Stuck to their guns – another school shooting, but US no closer to firearms reform
As the US reels after yet another school shooting, this time in Texas – in which 21 people, 19 of them fourth-grade children, were killed – the country’s irresponsible gun laws are once again in the spotlight.
There’s a familiar story in the US. It differs each time but there are enough commonalities to draw comparisons, search for patterns and map outcomes. A young man enters a school with a high-powered firearm. Terrified children and their teachers cower. An emergency plan might kick in but the gunman, already inside, fires indiscriminately, leaving a trail of innocent lives. The killer dies by his own hand or police fire; sometimes he lives, faces trial. Parents rush to the school, a nightmare confirmed. They wait for hours to learn the degree of devastation their families will suffer.
This week the story came from Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, where 18-year-old Salvador Ramos murdered 19 children and two teachers, all in the same fourth-grade classroom.
Gun violence at US schools occurs frequently and mass shootings cyclically raise the issue of policy reforms that the country, shocked and devastated after each massacre, fails to implement. Political polarisation over the issues, driven by the Republican Party and its funders in the firearms industry and the National Rifle Association, delays any progress before the outrage eventually subsides.
Put simply: children are being murdered and US governments, state and national, have failed to do anything to stop it.
Uvalde is a relatively small town about 80km from the Mexican border; 90% of the students at Robb Elementary are Hispanic and most are economically disadvantaged. Ramos was in his final year at the local high school and, according to reports, he had few friends, was called derogatory names by classmates, had no chance of graduating and had a difficult relationship with his mother, often spending time at his grandmother’s house.
On 24 May, he shot his grandmother, who survived, and sent a Facebook message to a girl he’d connected with, telling her what he’d done and what he would do next. He crashed his car on the way to the elementary school. Ramos had legally bought two assault rifles and 375 rounds of ammunition after turning 18 this month. He left one of the guns in the car. A bystander who saw him after the crash called the cops but Ramos made it inside the school after shooting at an armed guard. He barricaded himself in the classroom, firing on police and murdering 21 people before he was killed by tactical response officers.
The victims included eight-year-old Uziyah Garcia, whose grandfather told media that he “could catch a ball so good”. Ten-year-old Xavier Lopez’s cousin said he “loved to dance with his brothers”. Amerie Jo Garza (10) was described as “a jokester, always smiling” – she loved to play with Play-Doh.
Texas governor Greg Abbott condemned the shooting and expressed sympathy with the usual platitudes. He was confronted by former Democrat presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke at a press conference on Wednesday. “This is on you,” shouted O’Rourke, who wants to run for the governor job.
After 10 children were killed in a shooting at Santa Fe High School in 2018, Abbott, a Republican, promised to “take action to step up and make sure this tragedy is never repeated ever again”. Yet he backtracked on promised laws allowing the seizure of guns from people a court deems to be imminent threats and failed to close loopholes on background checks for gun buyers. Instead, Abbott reduced state restrictions on carrying handguns.
The FBI reported last week that active shooter cases, when a shooter randomly attempts to kill people in a public space, are on the rise in the US. According to the Gun Violence Archive, 213 mass shootings (when at least four people are killed) have occurred already in 2022.
Barely a week before Ramos killed 21 people, 18-year-old Payton Gendron killed 10 people in a racist attack in New York, inspired by and meant to inspire further mass murderers.
The debate in the US about mass shootings is a debate about gun laws. It’s estimated that there are 400 million guns in the country, which has a population of 334 million. Deaths resulting from gun violence far exceed those in any other rich country. Mass shootings at schools are relatively uncommon compared with general shootings at schools.
In 2021, 240 “non-active” shootings were recorded at US schools, with 135 already recorded in 2022, according to the Center for Homeland Defense and Security’s K-12 School Shooting Database. They included shots fired owing to disputes, accidents and suicides. Easy access to guns is the common denominator.
President Joe Biden said this week: “As a nation, we have to ask: when in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby?”
When he was vice-president in 2013, after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, when 26 people were murdered, Biden was tasked with bringing Democrats and Republicans together to pass bipartisan gun control laws. He failed.
“It’s time to turn this pain into action,” he said, amid renewed legislative efforts.
Gun control laws are difficult to pass in the US. Background checks on gun buyers, extreme risk protection orders that allow courts to remove firearms from potentially dangerous people, and the ban on sales of military-type assault rifles are extremely contentious. Republicans have blocked even the most basic restrictions on gun ownership, allowing 18-year-olds to buy AR-15s, and have obsessed over “critical race theory” in schools while refusing to address the violence haunting the education system.
When that violence visited Uvalde this week, residents spoke to media with bewilderment, wondering how it could happen in what has been described as a strong community and a good place to raise a family.
Sociologist Katherine Newman’s book Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings, released in the wake of the 1999 Columbine killings, studied small-town school shootings. She told The Washington Post that small towns can exacerbate challenges for young men on the margins.
“These smaller towns are extremely stable – that’s what makes them such wonderful places to raise a family. But that very stability can often feel like a death sentence to those at the margins,” she said.
Her book described shooters’ attempts to gain masculine status through violence and domination. “Think about what the shooter wants to accomplish – trying to get the attention of their peers, trying to change how people around them think about them,” she said. “If you’re looking to attack a community and change the way people think about you, the school is the place where you’ll have the most devastating impact.”
School districts have spent billions on physical security upgrades and installing surveillance systems. One Idaho district banned backpacks. There’s been a call to give teachers guns. University of Virginia Professor Dewey Cornell recently told a panel on school safety that schools with such “hardening” measures are not statistically safer. “We’re spending far too much on security measures and not enough on school counsellors, approaches that create a softer, more welcoming environment in our schools, not a harder one.”
Newman said schools must focus on making it easier for their communities to report troubling information before attacks occur. “Because there was a lot of information circulating… And the best hope for interdicting school rampage shootings is making it possible for that information to be acted on.”
As schools try stopgap measures, there is little hope for nationwide reform. In a statement, Sandy Hook Promise, a group led by relatives of victims of the 2012 massacre, offered its support to the Uvalde parents before addressing the public. “For everyone else waking up today – take a moment as you send your child to school and imagine what the Uvalde community is experiencing. Take your heartache, your fear, your anger and sadness, and channel them into action. We must take action today and every day until this epidemic of violence ends.”
That day is unlikely to come soon. Some Americans still believe Sandy Hook was staged by the government to introduce gun reforms, a depressing reminder that, while even reality remains contentious, bipartisan political reform stands little chance. The nation will continue to mourn, with genuine grief on both sides of the political aisle, until it moves on. Then, the story will be told in another town, at another school. DM168
A decade of school shootings
Robb Elementary School, Texas, May 2022:
An 18-year-old killed 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde before he was killed by police.
Oxford High School, Michigan, November 2021:
A 15-year-old killed four people and injured seven in Oxford, near Detroit, and is due to go on trial in September. His parents have also been charged for ignoring warning signs.
Santa Fe High School, Texas, May 2018:
A 17-year-old shot and killed 10 people at the school near Houston and planted several explosives. He is awaiting trial.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Florida, February 2018:
A 20-year-old former student at the school killed 14 students and three staff members and injured another 17. He has been charged with murder.
Umpqua Community College, Oregon, October 2015:
A 26-year-old student killed nine people and injured nine others at the college in Roseburg before killing himself.
Marysville-Pilchuck High School, Washington, October 2014:
A 15-year-old killed four people in the cafeteria in the school before killing himself.
University of California, California, May 2014:
A 22-year-old student shot and stabbed other students near the university’s Santa Barbara campus, killing six before killing himself.
Sandy Hook Elementary School, December 2012:
A 20-year-old killed 26 people in an attack that started at home, where he murdered his mother, before killing 20 Grade 1 children and six school staff members. He then killed himself.
This list includes attacks in which four or more people were killed at both schools and tertiary institutions over the past 10 years. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.