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The national response to mass shootings is stuck on repeat
There have been so many deadly mass shootings in America that one could easily feel powerless in stopping them. What is the way forward? Judy Woodruff talks to Kristina Anderson of the Koshka Foundation for Safe Schools, Robert Draper of The New York Times Magazine, Daniel Webster of Johns Hopkins University and Katherine Newman of the University of Massachusetts.
Given this tragic pattern, one could throw up his hands and think there is nothing to do. But we have to believe, for the sake of our children, there is a way through this. How do we think about it?
To examine that question, we turn now to Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, Katherine Newman, author of the book "Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings," and a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts. Robert Draper, writer-at-large for "The New York Times" magazine, he has studied the history of the NRA. And Kristina Anderson, she was 19 years old when she was wounded in the Virginia Tech shooting rampage in 2007, and has since founded an organization called the Koshka Foundation for Safe Schools.
And we welcome all of you to the program.
I think it's — I think we all agree we don't accept the idea that we can just give up. We have to keep trying to solve this, to make it less likely that these terrible shootings happen.
I want to ask each one of you, starting with you, Katherine Newman, what is one way we should be thinking about this right now that could possibly move us forward?
I think we have to understand I think we have to understand these shootings are planned, often long in advance, and that the shooters usually leave a trail of threats or suggestions about what they're going to do.
We need to make it easier for people who hear those threats to come forward to people who can make a difference, to the adults in their environment, to police in their environment.
It was remarkable to me in the research I did how much information was actually available, so much so that, in some instances, kids didn't come to school on the day when those shootings occurred, but no adult was ever informed.
Understanding what retards kids from coming through with information and getting it to the right source is an important task, and I do think there is something we can do about that.
So, if that is one way to think about this, Daniel Webster, what would you say?
Well, I would say that we — the United States is unique not with respect to troubled youth. It's unique with respect to our inability to address easy access to firearms.
It can seem as though that's impossible in a country with so many firearms. But there are reasonable measures. You focus on appropriate standards for legal gun ownership. And I think what was particularly relevant in this case is — and in many other cases that lead to mass shootings, and that includes domestic violence — there are warning signs, as Dr. Newman suggested.
And there are new legal tools, new laws called extreme risk protection orders that work very similar to the way a court does with domestic violence restraining orders, where evidence is examined, and judges and law enforcement can act swiftly to protect individuals' lives, when someone is amassing firearms and planning something very diabolical.
So, taking preventative action in the moment, in effect.
Kristina Anderson, as someone who is a victim yourself, as we said, of the shooting at Virginia Tech, you have spent a lot of time thinking about this. You work on it on a regular basis. What would you suggest we start to think about now?
I would add an echo to the feelings of the importance of prevention and look at, how do we holistically embody the values of security and safety and culture throughout the entire community?
So, adding on to Katherine's point, how do we educate and prepare and train the staff of these institutions, from the janitors, the bus drivers to the teachers?
We have the campaigns of see something, say something, but more proactivity and acceptance that it's OK to speak up, and make sure they understand what their options are for reporting, what that process looks like, if there's a formal threat assessment team in place to monitor and kind of look at that individual of concern, and then, long term, looking at recovery, how do we take care of our communities, because, in this case particularly, we're going to have the students that were injured, but also those that were in the building that heard the gunfire.
You don't have to be physically injured to be impacted by this event.
No question about it.
Robert Draper, you have spent a lot of time thinking about another aspect of all this that gets raised and then often gets shoved aside, because people say it's not time to talk about it, but it's guns. It's the availability of guns. Daniel Webster just mentioned it.
Why has it been so hard to do anything about the extraordinary access to guns?
It can be summarized in one word, NRA.
The National Rifle Association is the most powerful lobbying organization in America. It's powerful not just because of the money that it has and membership that is, but quality of the membership, which is to say that they make their opinions heard, make their opinions count more quantifiably, I think, than any other organization in America, attested to by the fact that the last time we saw any major legislative effort mounted to control guns, any kind of gun safety law, was almost exactly five years ago at this time in the wake of the Newtown shooting.
There have been numerous such shootings since then, and no political will whatsoever to seek a legislative remedy. And that is clearly because of the efforts by the NRA, who have made it clear to Republicans in particular that they will pay a high political price if they were to sign on to such legislation.
Daniel Webster, I heard you suggesting that there may be a way in here, if you could be very specific about when you move on someone who may be thinking about doing something terrible.
And the restrictions with respect to firearms do not need to be lifelong. Sometimes, these risks are really acute. And it's been more acceptable — and we have research evidence to show in the case of restraining orders for domestic violence that remove firearms and have firearms restrictions. It leads to fewer homicides.
We have demonstrated that actually in several studies. And so I think this is — this policy is simply an extension of that same concept, of recognizing at a point in time there's danger. Ready access to lethal weapons makes that something you have to act on.
But, Katherine Newman — or and, Katherine Newman, what you're telling us is that a lot of this is going to depend on others speaking up who have some reason to believe there's a reason to be really concerned about somebody.
That's exactly right, because we need the information in advance.
And there are ways we can encourage that to happen. In high schools, where kids may feel they're going to pay a social price for being identified as teachers' pets or tattle tales, having trusted adults like school resource officers in the area, in the cafeteria, people who get to know the kids, so that they can come forward to someone who doesn't appear to be connected to the school's disciplinary authority system.
We found students in high school were very able to do that and felt more comfortable with that, because they thought that those school resource officers would take this seriously, would investigate quietly, and would take action where it was warranted, because we must remember, nine times out of 10, the threats they hear will not mean anything. They will be idle.
But the one time out of 10 when it really does matter, they need someone to come forward to that they feel comfortable doing so with.
Kristina Anderson, how then do you get the word to these young people who are growing up? Every parent wants their child to believe that they're going to be safe. How do you get word to young people when it's time to speak up, when it's time say, something is wrong here, we need to — and to go to an adult?
I think you begin by having really candid conversations that can begin at the dinner table in your own home to really to the teacher in the classroom, and being willing to have sometimes uncomfortable and difficult discussions, and meeting them in a way that they feel comfortable.
So, a lot of schools use anonymous tip lines, Web-based tools, mobile applications. Some schools do paper surveys. And they just ask, who in the school do you think needs — is being bullied or needs some attention, and just slide that under someone's desk.
There are ways that someone can feel comfortable and empowered, if they feel their identity is going to be protected, if they have to come forward initially, and, to Katherine's point, if they feel they are going to be heard and taken seriously and given feedback and response to whatever that threat may be.
One thing we often say, is the minute you have that gut feeling, to honor that and to speak up. And just with my experience with law enforcement, I have often heard they would rather respond to 1,000 red herrings that become absolutely nothing than one event like Virginia Tech.
And so often it's building those partnerships, knowing that there is multiple people that one can go to before it's necessarily the local police officer, although an SRO is a wonderful candidate as well.
Robert Draper, I'm going to come back to you on the gun question, because it's being raised already.
Are the folks who have been advocating for gun control measures been going about it the right way? Is it the approach, do you think, that's been a problem? How do you look at it?
Well, let's be clear, it's not the main problem, but it is a problem.
The real problem, frankly, resides with the Republicans, who have really shown nothing in the way of political will to address this problem, even when it happens in their own state.
And we have in the White House a president who understands his political base all too well. It consists of evangelicals and gun owners, and he is loathe to cross them.
But it's true what you're saying — or what you're suggesting, Judy, that I think that proponents of gun safety legislation need to be careful and not fall into a trap that's arguably laid for them by the gun lobby by overstepping and proposing legislation that wouldn't be a remedy for a particular instance.
In this particular case, the alleged Florida shooter purchased an AR-15 legally. Closing universal background checks wouldn't have done anything to remediate that.
So, in the wake of this, if people are to propose legislation that really has nothing to do with a particular crisis at hand, it will lead gun groups to say, see, they are obviously just using this as an excuse to take away your Second Amendment rights.
Which is the argument we hear.
And, Daniel Webster, we go back to what happened in Las Vegas, bump stocks. This was this device we learned about which could increase the capacity of a gun, and yet nothing was done there.
Well, it is very frustrating.
And I think it's exactly for the reasons just expressed of why we have been spinning our wheels. I think there is some action at some state levels. And I do think that part of this is putting together something that makes sense and has evidence behind it.
And I think in the case — one thing that is not being discussed in this particular case is, you have a 19-year-old — or, actually, I believe he purchased the AR-15 as an 18-year-old. We don't allow 20-year-olds to buy a beer, but we allow 18-year-olds to buy as many semiautomatic weapons and as much ammo as they would like.
I think something is wrong with this picture, and I think that should be part of the discussion.
In the little bit of time we have left, I'm going to around and ask each one of you, just so that we can begin to think in a way that could possibly be productive here, what is one thing that you think could be done in the short term to begin to address this?
And I'm going to come back to you, Katherine Newman.
I would enable more school resource officers, often, sadly, the first thing to be cut in a budget slash. I would enable those school resource officers to remain on the job, because they are the people that young folks will feel comfortable turning to, to deliver the information we need to prevent these shootings.
I would ask that schools, school boards, school principals take the time to create written all hazards emergency response type plans for all types of threats, whether it's with a firearm, a truck, a knife, whatever that might be, and make sure that they are practiced diligently and with local law enforcement throughout the entire year.
And Daniel Webster?
Well, I would say extreme risk protection orders to address — to allow court action to remove firearms when someone is — clearly has a lot of signals that they are planning something very dangerous.
And that is the type of policy that extends well beyond the schools, because if this young man didn't shoot up a school, what else would he have shot up? So, the issue really is, you have somebody with really mal intent, and you're allowing them to amass firearms.
And, finally, Robert Draper.
Unless politicians are persuaded that there is a cost to be paid by not supporting gun safety legislation, they won't do anything. Therefore, I think it's going to require outside groups, frankly, shaming politicians, particularly those communities that have been affected by such tragedies.
They — the Newtown parents got involved. It's the closest we have seen to legislative remedies. And I would expect that that's probably going to be the best way for politicians to understand the emotional power of some — such legislative remedies.
And I heard a mother in Florida today looking at a camera and saying to Washington, you have got to stop these guns from getting into the hands of these children.
Well, thank you, all four of you, Robert Draper, Daniel Webster, Katherine Newman, and Kristina Anderson. Thank you.
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