School shootings in the US: The (un)making of a public-safety issue

A shooting at a public charter K-12 school in Colorado, Denver, has revived the debate over gun control in the US. The country witnesses far more mass shootings than any developed country in the world.

With one dead, eight injured and two suspects already in custody, here’s what we know about what went down Tuesday afternoon at STEM School, Highlands Ranch.

“Yet here we are again”

“Two individuals walked into the STEM school, got deep inside the school and engaged students in two separate locations,” said Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock in a press conference, late Tuesday afternoon. The school has over 1,800 enrolled students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

The lone fatality is one Kendrick Ray Castillo, 18, who wrestled with the shooter along with two other boys and managed to disarm him, giving others the time to escape. Castillo got shot in the scuffle and died at the school, according to his friend, Brendan Bialy’s account to CNN. Castillo who was active on the robotics team, was scheduled to graduate in three months.

They were analysing comedy in English class when the shooter, identified as 18-year-old Devon Erickson, walked into the classroom, spoke to the teacher and pulled out his firearm, explained Bialy who also helped neutralise the threat. They were all classmates.

Erickson was accompanied by another shooter, a juvenile later identified as Alec McKinney, 16, who is reportedly transitioning and identifies as male. Both of them used handguns that Erickson took from his parents; the devices were legally purchased, according to a source with direct knowledge of the investigation.

Chaotic scene on campus

The grieving community of Colorado had just marked the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting in neighbouring town, Littleton. The 1998 shooting had left 12 students and a teacher dead.

In an area noted for school shootings, the students at STEM underwent regular drills and evacuation exercises, but nothing could have prepared them for the sound of a real gunshot or the terrifying wait, until law enforcement showed up.

Chaos and fear erupted in the hallways as gunshots rang out; some hid in the closet with a baseball bat swearing to go down fighting, while others called or texted their loved ones.

The police responded quite quickly, according to reports; they were on the campus within five minutes of the 911 call. A private security guard was the first to confront one of the suspects, taking them into custody and turning them over to the sheriff’s deputies.

Grief, relief and justice

At a nearby recreation centre, frantic parents were waiting to be reunited with their children, who were bussed off straight from school. Castillo’s father watched survivors alighting the buses one by one and rushing to embrace their parents.

“We didn’t have that,” he told CNN, but he takes solace in knowing other children are alive because of Kendrick.”I’d like the world to know this wasn’t your average kid. … He was extraordinary.”

Another parent, Fernando Montoya, was spared the horror. His 17-year-old son was shot three times but he survived and has since been released from the hospital. Several others are still in hospital, battling with their lives in critical condition.

Even though Montoya walked out on his feet, he is already grappling, like so many teenagers in the US, with the reality that schools have become a regular site of violence.

Erickson appeared before court on Wednesday, where he will be facing first-degree murder and attempted murder charges, among others. According to testimonies from fellow students at STEM, Erickson hinted at committing acts which cause “a lot of harm and sadness”, CBS reported.

Even though some pro-Republican websites are trying to divert attention to Erickson being a registered Democrat, who praised Barrack Obama on social media, or that his accomplice is a transgender person, the fact of the matter is that US gun laws controlled by the NRA-led pro-gun lobby are driving this carnage.

This isn’t the first time. Here’s why it won’t be the last.

Earlier this year, New Zealand took less than a week to ban “military-style” semi-automatic rifles, after the fateful Christchurch Mosque attack in March. On the other hand, the US is reluctant to even recognise the problem that legalising possession and use of weapons by civilians poses, despite an endless series of mass shootings and gun violence.

Last February, one of the deadliest school shootings in US history shook Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The incident killed 17 and spurred student survivors to agitate for their safety, with a resolute plea and cogent questions that struck a chord all over the world.

“How is it that easy to buy this type of weapon? How did we not stop this after Columbine? After Sandy Hook?’’ students-turned-gun control activists Sam Zeif and Emma Gonzalez asked at a public meeting in the White House after birthing the “March For Our Lives” campaign.

However, instead of shifting the rhetoric to gun control, the Trump administration promised to pay greater attention to the issue of mental health that he believes is causing shooters to open fire on students, and not the laws that put deadly weapons at their disposal. The recognition of psychological factors in the rise of violence is laudable, but not as a scapegoat to shift the blame from administrative failures.

More shockingly, according to the Department of Education’s new website on school safety, the government has begun to contemplate arming teachers with guns as a solution to this menace—clearly implying that conservatives are ready to raise rather than reduce the number of guns in public hands.

The committee also ruled out the recommendation that raising age limits to buy guns would make schools safer. However, Florida did raise the minimum age to purchase a firearm to 21 from 18 last year.

Enter, the gun lobby

The US has one of the highest rates of gun deaths because it has less strict laws about who can own a gun or hold ammunition, writes QuartzThe National Rifle Association, one of the most influential interest groups in US politics, poses a towering opposition to tighter gun control.

The organisation not only spends millions on lobbying politicians, but also engages five million members, mostly from Southern rural states, to advocate the need for guns.

In 2016, the NRA spent $4m on lobbying and direct contributions to politicians. It also spent $50m on political advocacy, of which $30m were donations for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

The body opposes most proposals to strengthen firearm regulations and has blocked or rolled back many restrictions on gun ownership at both federal and state levels.

For instance, following the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting in 2013, efforts to strengthen gun-purchase background checks had significant bipartisan support in the Senate. But, it was thwarted by a concerted lobbying effort by the NRA. The bill received only 56 votes in favour, four short of the mark necessary to break the filibuster (60 votes out of 100).

A slow march towards stricter gun control

On the federal level, the interest and attention in gun-control legislation have led to almost no action in decades. This, despite numerous polls showing widespread public support for measures like strengthened background checks and banning certain types of high-capacity gun magazines and military-style assault rifles.

Although radical demands continue to fall on deaf ears, some moderate changes were made to the existing system in the recent years.

Gaps in reporting people who are prohibited from owning a gun, to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), still persist. But after the 2017 Sutherland, Texas shooting, a new law that holds states accountable was introduced.

Last March, the White House called states to adopt “Extreme Risk Protection Orders” (ERPOs), also known as “red-flag laws,” which allow local law enforcement to seize firearms from people believed to pose a risk to themselves or others. Thirteen states have passed such laws, up from just five in 2017.

In December 2018, the Department of Justice officially banned “bump stocks” or gun add-ons that are capable of turning a semi-automatic weapon into a machine gun. Following the Parland massacre, numerous corporate sponsors—including Hertz, Avis, Met Life, and Allied Van Lines—severed links to the NRA which responded saying it was a “shameful display of political and civic cowardice.”

This year, the House passed a universal background check bill requiring comprehensive verification before private gun sales, including those that take place at gun shows; previously, the requirement to run the name of gun purchasers in a federal database was limited only to registered gun dealers.

At the root of the issue

Two years back, journalist Sukhada Tatke visited a gun show in Texas, a state where gun control laws are among the least restrictive. She documented it as a banal display of “the insignificance of the human existence” spread across 40,000 square feet

Gun violence in the US is not just restricted to schools, although it is peculiar to the American landscape. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 30,000 gun-related deaths and 80,000 non-fatal injuries occur annually in the US, Tatke notes in 2017.

“A study published in the American Journal of Medicine last year showed that Americans were ten times more likely to die as a result of a firearm, compared with residents of 22 other high-income countries. More than 80% of firearm deaths in all these countries occur in the US,” she writes on this public-safety issue that’s devastating American communities.

What kind of emergency calls for carrying a weapon at all times, Tatke asks. Enshrined in the Second Amendment of the constitution, American gun control laws seem to have been created to perpetuate the myth that immigrants and black communities, in particular, are a source of threat. Many gun-control experts, however, believe that the paranoia is a cover for a power trip, and a keen desire to maintain the supremacist status quo with a licence to kill.

There have been six incidents of gun violence in schools since Parkland, the same number as there were in the full year of 2017; at least 1,200 US kids have been killed by gun violence in the 12 months since the Parkland shooting, according to “Since Parkland,” a project led by teen journalists.

Therefore, without bipartisan government intervention against the gun lobby and the sway it holds over legislative processes, school shootings in the US will likely continue to claims lives like Castillo’s. It is worth remembering that Tuesday’s incident was the 35th school rampage in the US since fall.

Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius

Gun controlPublic safetySchool shootings