Story & Photo by JaNae Williams
Since April 20, 1999, when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold entered Columbine High School and went on a shooting spree that lasted 49 minutes, there have been a number of shootings, in schools and elsewhere - many of which have gone unreported by major news outlets. Typically, only government-defined instances of “mass shootings” make it into the headlines.
What determines a “mass shooting?” There is a bit of a disagreement amongst groups that weigh in on the matter.
The FBI offers no definition of what constitutes a mass shooting, only a mass killing or mass casualty event: Three or more killings in a single incident.
Other institutions suggest different definitions. Mother Jones, a non-profit investigative news organization, defines mass shootings as “indiscriminate rampages in public places resulting in four or more victims killed by the attacker.” They exclude more conventional crimes such as armed robbery or gang violence. Mass Shooting Tracker, an online, crowd-sourced database states: “We define a mass shooting to be an incident of violence in which four or more people are shot.” Gun Violence Archive’s definition is similar, but they do not include the shooter in the number of victims.
With so many definitions available, it is hard to know how to differentiate a mass shooting from a casualty event. By only considering the number of people killed, some of these sources negate the severity of the situation, often ignoring those who do not lose their lives. Brushing aside instances in which fewer than three people are killed - while dozens are injured - does a disservice to many victims. After facing major trauma, the human body takes months or even years to fully recover. For the human mind, full rehabilitation may never occur.
A Google search reveals countless lists of preparatory measures for college campuses. Preparation is emphasized enough, it seems. But are we really as prepared as we think we are?
In the wake of the most recent mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, President Donald Trump pushed for arming teachers as a way to prepare schools for these situations, even proposing bonus pay for those teachers willing to commit to training. This suggestion is flawed for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the funding. As school districts in some states are struggling to even pay instructors a competitive wage or have resorted to four-day school weeks, it is unclear from where the additional money would come. Many teachers have vocalized their personal aversions to the idea of being armed.
Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services and a 30-year veteran school safety expert (no relation to the president), said in an article that “it is short-sighted for those supporting the idea to believe that educators who enter a profession to teach and serve a supportive, nurturing role with children could abruptly kick into the mindset to kill someone in a second’s notice.”
In light of events that occurred during the Stoneman Douglas shooting, there is also the question of whether law enforcement is even prepared for this task, yet the call to do so is now being placed on educators and those with no training, without regard to the repercussions.
The responsibility and potential liabilities involved “are beyond the expertise, knowledge-base, experience, and professional capabilities of most school boards and administrators,” added Ken Trump.
Who is liable if a student discharges a teacher’s weapon, harming others, accidentally or otherwise? What if school personnel shoot someone mistakenly? The whole idea lacks common sense. It’s no surprise that creating actual legislation for it has since been regarded as the responsibility of the states, despite the idea originating on the federal level.
“If you see something, say something.” The adage penned by advertising executive Allen Kay the day after 9/11 is one most of us have grown up hearing regularly. It gets mentioned after every major tragedy in the U.S. and many international incidents as well. It stands as a reminder that when we all take an active part in being aware of the world around us, we have the power to prevent tragedy. But are there better methods of prevention that are overlooked?
Whenever a shooting occurs, there is an instant reaction from some people to argue it is “too soon” after the tragedy to talk about legislation and change. While we are all implored to give the families time to grieve, the reality is once a mass shooting has occurred, it’s too late to talk about prevention. Prevention is a result of proactivity. Fire prevention does not come from pretending fire isn’t real. Theft prevention doesn’t come by pretending robberies cannot occur. Disease prevention isn’t based on the idea that germs are just figments of our imagination and that if we ignore them, they won’t infect us. Yet, mass shootings, their causes and the means by which perpetrators obtain weapons are readily ignored by government officials and lawmakers.
The U.S. has up to 310 million guns legally owned within its borders - nearly one for every man, woman and child, according to a 2013 Pew Research survey. The same survey, however, also shows that same number of guns is owned by only about 37 percent of the population. That means roughly 120 million Americans own nearly three times as many firearms.
While a minority of people are owning guns, a Gallup poll from 2015 shows 86 percent of people surveyed would favor “a law which would require universal background checks for all gun purchases in the U.S. using a centralized database across all 50 states,” and a separate 2011 poll showed that the top two ways Americans believed would prevent mass shootings were via stricter gun control laws and better mental health screening and support, respectively.
Despite overwhelming numbers of Americans wanting reform, Congress remains resistant to change. After all, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” according to the ever-popular first line of defense for gun lobbyists and Second Amendment advocates. While it’s true guns are not the perpetrators, there is obviously work to be done.
Without significant work on issues regarding mental health, the problem will remain. However, there is no evidence showing mental illness alone is enough to make a person a threat for violent behavior. Many of those involved in past mass shootings showed no signs of mental illness, were able to pass background checks or merely exploited loopholes in the current laws and systems to obtain their weapons.
The Second Amendment states, “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.” But what does that mean and how does it apply to preventing mass shootings?
“A well regulated Militia” is what is called for, but regulated by whom, and under what circumstances does it come into play when providing for the “security of a free State?” We no longer live in a time when the states have their own organized militias, a system that existed when the country’s military, state and local law enforcement lacked the organization, funding, skills and mobility of today. Instead, the majority of modern militias operate on anti-government sentiments focused only on their own security, stating that they will defend their right to bear arms in both federal and state governments.
With the existence of law enforcement agencies at the local, state and federal level, the Amendment lacks the pertinence of the 18th century. Weaponry, ammunition, modifications and enhancements have advanced dramatically since the Amendment was created. During Revolutionary times and the decades that followed, muskets and pistols could only be fired three to four times per minute because of the time reloading required, and their effective range was less than 300 yards.
Today’s weapons can fire upwards of 45 rounds per minute, and certain enhancements can increase that number to hundreds of rounds per minute. Effectiveness can range up to 1,900 yards and reloading takes less than a second, compared to 15-20 seconds per shot. The Second Amendment was clearly not written with this kind of weaponry in mind.
Most proponents of gun laws are not advocates of the seizure of all weaponry, but rather the limitation of access of certain and specific weapons, modifications and ammunition. Armor-piercing ammunition, used in the Las Vegas shooting, is available today, rendering the protections of our military and law enforcement useless.
Meanwhile, high-capacity magazines further increase the lethal threat of assailants. Modifications such as bump-stocks that allow semi-automatic weapons to fire at rates closer to fully automatic speeds nullify the few pieces of legislation currently in place, which prohibit the purchase of automatic weapons. Loopholes in laws surrounding gun shows and private purchases, a lack of accountability for registration due to arguments over privacy, and the flaws in the country’s effectiveness in maintaining those methods are all easily modified with legislation. Many bills already exist that could make changes that would save lives.
We require all vehicles to be legally registered and owners to be tested, even maintain licenses and liability insurance with penalties for failure to do so. Yet, anyone over the age of 18 can purchase weapons, modifications, ammunition in mass quantities with zero federal, state or local intervention.
With preparedness fully in question and a lack of viable options on the table, the common sense idea would seem to be preventing rather than just preparing for tragedy. Students from Stoneman Douglas have become vocal following their experiences, advocating for change from law makers that eliminate the threat rather than merely anticipating it. For their sake, and the sake of all Americans, let’s hope we don’t continue to ignore this very real and pressing matter.