June 17, 2022
Why do school shootings keep happening in the United States?
VCU homeland security expert William V. Pelfrey Jr. answers this question and more.
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The first thought that raced through William Pelfrey Jr.’s mind when he heard the breaking news about the school shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, was typical of any parent with young kids.
“It made me want to get into my vehicle and drive to their schools,” said Pelfrey, Ph.D., an expert in the field of homeland security, terrorism and radicalization and a professor of homeland security/emergency preparedness and criminal justice in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University. “From a professional perspective, it reminded me there are too many people with guns, the wrong people with guns and that nothing is going to change.”
Guns are now the leading cause of death among children and adolescents in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. No other developed economy has as many violent firearm deaths as the U.S., according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
“School shootings happen in the U.S. at an alarming rate, but they rarely happen elsewhere in the world. Eighty or 90 percent of all the school shootings in the world happen in the U.S. They are concentrated here,” Pelfrey said.
How did the U.S. get to this point and what can be done? Pelfrey fields those questions and more with VCU News.
Why does this keep happening?
It’s a simple question, but the answers are extremely complicated. There are some political overtones to it. Guns are ubiquitous in the U.S. There are more guns than people. The U.S. population is about 334 million and the number of guns in the U.S. is more than 390 million (according to a report by the Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based organization). We have the highest civilian gun ownership in the world by a huge margin. That’s an extraordinary number relative to the rest of the world. The next countries that have as many guns are war-torn countries like Serbia or Yemen.
Another element is school safety is not as high as it should be. It’s easy to maintain basic school safety but not everybody does a good job of that.
A third element is social media, a component that revolves around how people make it OK on social media to act on violence. There is a faction of government, particularly a right-wing government element, that condones or encourages violence. They do so in an oblique way saying something like, “Our country is under threat. We have to stand up and protect our country. We need to take up arms to defend our country, our way of life.” When you do that, you are condoning acts that are dangerous. The U.S. border is populated by a lot of citizens who have dubbed themselves border protection and they stand at the border with guns waiting for someone to illegally cross the border and they take them into custody even though they are not law enforcement.
How do you categorize mass shootings?
Some are artifacts of bullying. A victim of bullying decides they are going to respond with extreme violence, and it’s usually not against their perpetrators. It’s a show of force to demonstrate they won’t be bullied again. They can stand up for themselves. That describes Sandy Hook and Columbine and some other shootings.
The second category of mass shootings is domestic terrorism. Those people had been self-radicalized on social media and believe their actions represent a higher good. What they are doing is for a bigger purpose than themselves. They are willing to die, almost like a suicide terrorist, to further the goals of the theology they support.
A lot of people don’t fit into either category. The mass shooting era began with Charles Whitman in 1966 when he climbed a bell tower at the University of Texas and started shooting people. He did that because he had a tumor in his brain. There was no kind of pattern, but it created a behavioral matrix that has been followed by any number of people in the U.S.
How easy is it to buy a gun?
In the U.S., you can walk into a gun store and buy as many assault rifles as you want if you have cash and are over 18 and you meet just a couple of other loose criteria. Guns are so easily obtained that it’s easy to commit violent crime. We don’t do a good job in our criminal justice system of prohibiting people that probably shouldn’t have them from securing guns.
In most countries there are tests you have to take. You have to demonstrate you need a gun for a specific reason. You have to pass a gun ownership exam to show you can use it safely. You have to maintain license requirements. We don’t do any of that in the U.S. We are going the other way. Texas last year made it easier for people to get a gun in what was already an incredibly permissive state.
What types of guns are especially dangerous to own?
Assault weapons — assault rifles and assault pistols. We don’t track who buys them. You go into a gun store and buy a gun. A criminal background check is run, but no one keeps track of what you bought or how much you paid for it or what you do with it when you walk out the door. You could buy 20 assault rifles, drive to Washington, D.C., and sell them and nobody knows it because there is no reporting mechanism to identify that you sold the guns.
It is a crime to sell a gun to a convicted felon or to take them out of state to sell. But our penalties are so lax that it’s not a deterrent. A straw buyer is a person who buys guns legally and then illegally sells them for profit. There are a small number of gun stores that welcome straw buyers and subsequently represent easy funnels for guns in illegal locations. Straw buyers go to stores where they know they can walk in with $30,000 or $40,000 in cash and walk out with a bunch of pistols and assault rifles and go back to the streets and sell those guns, especially in cities with restrictive gun laws. That’s one of the cheap mechanisms for guns getting into the hands of criminals.
Why is screening a person who wants to buy a gun so important?
There are people who should have red flags that would preclude gun ownership, but we don’t have that in place. We could look over the past 20 or so years at some of the major school shootings like Parkwood (Florida); Newtown (Connecticut); Columbine (Colorado); Uvalde (Texas); even the shooting in Buffalo (New York). These were people that had a history of mental illness or a history of being bullied and were threatening to lash out. People don’t seem to connect the risk factors to gun ownership and the propensity for subsequent violence. And that is just a tragedy.
What is the role of social media in all of this?
It has a powerful role because of far-right extremism. The Buffalo shooter was a self-radicalized domestic terrorist. He had a strongly held belief about the infringement of races on the Caucasian race. He was an avid follower of far-right extremists’ diatribe and used some of what he found as rationalization to act and commit violence.
Not true for every shooter. In Columbine, Newtown, Uvaldi, these were bullied misfits. They didn’t fit in groups and had a history of being marginalized by their peers. They found a different path for getting even and that was through violence. But there is a different population and I believe it’s one of the most dangerous threats to the U.S. and that is far-right extremists, which inspired far-right violent extremists. Social media has a tremendous role in that. There is no single bad guy we can legitimize or take out. There are hundreds of podcasts and thousands of self-proclaimed thought leaders and they write really nasty, vicious stuff and have followers. Some of those people act on what they read. No government entity does a good job counter-messaging extremists.
How does bullying play into this?
Schools don’t do a great job with bullying prevention. One of my areas of research is bullying and cyberbullying. I’ve worked with schools, and we talk about bullying identification. Schools don’t do that until it’s too late. Schools need to adopt bullying and cyberbullying identification measures and then practice them. The best tactic I’ve seen is analogous to the “see something, say something” messaging that was rampant in New York after 9/11. That same logic can be applied in schools to enable citizens to get involved in terrorism prevention. Students can be empowered to identify bullies and then the school can come in to support fellow students.
Some people talk about arming teachers or school administrators. What do you think of that as a way of prevention?
Several years ago, Virginia considered doing that. I did a report for the Department of Criminal Justice Services in Virginia on the merits and risks of arming school personnel. Most high schools have an armed resource officer on scene, but most middle and elementary schools don’t. Arming teachers or school personnel is an incredibly dangerous enterprise that could lead to the death of that person because if police respond to a shooting and see someone with a gun, they are going to shoot them. Or, the teacher could accidentally shoot another staff member or police officer or, in the worst case, a student.
At Uvalde, there was a police resource officer on scene, at Columbine a school resource officer was on scene, at Parkland a school resource officer was on scene. If a trained police officer can’t prevent a school shooting, what are the chances that a teacher who is not well trained can prevent a school shooting? I think the odds are pretty low. I think the risk dramatically outweighs any potential benefits.
Can you talk about the opposite views we have in the U.S. about guns?
We live in a country with two competing paradigms. One thought paradigm is that everybody needs guns and then we will all be safe. The other is the exact opposite. Nobody should have guns and we will all be safe. Those two paradigms cannot coexist. They are diametrically opposed. But our political structure is such that they can’t be reconciled.
After the Sandy Hook shooting there was a huge motivation for gun control, limiting who could buy guns and the kind of guns people could buy. That faded away rapidly. I expect the same thing will happen here, and it’s depressing to say that, but I see very little political will to enact any meaningful changes.
Mass shootings are going to happen again. It’s a pattern. School shootings and mass shootings happen about every year or two in the U.S. and I guarantee that there is going to be another one in a year and another one after that and nothing is going to change until enough people develop a political will to support meaningful gun changes.
What predictions do you have for the future when it comes to gun laws?
I expect there will be some change in gun laws, but they won’t be substantial. It will provide political cover for some people to say we are doing things, we are making things safer, but they won’t make things safer. I expect gun sales will go up even more because people now feel like they have to protect themselves and their family members because the government isn’t doing that.
I also expect that there is going to be some investigation into police practices at Uvalde because police didn’t go into that school immediately. In fact, several police officers stood outside waiting for reinforcements to arrive. That is going to lead to internal investigation and also police policy changes, which I expect will become popular across the U.S. Many police departments implemented a policy suggesting officers need to go into a school and engage an active shooter no matter what. That didn’t happen in Uvalde. As a policing expert, I don’t know how that is possible.
Do people use mental health as a scapegoat for these shootings?
Yes, it’s an easy target. A lot of people point to mental health and say the U.S. needs more mental health funding. They disregard there was a gun that shot these people. Only a small percentage of these shootings were people that had been diagnosed with a mental illness. We want to rationalize this type of behavior. We want to understand it. We presume that the people who commit these vile acts are disturbed, that they are mentally ill, otherwise they are like us and that’s untenable.
It creates an easy political target that allows politicians to rationalize their failure to enact reasonable gun laws. We have laws about who can buy guns — you have to be 18, you can’t be a convicted felon. There are guns that are restrictive. It’s not legal to sell fully automatic weapons. You can’t buy a tank. But whenever reasonable gun restrictions are opposed or discussed, there is a small faction of citizens and politicians that go crazy, and that’s a tragedy.
Over the past 50 years there has only been one meaningful law passed limiting guns — the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban, passed under President Bill Clinton. That expired 10 years later under a Republican president. When that expired, people began buying guns at a substantially higher rate than ever before. They presumed that under another Democratic president or Congress gun sales would be limited again. So assault rifles, which had been a small portion of gun purchases prior to the ban, became a big part of gun sales.
Estimates are that a quarter to a third of all guns sold now in the U.S. are assault rifle platforms. That is a big number. Seven years after the ban expired, guns sales had doubled. A few years later they doubled again. It’s amazing that the ban had a counter-productive effect, which is it dramatically increased gun sales and people’s motivations to buy guns, particularly assault rifles.
As a policing expert, there is no reason anyone who is not military or law enforcement should ever have an assault rifle. I come from a family of hunters. Every year we would go hunting. I know rifles and shotguns. An assault rifle is a vastly inferior tool for anything other than shooting people. It’s not good for hunting or self-defense. A shotgun or a pistol is more effective. There is no reason for a civilian to have an assault rifle, but they do.
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