The names of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris are synonymous with school shootings in the USA, especially as many of those who have since followed in their footsteps have cited these two boys -and the events of the 1999 Columbine shooting- as inspiration. At the time, the Columbine shooting was recorded as the deadliest in USA history, leaving 12 people dead and more than 20 seriously injured. Columbine was the first mass shooting that really began the debate on American gun control, and yet, nearly twenty years since this tragic event, what has changed?
Once again, the world has been left reeling this week after reports of yet another school shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The attack on February 14th, which claimed the lives of 14 students and 3 faculty members, has once again brought the issue of gun control legislation to the forefront of public debate. Following the mass shooting, which left another 14 people seriously injured, protests have erupted across the country, calling for lawmakers to make serious changes to legislation surrounding the issue and to bring about stricter gun control measures.
By definition, in American law, a mass shooting is defined as a shooting, leaving at least four or more dead at the same time or at the same location; victims were randomly selected (excluding gang-related crimes or family related homicides); and attacks in public places, whether that be schools, music venues, shopping centers etc. When talking exclusively about school shootings, statistics relating to this kind of crime vary greatly, with some commentators claiming school shootings have been declining in recent years, and others claiming that these kind of crimes are rising at an alarming rate.
When we hear about school shootings in the press, the first events that come to mind are tragedies like Columbine and Sandy Hook, among others. The large variation of statistics comes about when we open the discussion about whether only mass shootings are considered as school shootings or whether the term includes disputes between individuals, murder-suicides and attempted massacres. When it comes to school shootings, it seems to hit the heart of the public conscience in a different way than other mass shootings. The death of innocence; the death of hope; the death of opportunity. For it to be taken away from people who haven’t had a chance to really learn what life is about, by another person who also could have had so much potential and life ahead of them, can only be seen as a tragedy.
In 2015, sixteen years after Columbine, according to ‘Mass Shooting Tracker’(a gun violence archive), there were 372 mass shootings in the USA in which 475 people were murdered and over 1800 people were injured. The question is; when is this going to stop?
On April 28th 1996, in the popular Tasmanian beach resort of Port Arthur, a 28 year old man called Martin Bryant drove onto the beach of this popular tourist destination and opened fire on tourists using 2 semi-automatic rifles, killing 35 people -twelve of whom he sat among eating lunch- before opening fire at the restaurant, and then going next door and killing 8 more in the gift shop, and later shooting a mother and her 2 children at close range. A further 23 bystanders were injured in the attack.
This attack was not the first in Australian history. In fact, it was the fourteenth and having occurred just six weeks after the Dunblane massacre in Scotland, which left 16 children and two adults dead, it propelled the Australian government into taking action to reform gun laws. Despite some initial resistance, within weeks of the tragedy, semi-automatic rifles and shotguns and pump-action shotguns had been banned by law in all six Australian states and both Australian territories. They also introduced a much stricter licensing system and ownership controls. The importations of such weapons were prohibited and the massacre prompted a government buyback program which would compensate gun owners for handing over their weapons to the government. During the first buyback scheme following the Port Arthur massacre, it is estimated that throughout all 6 states and the two territories, over 650,000 weapons were collected and melted down. Furthermore, between October 1996 and September 1997, as part of the buyback scheme, the government was able to collect over a further one million firearms.
In the aftermath of the recent shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School -having avoided the questions and debate surrounding gun control legislation for an entire week after the event- President Trump eventually broke his silence with the suggestion that in order to prevent future incidents of fatal school shootings, ‘we should arm the teachers’, a statement he has since attempted to retract, although his tweet on the matter didn’t exactly refute the initial remark that he allegedly made.
“I never said “give teachers guns” like was stated on Fake News @CNN & @NBC. What I said was to look at the possibility of giving “concealed guns to gun adept teachers with military or special training experience – only the best. 20% of teachers, a lot, would now be able to.”
As a society we naturally put the blame solely on the perpetrators of these crimes; however, where are the restrictions by law to prevent these events from ever becoming a reality? Isn’t it time that we stopped solely blaming the individuals, and introduced preventative legislation for the next generation. How many more children will lose their lives, how many educators will be put in the firing line, how many parents will have to mourn their children? Often when hearing about the tragedies of mass shootings in the US, the media spend a lot of time vilifying the perpetrator/perpetrators, bringing up their unstable mental state, their position as an outsider in society, their support of extremist and unconventional political views. If they hadn’t been able to access weapons though, regardless of any of these factors, the simple fact is that they wouldn’t have been able to commit the crime.
In 1966, Charles Whitman, a former Marine sharpshooter, killed his wife and mother before taking post at the top of the University of Texas Tower in Austin and indiscriminately shooting 14 people over a 90-minute rampage. In recent years there’s been Virginia tech (32 dead), Sandy Hook (20 dead), The Las Vegas shooting -which is currently considered the deadliest shooting in US history- (58 dead), the Orlando nightclub shooting (49 dead, 58 injured). These are just a small selection of shootings I’ve chosen to name in this article. According to CNN online “of the 30 deadliest shootings in the United States dating back to 1949, 18 have occurred in the last 10 years”.
Yet for the Australian conscience, the 35 lives lost at Port Arthur were the final straw, and the public outrage was enough to propel change in a massive way. Since the legislative reforms in Australia, there have been no mass shootings since. Zero mass shootings… so why has not one case of mass shootings in the USA prompted harsher gun law reforms?
The National Rifle Association of America is seen by observers and lawmakers alike as one of the most influential lobbying groups in Washington with over 5,000,000 members nationwide. The organization’s claim’s that it protects the second amendment and the right of every American to bear arms’. However, the second amendment has been somewhat misconstrued. The second amendment actually says ‘a well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.’
During the 1780’s and 90’s, the United States was a newly formed country without its own standing army so it depended on the militia for defense from potential invaders. Also, at the time around which the constitution was written, the kind of arms being regulated were muskets and early rifles (which took an average of one minute and twenty seconds to load and fire one round) in contrary to the vast selection of arms available for purchase in the modern day United States, which can fire hundreds of rounds per minute, with much greater accuracy and power.
Citing the second amendment alone as some sort of divine reason to retain relaxed gun control laws is little more than a deflection, misrepresented to defend a corporate agenda. The NRA itself has had a history of influencing legislation, participating and initiating in lawsuits and endorsing political candidates who are sympathetic to their cause. It has been estimated that the NRA supported the Trump presidential campaign in different capacities, to the cost of up to $30,000,000 (supposedly $12,000,000 actively supporting his campaign and another $18,000,000 trying to undermine the opposition campaign of Hilary Clinton). Surely the ruling government of any country or state should be free from pressure from corporate enterprises, supporting political opponents in order to exude power over them, ultimately to the detriment of the general population.
One of the arguments of NRA is that if there were to be stricter gun control laws, people would still be able to access guns on the black market and that guns would more easily be pushed into the hands of criminals. If we look at the sheer logistics of this argument, the price to buy a weapon illegally is factually proven to be far higher –not to mention far more difficult- than buying it legally. The average price of buying and AK47 legally in the US is around $200, however, to buy the same weapon on the black market would cost around $2800.
Up until the 1960’s, the second amendment hadn’t been much of a talking point. However, after a series of high level political assassinations, including President JFK, Presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy, and the civil rights activist, Martin Luther King Jr., for the first time it seemed that average Americans considered that perhaps it would be a good idea to introduce some kind of restrictions on the kind of people that could purchase firearms and how easily it would be for them to do so. The government did, in fact, implement some fairly relaxed regulations on the matter, regulations that the NRA supported after some basic discussions.
However, in the late 1970’s, the NRA seemed to do a turnaround, turning from an organization which defined itself as a sporting organization to one that quoted the second amendment as their tagline. By the end of the twentieth century the NRA had grown into a politically fervent organization, with influence and money, which interpreted the second amendment in a new way, in which it fought legislation preventing individuals from owning firearms, and deliberately allowing people who were not part of any organized militia or National Guard troop from buying and owning firearms.
In a speech in 1991, the former 15th Chief Justice of the United States, Warren E. Burger said that the 27-word amendment referencing “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” had been the subject of “one of the greatest pieces of fraud—I repeat the word ‘fraud’—on the American public by special-interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”
We remember the names of Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, Seung-Hui Cho, Adam Lanza, Chris Harper Mercer, Dylann Roof, James Holmes…the list goes on. But what about the names of the men preventing gun law reforms which could stop these kinds of events occurring in the first place? Just like the names of the children and adults who have lost their lives all over America, they will be forgotten by most, remembered only as statistics of a shameful policy of appeasement of powerful men.
In the aftermath of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, we’ve seen great perseverance from the next generation, sick of this growing trend which is leaving students frightened to go to their educational institutions. Student survivors have been protesting, talking out in the public domain, and calling out companies with ties to the NRA (enterprises which offer discounts to NRA members, not gun manufacturers). We’ve so far seen United Airlines and Delta Airlines (two of the US’s largest airlines) revoking the discount to NRA members among other well-known brands including Hertz, Enterprise car rentals, MetLife, Avis and SimpliSafe and the list is growing day by day.
Ultimately, the idea that the only solution to a bad person with a gun is a good person with a gun completely ignores proven statistical facts regarding gun crime, suicide rates, accidents involving guns (many of which involve children), deaths from crossfire, and the nature of human instinct itself. Let’s not forget that the vast majority of murders are hot-blooded; they are crimes which occur in the heat of the moment. A flash of blind rage could end in a heated argument, or even an assault, but throw a gun into the mix, and the chances of death or serious injury increase significantly.
JC Axe is fiction writer, traveler and philanthropist. He travels the world writing fiction and creating charities to help the homeless.