We Have A Problem With How We Talk About School Shootings

Cash Mendenhall

Two days before this was written, a 15-year-old with a gun walked into Oxford High School outside of Detroit, killing four students and injuring seven others. The shooting was the latest in a long line of quickly forgotten national tragedies. Since the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, America has experienced over 230 school shootings and 278,000 American students have experienced gun violence at school. The death toll from school shootings in America exceeds the murder rate in many developed countries, and the consistency with which they occur is disturbing to say the least.

The Washington Post has registered 17 school shootings since this school year began, and this is a year in which rates of school shootings are at their lowest point in five years. The variation in scope and recognition by the media is vast, and the lack of recognition can be extremely harmful. Massive attention is too often briefly lavished on the memorial altars of certain events that capture the public attention: Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Sandy Hook, and Virginia Tech. Many more shootings garner considerably less and more localized attention—most school shootings account for zero or one fatalities and even less media attention. To place minimized value on such any shooting event is an affront to the humanity of those students and the trauma that they endured, regardless of the outcome..

It’s these statistics and media representations that have been normalized and cease to scare us, but should have the power to incite desperate fear. The very concept of someone bringing a gun to a school with the intention to kill children is an act we claim to view as antithetical to all of our values as a nation and a people. Yet, as a nation, we do not act like it. Over the past twenty years, gun control in America has become an issue with tragically stagnant political momentum: no major gun control legislation has been passed since 2003. Minimal political progress is tempered by even more marginal movement in discourse, while the entrenched politicization diminishes what should be the transformative power of student deaths.

The body count of education has become a numb wound in the preoccupied brain of the American psyche, caught up in a whirlwind of political division on everything from abortion to defense spending. What we write about, what we pay attention to, what little we agree on—this is the definition of what we care about as a nation. Congress doesn’t seem to care about school shootings with one death, and it signifies the implicit belief that the blood of our students is only significant in volume, and that the death of children only deserves to make society uncomfortable if it comes in bulk.

The fallacy in such thinking is self-evident but not always self-apparent – though we can realize the issue, we rarely act on it. The conflation of issues around gun control are far and wide. Most significantly, movement on such divisive issues is sparked by national tragedies that hasten a temporary sense of unity. School shootings such as Columbine and mass shootings in other public spaces like those in Orlando and Las Vegas motivate the little political action seen through federal legislation in the last thirty years. These intermittent fits and starts in policy undermine the consistent toll of gun violence, particularly on students and young people.

Political excuses for such inaction tend to revolve around the immense lobbying clout of gun rights groups, particularly the National Rifle Association, who are blamed and praised in equal measure for their unwillingness to pass any legislation that makes weapons harder to acquire and would, in turn, makes students safer. But laying the blame at the feet of the NRA is simplistic—the organization spent only about one million dollars on campaign donations and 5.4 million dollars on lobbying on the federal level, both significant sums but not outstanding ones for an organization of such size.

The Atlantic reports that such spending ranks the NRA roughly in the top 200 of congressional lobbying groups and their membership hasn’t grown in eight years. In 2020, the group declared bankruptcy, began a legal fight over their continued existence with the state of New York, and faced a leadership and publicity crisis that commanded headlines for two months. Democrats, many of whom campaigned explicitly on stronger gun laws, now control both houses of Congress and the White House. The enemies of gun reform seem scattered and ineffectual—yet nothing has been done.

Intractable opposition to reform shouldn’t be surprising in a country with the highest civilian gun ownership rates in the world—millions of Americans own guns, and millions of them are dedicated voters. That representation in Congress, whether through Senators or PACs, will never fade. The right to representation and debate on both sides of such issues is sacrosanct, and we do not request an authoritarian crackdown on such dialogue, as exasperating as it may get. The problem is not, and never has been, the flood of instances of aggravation and denial of reality from those who view the safety of students as secondary to the tradition of gun ownership. When far-right figureheads mock a Parkland shooting survivor’s grades on national television, we shouldn’t be paying attention. When a Congress that self-declares as sympathetic to a nation of panicked teenagers spends a year doing little to nothing about those very shootings, we should be outraged. Pushing our leaders from talking about doing the right things on gun control to actually doing them is a gap we haven’t bridged in nearly twenty years, as the casualties from near-constant school shootings continue to pile up.

Gun violence is a complex, multifaceted, and evolving issue. But there are a few clear ways we can help reduce the frequency of shootings. Making gun purchases harder, both at the governmental and storefront level, is a healthy step: it’s easier to own a gun than legally drive in most parts of the United States. Requiring federal registration to own a gun and at least a moderate training program would help considerably: when Missouri repealed its permit law in 2007, the state saw a 25% jump in rates of gun violence. Eliminating funding limits on gun violence research helps us allow for greater data collection, which can recommend further policy changes. These laws aren’t unfathomable, and generally have broad support nationally. They can be passed if we muster the political will to do so.

The news of the Oxford High shooting continues to dominate national news, and the specifics of the case remain foggy. The details of what would inspire someone to commit such an act, and the circumstances that allowed it to occur, are unique and incomparable to any other situation. But in many ways, the tragedy in Michigan is like so many others. It is likely that that the news will fade, and that our politicians will continue on to other, more comfortable things. West itself had a shooting scare two years ago, as many of you no doubt remember crouching in dark classrooms and following whispered reports of the situation outside. The event at West had no bodies, and therefore got minimal media play in a nation desensitized to hysteria. We still go to school every morning. Six years ago, Barack Obama declared that thoughts and prayers were “not enough” in the face of continued attempted massacres. It’s time we start acting like it.