It is impossible to follow current affairs without being aware of gun violence in American schools. Serialized in popular culture, critiqued by a multitude of commentators – most famously Michael Moore – and an ever-present issue in contemporary political discourse, school shootings have, for many, become synonymous with American society. Yet, in a manner which frequently amazes and confuses those not intimately acquainted with the United States, there are few subjects less open to compromise than the right to bear arms as defined under the Second Amendment. In the face of a seemingly endless parade of tear-jerking stories, many on this side of the Atlantic find it incomprehensible not only that meaningful action is still yet to be taken – in the style of Dunblane following the murder of 16 children and a teacher in 1996 – but that there is a sizable proportion of the American population fundamentally opposed to the very notion of gun control. However, this issue, like any other in politics, is predicated heavily upon perception and remains far less straightforward than it may appear at first glance.
Muddying the question from the outset is a stubborn problem of inconsistent reporting. At its loosest terminologically, Mass Shooting Tracker – a project widely cited by liberal media outlets to support eye-catching and emotive anti-gun headlines – denotes mass public shootings as ‘four or more shot and/or killed in a single event’. In contrast, the Congressional Research Service offers far stricter boundaries encompassing only ‘incidents occurring in relatively public places, involving four or more deaths – not including the shooter(s) – and gunmen who select victims somewhat indiscriminately’. To offer an example of the problematic structuring effect these definitions have upon our visualization of this issue, I reviewed all available data concerning mass school shootings in the United States since January 1, 2019. Adopting the looser definition provided by Mass Shooting Tracker, as of November 21 there have been a total of five so far this calendar year; utilizing the tighter definition of the Congressional Research Service, however, there have supposedly been none.
Reporting discrepancies such as these only deepen the further one journeys into the issue of gun violence in the United States. Indeed, when this very article was pitched by our editorial team it contained a reference to the startling – and dubious – statistic of forty-five American school shootings across a forty-six-week period. Originating from CNN, to achieve this dramatic headline the media outlet was required, perhaps disingenuously, to reconfigure the definitional parameters to facilitate the inclusion of an extremely broad range of atypical instances. Among several unusual additions incorporated by CNN, in so doing drastically enlarging the overall total, were cases of accidental discharge, shootings which resulted in zero injuries or fatalities, incidents involving BB guns, and casualties stemming from unrelated gang violence or criminal activity near school property. Placing this shocking headline into clearer context, of the forty-five shootings listed by CNN only fourteen culminated in any fatalities and, employing the aforementioned definitions of “mass public shootings”, only four fit the loose requirements of Mass Shooting Tracker whilst none fulfilled those of the stricter criteria of the Congressional Research Service.
This enormous divergence in reporting, ranging from depicting gun violence as a horrifying epidemic plaguing the whole of the United States through to an unusual occurrence less likely than a car accident, plays an understated but important role in framing public understandings and attitudes towards the subject. Whilst many in Britain observe an ostensibly callous American society that has grown increasingly numb to repeated instances of gun violence, this is far from the reality on the ground. One need only witness the immense outpourings of communal and national grief following instances of mass gun violence, especially in schools, to recognize that American society-at-large does unquestionable still care. However, taking into account the unique cultural embedding of firearms within American history and national identity, the benchmark of emotion required to galvanize action to overcome a considerable ideational attachment is enormous. With the described nature of reporting allowing both sides of the issue to simultaneously feel righteous in their positions, without even necessitating resort to fake news, for many Americans there appears to be not a sufficiently large emergency to warrant the radical step of disarming civilian populations.
This seeming absence or exaggeration of a perceived need for reform – perpetuated by both advocates for the Second Amendment as well as its critics – is vital to understanding the lack of redress regarding gun violence in the United States. Until a general acceptance develops behind the need for significant change, premature efforts buoyed by sensationalist media reports to restrict access to firearms – such as those supported by Beto O’Rourke during his ill-fated presidential campaign – only serves to antagonize, counterproductively engendering and deepening support for firearms under the traditional narrative of providing a civilian buffer against governmental intrusion and tyranny. For gun control to be effective in the United States, it falls on the Fifth Estate to act more responsibly, to find common ground for reporting events as an industry, and, most importantly, to engage in mature journalism rather than chasing headlines or pandering to factional interests.
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