Up in arms

Why can’t the States be more united when it comes to tackling gun violence both in and outside schools?


I touched down in Florida in the aftermath of the Stoneman-Douglas school shooting in Parkland where 17 students and staff were killed by a past pupil.  Land of glades and gators, Florida was less Sunshine State and more state of shock as debate raged as to how to curb these now regular mass murders.

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The truly astounding statistic is that this is the eighteenth campus shooting in the United States this year. It hardly seems credible. To put it another way that’s an average of two shootings, in school, a week in 2018 so far. The statistics though depend on what you categorize as a school shooting. Do you count accidental shootings? Do you count accidental shootings if no one got hurt? Do you count intentional shootings if no one got hurt? What about gun based suicide attempts (successful or otherwise)?

It’s complicated, but the very fact that we have to quibble about what actually constitutes a school shooting shows the extent of the problem. Since Columbine in 1999 it is estimated that more than 150,000 students in at least 170 primary or secondary schools have experienced a campus shooting. That this is an estimate only serves to highlight the severity of the issue, Generation Columbine don’t know anything else. According to Greg Toppo in USA Today, “These students have grown up in Columbine’s shadow, with locker searches, locked schoolhouse doors, bulletproof backpacks and active shooter drills.”

Despite this however shooting in schools is not the issue, the real problem is just, well, shooting. According to James Alan Fox, a professor at Northeastern University, gun fire on campuses accounts for only 0.5% of deaths of young people. In contrast from the time of Parkland massacre to just before I left Florida, 21 other children in the America had been shot and killed in the everyday scourge  of gun violence. So many people die annually from gunfire in the US that the death toll between 1968 and 2011 eclipses all wars ever fought by the country (38,000 in 2016). For young people gun fire is the third highest cause of death with almost 1300 children a year shot and killed in the US. Campus shootings are a media highlighted part of a much wider problem.

The heart of the conversation lies around the 2nd Amendment of the American constitution that enshrines the right of US Citizens to bear arms.  For some reason this is a big thing in the States and is held to with almost religious fervor and for many you can take out the word almost. I don’t understand it, and no Americans I spoke to could really explain it. However as dialogue progressed I came to realize that the 2nd Amendment is not going away (and I won’t make the mistake of suggesting it should in conversation a second time). Whether it’s down to deeply held conviction, identity or money there is too much riding on this industry for it to be drastically curtailed or changed. Just have a look at Rush Limbaugh to see how insane passionate some Americans can be on this issue.

The Australian Prime Minister, who was visiting Donald Trump while I was in the US, declined to comment on a solution to the issue, recognizing that each country has a unique set of circumstances and challenges (After the 1996 Port Arthur shooting it took Australia only 12 days to pass the National Firearms Agreement and there have been no mass shootings since). Likewise as an outsider to the culture I am not going to pretend to know the way forward. However many Americans I spoke to did find it bizarre that you can buy a gun over the counter aged 18 but have to wait till you are 21 to purchase alcohol. Others I spoke to stated that hiring a car in the US is far more difficult than buying a gun.

For me though it is a case of ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’. According to the BBC, the US is prepared to spend more than a trillion dollars per year defending itself against terrorism which annually kills a tiny fraction (517) of the number of people killed by ordinary gun crime (11,385). I am fairly sure that the States could deal with this problem if it wanted too. The argument between adults of different persuasions appears to follow a well-worn path that invariably ends in a jaded stalemate. Up until now at least, the 2nd Amendment and guns appear to be a sacred cow in the States. Untouchable. The problem is that such deities require sacrifice, in this case 1300 young people a year. So far the United States has shown itself perfectly prepared to keep laying its sons and daughters on the alter to appease the desire of some to keep, and more pertinently bear, arms.

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Andy Marlette/Pensacola News Journal

However in what seems to be a departure from the norm young people themselves have had enough. During my short time in Florida there were marches and protests at schools around the State and this was backed up across the States under the banner of #neveragain. Even Trump appears to be considering, what in the U.S. would be considered radical (elsewhere just sensible ), changes to gun laws. But who knows what Trump really intends. From my limited and brief perspective into the entrenched nature of guns in American culture it may all come to nothing.

Statistics and history inform us that if indeed nothing does change, and current moral panic isn’t matched by political will, then rather than #neveragain it will be more a case of #certainlyagain. And probably sometime soon.

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