(If You Didn’t Realize It, Guns Won)
On May 18 of last year there was a school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas. In 25 minutes 17-year-old Dimitrios Pagourtzis killed 10 people and wounded 13 more using a revolver and a 12-gauge pump shotgun. The story itself was quickly eclipsed by the upcoming Royal wedding and rumors of a caravan of criminally-minded illegal immigrants approaching the southern border. It was the second deadliest school shooting in US history, and it was just a blip on the screen of America’s media cycle. In fact, if you go back and review the news cycle for that week you will quickly notice that the story itself was prominent for less than 48 hours. The overall perception was that all the issues and concerns the shooting potentially raised had just been covered by the aftermath of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting three months earlier.
It wasn’t just media exhaustion or the country choosing to look away from yet another school shooting. The death and mayhem in Santa Fe Texas last May marked a watershed event in the national gun debate. Comparing the national response to the tragedy with the procession of mass school shootings that had preceded it I was left with only one conclusion: the gun debate in America is over, and guns won. 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’, and a continuing inability to leverage reactions to the shootings for legislative change. Eventually, the events will start to become more deadly and destructive 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 school violence in cities such as Chicago and New York never had. Part of the apathy towards violence in schools before Columbine was the result of discrimination and a general belief that ‘life in the big city is just more violent’. Columbine changed things not just because it took place at a predominantly white rural school. It was a watershed event precisely because it represented a combination of previously unseen levels of violence, broader concerns with youth in America, and a massive increase in the debate over the role of guns in our society. What dominated however was a national sympathy for the victims and their families that everyone participated in regardless of what side of the gun debate you might be on. Since the battle lines for the contemporary gun debate had not yet been fully drawn, everyone could commiserate and mourn for the young victims of senseless gun crime.
As the gun debate gained momentum, the source of national sympathy for victims of school and other mass shootings was divided very clearly along the lines of the Second Amendment and gun ownership. Gun rights activists focused on the psychology of the individuals involved, as well as the overall level of security that was provided to protect schools. There was a very clear message being sent to gun-control advocates in the form of the now established mantra, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” 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. They immediately and aggressively responded to gun rights advocates whom they saw as not only lacking empathy, but as enablers of mass shootings. This divide quickly reduced objective attempts to understand why the shooting happened and all but eliminated the discussion of how to prevent the next one.
In almost every instance of a mass shooting there’s been a follow-up push for changes in gun legislation. Regardless of the context of the tragedy, those calls have 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 was 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 still a story, just not THE story. Relative to the last 19 years of these horrible events, it was 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 through shame.
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 for a significant legislative change in gun laws. Gun control 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 on the news, 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 control 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 did not include this stage at all. Parkland was a high-water mark for an energized and focused anti-gun lobby seeking to shame politicians into substantive legislative change. It was a broad 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: “never show shame in your beliefs, especially if someone tells you that you should.” 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 was no national discussion or cry 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 the media concluded 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 moving the needle of the gun debate in America. This reflects America’s exhaustion with the issue, the extremely strong and well-organized activities of the gun rights lobby, 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 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 attention those committing the crimes will seek to make a larger impact. As we recognize the end of the gun debate in America, we need to consider a future with even greater levels of destruction and death due to mass shootings. A personal fear is that we may start using the term ‘mass casualty incidents’ more frequently as guns are no longer the primary weapons in the attacks. And all these considerations may just depend on how busy the news cycle is when the next attack takes place.
Dr. Darius Watson, PhD is a professor of international relations, political theory, and security studies. He is also the primary contributor to the news and analysis website drillbitnews.com, as well as the senior consultant for Watson Consulting & Analysis, LLC. Dr. Watson is an active scholar, analyst, and instructor with a record of commitment to publication, professional presentations, and most importantly his students.