Darius E Watson
After watching the news coverage of the latest school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas there is only one conclusion to make: the gun debate in America is over. There will always be those who argue for gun control, but it seems clear there will not be any significant change in US gun laws anytime soon. Over the 19 years from Columbine to Santa Fe the two primary tools of the gun-control lobby, sympathy and shame, have failed to lead to any real change. The result moving forward will be a steady decline in America’s interest with the next ‘most recent mass shooting’, a continuing inability to leverage reactions to the shootings for legislative change, and an eventual elevation of the destruction associated with these events as perpetrators begin to consider ways to “outdo” previous attacks.
Columbine nationalized the idea of violence in our schools in a way that long-standing violence in cities such as Chicago and New York never had. In turn, it created a national sympathy for the victims and their families that everyone could seemingly participate in. Regardless of what side of the gun debate you were on, everyone had to feel bad for the young victims of senseless gun crime.
Early on, the source of national sympathy for victims of school and other mass shootings was divided very clearly along the lines of the gun-control debate. Gun rights activists immediately began to focus on the psychology of the individuals involved, as well as the overall level of security that was provided to protect schools. Gun-control activists then seized the other end of the rope, arguing that the availability of guns was the primary cause of the horrible act. Inevitably this divide would hinder attempts to understand why the shooting happened, and poison the discussion of how to prevent the next one.
In almost every instance of significant mass shootings there’s been a follow-up push for changes in gun legislation. Regardless of the specific context of the tragedy, those calls have always emanated from a shared sense of sympathy and national guilt over the reality that our children are being shot while going to school. Regardless of the failures to enact significant gun laws after Columbine… or Sandy Hook… or Las Vegas… or Parkland, there has always been a period of national reflection. How much that reflection translated into serious debate over gun control laws was related to how horrific the shooting itself was. Sometimes it took the form of a national debate across media platforms. In the worst instances like Sandy Hook and Parkland it led to marches on Washington and speeches in front of Congress. All these efforts were promoted and supported nationally because of the sympathy the nation had for the victims of these crimes. But something is different with the shooting in Santa Fe.
You could argue that the Royal wedding stole the show. CNN and other news outlets had put so much time and effort into preparing for day or week-long coverage of the event that the shooting at Santa Fe simply had no space to breathe within the news cycle. But I could not have been the only one struck by the muted coverage of the Santa Fe shooting in comparison to Parkland. After the first couple of days and a quick shuffle of the story to the back page, the message was clear: school shootings are now a story, and no longer the story. Relative to the last 19 years of these horrible events, this is the first one where there did not seem a coordinated and sincere national outpouring of sympathy. Without constant national sympathy towards the victims of these awful crimes, gun-control advocates have lost perhaps their greatest asset: guilt.
Regardless of the destruction and pain that these events have caused, national sympathy for the victims can only go so far in creating the foundations of significant legislative change in gun laws. Gun rights activists have always known this and have seized on these moments for the greatest promotions of their message on the national stage. Lobbying, victim’s testimonies in front of congressional panels and committees, and heart wrenching interviews of survivors, have come to symbolize the ‘second phase’ of national responses to these sorts of catastrophes. If the ‘sympathy stage’ is typified by the question, “how could this happen?”, then the next revolves around the question, “how do we make sure this doesn’t happen again?” For gun rights activists the goal of this stage is to shame those with the power into making legislative changes. Although rarely successful, it has become a key stage in the overall national grieving process.
The Santa Fe shooting has not included this stage at all. Parkland was a high-water mark for an energized and focused gun lobby seeking to shame politicians into substantive legislative change. It was a broad grassroots attempt to leverage experiences of victims and survivors as moral collateral against those in the gun rights lobby. The result was that rather than shaming gun rights supporters into changing their position, they embraced what is the political mantra of the day: “there is never any shame in your beliefs.” Gun rights advocates doubled down and through a variety of tactics blunted and eventually stopped the wave of national outrage that had grown against guns following Parkland. Simply put, they expressed their condolences for the victims but refused to be ashamed of their support for gun rights.
The response to the Santa Fe shooting was the result of the successful tactics of the gun lobby during Parkland. The community of Santa Fe asked the same questions and offered the same sympathies as each of the previously devastated communities had. But there has been no national discussion or cries for change. There have been no deep introspectives on the victims, the shooter, or all the families that have been irreparably torn apart. There were no marches or congressional hearings, and certainly no organized calls for changes to gun laws. The truth is that the country is no longer responding to the ‘shame stage’. From the perspective of the news media ratings decline quickly as people are less and less susceptible to sharing national shame for mass shootings. From the legislative perspective, the parades of young Americans begging for changes to gun-control following the Parkland shooting failed to shame politicians into changing laws. In the end, I think many have come to conclusion that if the bodies of dead students and voices of survivors won’t shame the country into changing gun laws, why continue to cover mass shootings the same way? What we have left is a brief period of coverage where people are given time to sympathize with the victims if they wish to. But we’ve seen the end of the attempts to shame the country into substantive changes to gun laws.
Mass shootings are no longer the story in America. This reflects America’s exhaustion with the gun-control debate, and a more general belief that ‘things are what they are’ when it comes to guns in America. As with any other hot button issue in American politics there will always be dedicated activists “fighting the good fight”. But it seems clear from the most recent history of mass shootings in the country that the level of violence, and subsequent levels of sympathy and shame, are not enough to affect change in the country’s gun laws.
The diminishment of mass shootings to ‘just another news story’ in America will not be lost on future perpetrators. There have been more than a few instances to this point where the perpetrator of the mass shooting was explicitly trying to capture their five minutes of fame. As these stories become less and less the center of America’s conscience those committing the crimes will seek to make a larger impact. As we recognize the end of the gun debate in America, we may need to consider that future debates will revolve around even greater levels of destruction and death in our schools.