On February 14th, teenager Nikolas Cruz rampaged through Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Florida, armed with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, as reported by The Guardian. Equipped with this weapon and reportedly “countless magazines” of ammunition according to eyewitness accounts, Cruz, a 19-year old who had been expelled from the school the year before, fired on students and teachers after activating the fire alarm in the afternoon. In total, over the period of approximately three hours, the shooting had claimed 17 victims, including teachers and students. It was the eighteenth school shooting in the United States since the beginning of 2018, and the eighth to have involved injury or death, as reported by the London-based newspaper.
The shooting elicited a number of varied responses. In the immediate aftermath, local police sheriff Scott Israel summarily defined the situation, characterizing it as “a horrific, horrific day.” While a number of students and teachers who were involved expressed that they followed the standard protocol for such a situation, others related their frustration at what had happened. A teacher, Melissa Falkowski, said that it was “the nightmare scenario that you hope never happens to you.” She condemned the factors that contributed to the shooting, saying that “society [had] failed those people today.”
Other members of civil society were equally scathing. A tweet by the American President, Donald Trump, sent “prayers and condolences to the families of the victims.” As a response, Shannon Watts, Founder of advocacy group Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense in America tweeted “This is the 291st school shooting since the start of 2013… We all feel unsafe. What ACTION will you take to protect our children?” The President’s response is the one that falls into a tragic pattern, where nothing is being changed, and where shootings of the kind will ultimately repeat themselves.
The United States’ connection to its gun culture is complex and informed by the context of a country rising like a phoenix out of the pyre of a bloody revolution. While this kind of event may not be the traditional domain of studies of peace and conflict, the fact that this tragedy occurs in the US, a global leader and a major arbiter of liberal democracy, renders it important to discuss. American gun policy arises out of an obscurely worded amendment of its constitution, which has been freely interpreted – some may say misinterpreted – in an extremely wide sense, essentially protecting the rights to gun ownership despite any public health concerns to the contrary. Fueled by a fear of central authority that dates back to the revolutionary uprising against a tyrannical and distant British monarchy, and proliferated widely as consumer products for recreation, the topic of guns and their regulation has become one of the most divisive in US political discourse, a sure bellwether for political affiliation.
Bound in it is the influence of special interest groups such as the National Rifle Association (NRA), a group powerful both in funding and in mobilizing power during the US’s frequent voting cycles, as well as a heavily entrenched discursive landscape that traces an oft-repeated script after these tragedies; those nominally on the left call for action, for which they are accused of politicizing a tragedy, while those on the right claim that no single piece of legislation could have prevented the event. In this way, the political cycle is borne ceaselessly on, until another scandal demands the public’s attention, and the ongoing scandal of the frequency of these atrocities is swept under the carpet.
The US must address this sadly-too-frequent event within its society. If the country is truly to remain the leader of the democratic world, it must lead the way, not shamefully fail to act on problems such as this, which also simply do not occur with the same frequency in other developed countries. Reducing the influence of powerful lobby groups and their money in politics is an effective start, as is legislating policies such as universal background checks for gun purchases (which are supported by approximately 90% of Americans). Ultimately, what is most important is the recognition that this is a problem that affects the innocent, most devastatingly children, who hold no political influence and subscribe to no ideology. This is a problem that the US – if it truly wishes to be the greatest country on earth – must address.
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