Anna Schwartz is a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania studying Political Science, French, and Economic Policy.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida experienced the loss of 17 lives and the hospitalization of 14 more during a school shooting in February. The massacre marks the 17th school shooting in 2018. Everytown for Gun Safety adds to the count "any time a firearm discharges a live round inside a school building or on a school campus or grounds" because “it can shatter a child's sense that they are safe in their school and in their community”. While each instance of gun violence may not directly result in the death, the situations impact the lives of both students and the others in the neighborhood.
Oftentimes these tragic events impact gun control legislation. After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, for example, Connecticut reformed their purchase policies. Specifically, they banned the sale of magazines with more than 10 rounds, required registration of those already in circulation, and tightened background checks for all firearms. They also created a registry of weapons offenders that included people accused of owning an illegal gun. After these policies, death rates due to gun violence even decreased during the next couple of years. Still, the news cycle moved on to other stories within the next few months and Sandy Hook was all but forgotten in the everyday minds of Americans.
The pattern of public sympathy, short-lived calls for reform, and gradual decline in attention is common for school shootings. What makes Parkland different is the students at Stoneman Douglas High School. Days after the incident, the teenagers sprung into action, lobbying local officials to strengthen gun control laws in Florida.
"Dear Congress," Sheryl Acquarola, a survivor of the shooting screamed to a crowd in Tallahassee, "how many of the thoughts and prayers that I have received do I need to check in for some damn action? Because thoughts and prayers don't mean anything without something behind it. And to be quite frank, thoughts and prayers won't stop my brothers and sisters from dying. Action will".
She spoke at one of the first protests, a march on the state capital that took place a week after the massacre. Since then, the students have remained vocal, lobbying lawmakers, staging rallies and speaking with the press. The high-schoolers refuse to stop until they see significant policy change.
Opponents of gun control argue that school shootings can be prevented by focusing on mental illness, not on firearms. Nikolas Cruz, the Stoneman Douglas shooter, showed signs of instability long before February. Yet in reality, law-enforcement officials have no power to prevent troubled people from buying or owning firearms. Federal laws require specific buyer history to stop a sale, such as felony convictions, domestic-violence misdemeanors, and dishonorable discharge from the military. Police officers in Florida can send potentially dangerous people for a psychiatric evaluation, but can only confiscate weapons in cases involving criminal charges. During those evaluations, current laws are also strict about involuntary admission for treatment. Care providers must prove that the patient will harm people and that the underlying anger is due to mental illness. Thus most school shooters, if they begin this process at all, slip between the cracks at some point. Many like Cruz have no previous criminal record. Others appear to be resentful or upset upon evaluation, but can not be immediately identified as mentally ill.
Meanwhile, restrictions and background checks on firearms successfully limit gun-related deaths. In states with background checks, there are roughly half the amount of school shootings as there are in the 14 states that do not conduct research before sales. Legislation mandating background checks could therefore improve safety in schools. Since heavy firearms are not necessary for recreational shooting and hunting, some lawmakers advocate for bans on assault weapons. The military-style assault gun that the Parkland shooter used was purchased legally. High capacity magazines that hold more than ten rounds are easy to obtain and present in most mass shootings. Consequently, limiting the availability of these guns might decrease the amount of gun-related violence.
Lawmakers in Florida along with governor Rick Scott recently passed a new gun control law in response to the Stoneman Douglas massacre. The bill raises gun purchase age requirements from 18 to 21, introduces a mandatory three day waiting period, and allocates resources for school security and mental health services. It also bans bump stocks, which allow semi-automatic weapons to behave more like automatic weapons. The most controversial aspect of the bill funds one of President Donald Trump’s proposals: arming staff who work inside and outside the classroom and have undergone training. Proponents argue that it will allow teachers to prevent future shootings, but critics fear it may make students feel unsafe.
Trump has shown some level of support for all of the measures in the bill, breaking ties with the opinions of the NRA. Disagreeing with the NRA is largely unheard of within the Republican party. Donations to conservative campaigns usually solidify the radical group’s position of power. The backlash from Trump’s peers, in addition to the strong voices of Stoneman Douglas students, make for a fresh gun control debate. Unlike past discussions that fizzled out in a few weeks, this one may lead to lasting modifications to state and federal laws.
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