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It was Valentine’s Day 2018. High school junior Tori Gonzales was finally feeling well enough to go back to school after being sick for a while. She saw her boyfriend, Joaquin Oliver, who gave her a bouquet of flowers. Actually, he wasn’t her boyfriend. He told her, “I hope you know you’re not my girlfriend. You’re my soul mate.”
It would be the last day she ever saw him. That afternoon, a nineteen-year-old boy walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, with an AR-15 rifle and opened fire into four classrooms. The shooter had purchased the gun legally, passing a background check that included a mental health question. By the time it was all over, he would kill seventeen students and staff—including Joaquin.
“I know I’m just a kid and kids don’t know any better,” Tori said, referring to her relationship with Joaquin, “but [it] was the purest form of love that there is. I’m so thankful that I had that, even if it was for such a short time.” She still has the flowers Joaquin gave her on the day he died. She still wears his sweatshirt.
Anthony Borges, who was fifteen at the time of the shooting, was shot five times as he stood in the doorway to his classroom, shielding his fellow students with his own body. He’s homeschooled now, not yet ready to return to the hallways of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. He doesn’t feel safe there.
And though Anthony’s wounds have healed, he only recently learned to walk again. “It will never be like before,” he said. “I used to get out of school and go play soccer. All I wanted was to play soccer professionally. I played forward. Now I don’t do anything.”
The average length of a mass shooting is about fifteen minutes, but Parkland was different. The first shot was fired at 2:21 p.m. The killer escaped the campus and was arrested around 3:40 p.m., but for a while the police weren’t sure they had the right person. In total, the students at Parkland were on lockdown for three and a half hours. Three and a half hours that felt like three and a half years.
The night of the shooting, around 10:00 p.m., high school senior David Hogg appeared on Laura Ingraham’s show on Fox News. She asked him about what had happened that day.
“So, the first thing that I heard was one single gunshot,” he explained. “We initially thought it was a drill, but it turned out to be anything but.” Ingraham asked him questions about the shooter, whether he had mental health issues, whether there was any armed security in the building. He explained what he knew.
“So, David, incredibly poised delivery of information tonight,” she said, wrapping up the conversation.
“Can I say one more thing?” he asked.
“Yes,” she replied.
“I don’t want this to be another mass shooting. I don’t want this just to be something that people forget,” he said. “This is something that people need to look at and realize that there is a serious issue in this country that we all need to face. It’s an issue that affects each and every one of us. And if you think it doesn’t, believe me, it will, especially if we don’t take action to step up.”
GUN VIOLENCE IN AMERICA
The era of mass school shootings began in 1999 at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, when two boys killed twelve of their fellow students and a teacher before taking their own lives. Columbine wasn’t the first high school mass shooting, but at that point, it was the worst in American history. And it started a trend.
Many other mass school shootings followed Columbine: at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, on April 16, 2007, where a shooter killed thirty-two people; at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012, where a shooter killed twenty-six people; at Parkland on February 14, 2018, where a shooter killed seventeen people; at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, on May 18, 2018, where a shooter killed ten people … The list goes on.
Columbine became a blueprint for later school shootings in large part because of the way it was reported. Major media outlets latched on to the story of the killers, repeating their names, exploring their psychology, and sharing their manifestos and home movies. As a result, many of the killers in later school shootings used Columbine as a model. Some even went so far as to wear trench coats, the clothing item for which the Columbine killers had become known.
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DEFINING “MASS SHOOTING”
People use the phrase all the time, but believe it or not, there’s actually no agreed-upon definition of “mass shooting.” For years the FBI has defined the term to mean four or more people killed by guns in “close geographical proximity” to one another. Congress defined “mass killing” as three or more killings in one incident (using any sort of weapon) after the 2012 tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary. Other researchers exclude murders that occur during a robbery, gang violence, or domestic abuse when making their calculations. Because of these different definitions, the estimates of how many mass shootings occur vary greatly, from about four per year to a mass shooting every day.
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One thing to keep in mind about school shootings is that while the ones you hear about in the news, like Columbine and Parkland, tend to occur at schools that are predominantly white, gun violence more frequently affects students of color. In understanding the racial disparities in school shootings, it’s important to think about the difference between a mass school shooting and a school shooting that involves fewer victims.
There are, on average, three casualties when a shooting happens at a predominantly white school. While “that’s twice the average of the number of shooting victims at predominantly Black and Hispanic schools,” CNN reports, students of color face more frequent gun violence. For example, even though only about 15 percent of students in the United States are Black, Black students “account for about a third of the students who have experienced a school shooting since 2009.” A recent Pew Research Center survey found that Black and Hispanic students were markedly more worried about the possibility of a shooting happening at their schools.
“Those mass shootings, the headline-grabbing ones, are really, really a small fraction of them,” says Chris Cole, a former FBI agent who is now the director of threat intervention services at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “It’s more of the everyday violence, that unfortunately I think we’ve become a bit immune to, that produce[s] the large numbers.”
“In some ways,” New York Times reporter Dana Goldstein writes, “the panic and dark legacy of Columbine brought to suburban and rural schools some of the fears and pressure that urban students of color had already been living under.” The fear of school shootings means that students practice lockdown drills, pass through metal detectors, and wear clear backpacks. In a recent school shooter drill in Indiana, teachers suffered “bloody welts” after trainers used nonlethal pellet guns to shoot at them.
“There’s a trauma that comes simply from being part of one of those drills,” Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, explains. Indeed, in a recent online survey, the American Psychological Association (APA) found that when a school implements safety measures such as lockdown drills, the proportion of parents who feel more stressed (36 percent) exceeds the proportion who feel less stressed (34 percent).
And these mass shootings, of course, don’t just happen in schools—they also happen at concerts, in churches, in movie theaters, and at restaurants. In 2016, for example, a shooter killed forty-nine people at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and in 2017 a shooter killed fifty-eight people at a country music festival in Las Vegas.
The threat of mass shootings outside school affects students in much the same way that school shootings do. The APA found that “for a majority of Gen Z youth [aged 15 to 21], gun violence—mass shootings and school shootings—are significant sources of stress.” Indeed, “75 percent of those in this age group report mass shootings as a significant source of stress, and nearly as many (72 percent) say the same about school shootings or the possibility of them occurring.”
DEADLIEST MASS SHOOTINGS IN AMERICA, 1999–2018
There are also plenty of gun deaths that have nothing to do with school shootings or mass shootings. Let’s take a look at the statistics.
HOW MANY GUNS ARE PEOPLE BUYING? WHO’S BUYING THEM?
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Gun ownership is falling: The percentage of households with guns has declined from 1977 to 2017, according to two different surveys.
PERCENTAGE OF AMERICAN HOUSEHOLDS THAT OWN GUNS
The number of guns sold per year increased until 2016, then fell in 2017 and 2018, likely because of President Donald Trump’s election. As we’ll learn in chapter 8, gun sales tend to spike when gun owners think their gun rights are under threat, not when they think their gun rights are safe.
GUN SALES IN AMERICA, 2000–2018
Gun owners often own more than one gun per person, which explains why the number of sales can increase in the same year that the number of households owning guns decreases. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 66 percent of gun owners report owning more than one gun, and 29 percent report owning five or more guns.
Men (39 percent) are more likely to own a gun than women (22 percent); white people (36 percent) are more likely to own a gun than Black (24 percent) or Hispanic (15 percent) people; and gun ownership is more common in rural areas (46 percent) than in suburban (28 percent) or urban (19 percent) areas. The states with the highest gun ownership rates tend to be largely rural and in the South, Midwest, or West, while those with the lowest gun ownership rates tend to be less rural and on the East or West Coast.
HOW MANY PEOPLE ARE DYING BECAUSE OF GUNS?
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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in 2017, the most recent year for which it has data, there were 39,773 firearms deaths—the highest number in fifty years. (And there are about five to seven gun injuries for every gun death.) Of these deaths, 1,814 were children aged 1 to 17. In fact, in 2017 more children died from gunshots than on-duty police officers and active duty military combined.
While policymakers often focus on homicides when they talk about gun control, suicides actually account for the majority of gun deaths. In 2017, for example, about 60 percent of gun deaths were suicides, while about 37 percent were homicides. Guns were involved in 51 percent of all suicides that year.
Some people think that gun availability is unrelated to suicide; they argue that people who want to die by suicide will find any way to do it. But studies show that when guns are less prevalent, there are fewer gun suicides, at least among young adults.
This is for two main reasons: First, guns are the deadliest means of suicide—about 80 to 90 percent of gun suicide attempts end in death—while other means of suicide are less deadly. And second, particularly among young people, the suicidal impulse may pass. The availability of a gun, however, makes it much easier to follow through on that impulse.
There are also firearms accidents, which accounted for 486 gun deaths in 2017. These deaths are most common among children and young adults—about half of those who die because of a gun accident are under thirty years old. Accidental deaths often occur when guns aren’t stored safely in the home.
As you can see, there’s also a pretty good amount of overlap between gun ownership and gun death rates: The states with the most guns also tend to be the states with the most gun deaths. (Note that “gun deaths” include homicides, suicides, and accidents.) We’ll look at these statistics again here, when we analyze whether these gun deaths are preventable.
PERCENTAGE OF GUN OWNERS PER STATE IN AMERICA
GUN DEATH RATES BY STATE PER 100,000 PEOPLE IN 2017
Given all these guns, and all this gun violence, what’s getting in the way of passing gun control laws? Three letters: NRA. The National Rifle Association, the most powerful gun rights organization in the country.
The NRA blocks laws that interfere with gun rights, and it spends millions of dollars to help elect candidates who support gun rights. In 2016, for example, the NRA spent over $11 million to support Republican Donald Trump and almost $20 million to oppose Democrat Hillary Clinton. (There are also a few other, smaller pro-gun lobbying groups, like Gun Owners of America and the National Association for Gun Rights, which say that they’re even more pro-gun than the NRA.)
Shortly after the Parkland shooting, Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s chief executive, said the solution to the problem of school shootings isn’t stricter gun laws—it’s more armed security in schools. In his view, and in the view of many gun rights supporters, a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun. For that reason, LaPierre argues that schools need armed guards or even armed teachers. His solution is to add more guns in schools.
LaPierre and the NRA believe that gun control violates the “right to keep and bear arms” guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the Constitution. That amendment reads as follows:
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
Sort of a winding sentence. It seems to say people have the right to own “arms,” or guns. But it’s not clear what that right has to do with militias, which are military forces made up of citizens that come together to fight when they’re needed. And what does it mean that the right “shall not be infringed”—can there be any laws restricting it?
The NRA says no. The NRA believes that the right to keep and bear arms belongs to every individual, not to state militias, and that there can’t be any gun control laws that infringe on that right. In its view, even a minor gun control law is just a slippery slope to total gun confiscation. As Wayne LaPierre put it: “The anti-gunner’s formula for surrendering our Second Amendment freedoms is clear: First, enact a nationwide firearms waiting period”—in other words, a period of time a person has to wait before buying a gun—“second, after the waiting period fails to reduce crime, enact a nationwide licensing and registration law; and the final step, confiscate all registered firearms.”
LaPierre and the NRA believe that things like licensing requirements can lead to a gun registry—a list of all gun owners—which would make it easier for the government to seize all privately held weapons. (This is the potato chip theory of gun control—once you start you can’t stop.) For this reason, the NRA fights anything that gets in the way of gun rights, no matter how small. Even small-scale, reasonable gun control can seem impossible given the strength of the pro-gun lobby.
So how did America get into this mess? Did the nation’s founders support every individual’s right to have guns? And how have we gotten to the point where twelve hundred teens and young adults died from gun violence in the twelve months after the Parkland shooting alone?
Answering those questions means examining the history of gun laws in America. When we do that, we realize that gun control laws in this country have coexisted with gun rights for hundreds of years.
The aim of this book is to trace our nation’s history with guns, to examine how our relationship with the Second Amendment has changed over time, and to analyze the forces that have shaped that relationship. Of course, there are limitations to my telling of this story—hundreds of books could be written about guns in America. Indeed, something new happens in the world of guns and gun policy every day. This book means to capture the most relevant information to explain how we’ve gotten to where we are today: schools filled with metal detectors, clear backpacks, and active shooter drills.
These may seem like modern phenomena, but to start this story, we have to go back in time—all the way to 1688 and the Glorious Revolution.
THE EARLY HISTORY OF THE GUN
The AR-15 rifle used in the Parkland shooting caused wounds that were unrecognizable to a trained trauma surgeon; the bullets fired from that rifle are three times as powerful as those fired from a 9mm handgun. The AR-15 looks nothing like the guns European settlers brought across the Atlantic when they colonized the Americas.
The first guns in the world were probably cannons, which used explosive gunpowder (likely discovered around the 900s in China) to hurl projectiles in combat. The next major development occurred in fourteenth-century Europe when craftsmen, in an effort to create small, portable cannons, developed the first hand-carried arms. These weapons were only somewhat mobile, very unwieldy, and a definite risk to the shooter. They were called hand cannons, fire sticks, or hand gonnes.
The matchlock, developed in the fifteenth century by European gunsmiths, was the first mechanical firing device. The term “matchlock” encompasses guns known as arquebuses, harquebuses, calivers, and muskets. When a lever on the matchlock was pulled, a burning match was lowered into the flashpan, which ignited the powder that sent the bullet flying. Before the matchlock, the shooter had to hold a flame to a hole in the barrel, which then ignited the powder. But the matchlock allowed both hands to remain on the gun, which helped with aim. The matchlock was a success thanks to a combination of relative ease of use and low cost.
Then, in the early sixteenth century, the wheel lock appeared. The wheel lock was self-igniting; when the shooter pulled the trigger, a rough-edged steel wheel struck a piece of pyrite, which ignited a spark. This made the wheel lock easier to use and more reliable than the matchlock. Of course, the complicated craftsmanship that went into the wheel also made it more expensive. For this reason, even after the wheel lock was invented, the matchlock was still more popular as a military firearm.
In the early seventeenth century, the flintlock was developed in France. Like the wheel lock, it was self-igniting—it ignited a spark by striking flint on steel. Unlike the wheel lock, it didn’t use an expensive wheel. By the mid-1600s, the flintlock had been adopted throughout Europe.
Guns first came to the Americas as harquebuses hauled over by Spanish explorers and conquistadores in the fifteenth century, and subsequently as matchlocks, wheel locks, and flintlocks with English settlers. In the eight hundred years of their existence, guns have become deadlier and deadlier, enabling the devastating forms of destruction we see today.
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Copyright © 2020 by Hana Bajramovic