiano, Nicholas Dworet, Aaron Feis, Jamie Guttenberg, Chris Hixon, Luke Hoyer, Cara Loughran, Gina Montalto, Joaquin Oliver, Alaina Petty, Meadow Pollack, Helena Ramsay, Alex Schachter, Carmen Schentrup, and Peter Wang lost their lives, and an entire generation of young students, myself included, was left feeling confused and terrified.
Personally, I was attending a high school in Texas at the time, and I can say with certainty that I never felt safe in my school after Parkland, though I hadn’t always felt safe anyways because school shootings were not new. Whenever I entered a classroom, my first priority was no longer to read the board and prepare the necessary materials for that day’s class, but rather to map out and rehearse in my head what I would do in the event of a school shooting. School was no longer a place of curiosity and exploration, but rather one of anxiety and fear. But I was clearly not alone, as students and adults across the country mobilized to demand gun-law reform, and the March for our Lives movement gained national momentum. For a little while, it looked like things may actually change. That was three years and one month ago. Has anything really changed? In this article, I intend to answer that question, in addition to examining the history of guns and school shootings in America.
The potency of gun culture in America is no secret. The United States has the highest concentration of guns in the world, with roughly 128,413 guns per 100,000 residents in 2018 according to the Small Arms Survey, making it the only country in the world with more than one gun per resident. The roots of America’s deep connections to guns dates back to the period in which colonists first arrived on the continent, when guns were integral to hunting, militias, and life on the frontier. Guns in that time later became a powerful symbol of “rugged individualism”, of men who relied heavily on guns for survival, with guns being conflated with resilience and the strength of the “American people”. However, it was later during and after the American Revolution that guns became more centrally pinned in the legal framework of the United States, as politicians such as James Madison largely used the experience of the American Revolution to justify the need to protect gun rights in the newly emerging state, portraying them as an invaluable tool for American individuals to preserve their freedom against the “tyranny” which had been imposed upon them by the British and as was allegedly occurring under other powers in Europe. Thus, the presence of the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution which ensures the right of American citizens to “keep and bear arms” in a militia (and now just in general after the supreme court ruling in D.C. v. Heller), should come as no surprise. As time passed, and hunting and frontier living no longer became the norm, many families kept up their traditions of hunting and using guns for sport, meaning the nostalgia of guns was passed down through generations, often becoming the embodiment of good citizenship. Not only that, but gun ownership became a marker of membership in a community of like-minded individuals who possess a shared fear of the uncertainty of threats in contemporary life, serving as a way to form social bonds in a time of increasing societal fragmentation. In sum, guns are deeply woven into the social fabric of American individualism, with their possession traditionally being viewed as a right of passage and a symbol of freedom, perseverance, and the “unique American experience”. Today, they are also markers of membership in a particular community that shares their views on gun ownership.
Given the centrality of guns to the American identity, one should rightly expect that implementing any form of legislation that restricts gun ownership or usage has been extraordinarily difficult. This is not in the least exacerbated by organizations including the National Rifle Association (NRA), which have intensely and effectively lobbied to ensure that gun laws in America are not reformed, even if that reform would arguably enhance the overall safety of the general American public. More generally, guns have fallen victim to minority hyper mobilization, meaning that although most individuals in America support some form of gun control, they are less politically active in mobilizing their beliefs than the few Americans who staunchly believe that gun rights should be uninfringed, and who devote large amounts of resources to this cause. Additionally, gun control momentum is heavily dependent on the media issue attention cycle, meaning that the only time guns and gun reform gains serious attention from the people is in the wake of a terrible incident, such as the Parkland school shooting. Once the issue fades out of the media cycle, the momentum for change is generally lost.
Taken together, all of this means that gun control laws in the United States are not nearly as strict as one would hope when it comes to a weapon that can so easily take a life. While there are regulations at the federal level regulating the minimum age at which one can purchase a firearm, the licensing requirements of dealers, conditions for background checks, etc., these laws fall short in numerous ways and are only made worse by a lack of competent gun control laws in many states. Most notably at the federal level, there is the “gun show loophole”, which means that while technically one needs a license to sells a gun and buyers must meet certain requirements, those selling guns online, from their homes, at flea markets, etc. do not have to have a license to sell or conduct the required background checks as long as the sale is not part of regular activity. Additionally, military-style semi-automatic firearms are not banned at the federal level, and only six states and the District of Columbia have banned these types of weapons, and most states also allow large-capacity magazines (those capable of holding up to 100 rounds of ammunition). Most states also allow open carry of these weapons, with only a few regulations. Suffice to say, the point is clear: given the strength of gun lobbies and that minority which strongly favors less stringent gun control, most states allow ordinary citizens to carry military-style weapons, and the gun laws that do exist are generally capable of being circumnavigated.
The overall lax restrictions on gun ownership in the United States compared to most other wealthy democracies, it should come as no surprise that the United States also has one of the highest gun violence and mass shooting rates relative to industrial democracies. In 2020, more than 19.000 people were killed in firearm related incidents, the highest number in 20 years according to the data from the Gun Violence Archive. Not only that, but the history of mass shootings in schools (aka school shootings) has a history stretching from before the existence of the United States itself. The first incident of school violence on record was in 1764, before the United States became independent, in Greencastle, Pennsylvania, where a schoolmaster and several children (the exact number is unclear) were killed. However, it is important to note this was in the context of a larger war between indigenous peoples and settlers, in retaliation for the large number of indigenous deaths. School shootings and violence in the 1800s outside of the context of indigenous-colonial wars, but these had little effect on gun laws themselves. The most noted school shootings occurred later, starting with the University of Texas tower shooting in 1966, followed later by the Columbine massacre in 1999, the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, and most recently the Parkland massacre in 2018. After Columbine, most states expanded their background check laws, and at the federal level the 1993 Brady Law expanded background checks, and the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban banned certain types of semi-automatic weapons (but this ban expired in 2004). After Sandy Hook, public outrage and demand for gun reform reached unprecedented levels nationwide, primarily because the majority of the victims murdered were young children. Yet at the same time, mobilization from organizations such as the NRA and several conservative representatives also pushed hard against gun reforms, instead of attempting to shift the focus to arming teachers or blaming violent video games. Connecticut, the state where the shooting occurred, instituted sweeping gun reforms, banning more than 150 gun models along with magazines that could hold more than 10 rounds; background check requirements were also expanded. States including New York and Maryland implemented similar reforms, while others did little to nothing. However, at the federal level, very little changed, as bills pertaining to universal background checks and extending the assault weapons ban failed, though background check requirements and capacities to research gun violence were formally expanded. To put it simply, the United States has watched in horror as school shootings have happened again, and again, and again (and again), but each time, they have failed, at the federal level, to implement comprehensive gun control laws including stringent, universal background checks and bans on semi-automatic weapons, most of which are far beyond what an ordinary person would need for self-defense or even hunting. And because the federal government and (most) states have continually failed to take such extensive but necessary actions, a former student who was expelled from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was able to enter his former school, pull out is AR-15, and murder 17 people.
Let me be clear. Most people were not surprised that there was a school shooting in Parkland. Yes, people were surprised that it had happened then, in that place, in those conditions, at that time, but not surprised about the school shooting as a concept. However, people, especially youth, were exhausted. Exhausted from having to bear the burden of knowing that they were not safe in school, and exhausted from the fear that such a shooting could just as well have happened in their school. But this exhaustion quickly turned into anger, deep and burning. We were angry that 17 people had died. We were angry that this was not some shocking accident but rather a deliberate result of past government failure. But more than anything else, we were furious knowing that the federal government and most states were going to fail to do anything about this unless we showed them that this kind of violence and blatant negligence would not stand.
Consequently, in the aftermath of the Parkland school shooting people across the country, as they had done with Sandy Hook, raised their voices to demand action. Hundreds of thousands of Americans also took to the streets with survivors of the Parkland shooting, who created the March For Our Lives movement to demand comprehensive gun reform. The movement ended up becoming one of the largest youth-led protests in decades , and hence, with the help of other gun control advocacy groups, many of which had been formed after Sandy Hook, was able to generate substantial pressure for state and federal gun reform.
So then what actually changed after Parkland? At the state level, there has been much more nationwide action than in the past, though not all of it for the better. One year after the shooting, states had enacted a total of 123 new gun laws, with a few additions since then. However, although you may think that in the wake of a school shooting all of these 123 laws would be in the direction of gun control, other states, primarily in the south, expanded the provisions of stand your ground laws (allowing use of deadly force if one believes their life is being threatened) and even allowed for guns to be carried in schools and churches. We do not need to lose complete hope yet, because other states took serious action towards gun control, with 19 states and the District of Columbia enacted red-flag laws, which are laws that allow police and family members to petition a state court to request the temporary removal of firearms from a person who may be a danger to themselves or others. Some states, such as Vermont, banned several types of semi-automatic weapons, large-capacity magazines, and bump stocks. Florida, the state where the shooting happened, also enacted stricter gun laws, but also pushed to arm teachers. You will notice I didn’t mention the federal level. This is because there really is not much to say, given that essentially no federal action on gun control has been taken. Based on what I mentioned earlier about the federal reactions after previous school shootings, this should come as no surprise. Once again, traditional demands for a federal ban on semi-automatic weapons failed to pass, and there were also no actions for stricter background checks, open carry, or stand your ground restrictions. This is largely due to the intensity gap, namely that pro-gun activists were much more forceful and resource-committed in the lobbying than the average American, who generally supports some gun control. In fact, former President Trump actively entertained and encouraged the notion of arming teachers. Thankfully, this proposal did not get far. The Trump administration also attempted to frame the shooting as a mental health issue, and refused to partake in discussions on moving towards stricter gun control. Yes, part of the problem was clearly mental health. However, if this had been solely a mental health crisis without a gun, there would not have been a mass shooting. So attempts to take guns out of the line of blame are preposterous. While the lack of federal action may not seem problematic given the extent of action at the state level, it is quite the opposite. Without federal action, states can continue to allow for little restriction on where guns are carried, what type of guns they are, and to a lesser extent, who can own them.
This means that there is no reason another shooting cannot happen again. For instance, after Parkland, they continued to happen, and not three months later there was a shooting at Santa Fe High School in Texas, which left 10 people dead and more wounded.
Then let me ask again: what actually changed after Parkland? In the grand scheme of things, very little. States that already had strict gun control laws enacted stricter ones, and states with lax gun laws stood their ground, and the federal government did nothing. Guns will always be an impossibly divisive issue in American politics, simply because of how deeply ingrained they are in American society. Not only that, but there has always been and continues to be a small minority of individuals with more resources to commit to ensuring that comprehensive gun control does not become a reality. I cannot say how much it pains me to know that leaders in America have had more than a handful of opportunities to take real steps towards ending school shootings in America, and have time and time again left the Senate and House chambers, looked at the American people- the students and parents who have been directly or indirectly affected by the weight of school shootings- and failed us. They continue to send American students into school with only their books. But what they don’t seem to realize is this: books don’t stop bullets, only comprehensive policy action does.
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