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America's great divide | The World Weekly

A girl who loved to dance. A boy who spent his life writing poetry. A teacher committed to helping every student. These were some of the fourteen students and three teachers killed in a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on February 14, 2018. Their hopes, dreams, and future possibilities were extinguished forever in a blaze of gunfire.

The devastation in Parkland was committed with a semi-automatic AR-15 rifle, the weapon responsible for five of the six deadliest mass shootings in the USA in the last six years. The shooter, a 19-year-old male, had purchased 10 rifles in the past year.

He had also been expelled from Stoneman Douglas in 2017, and local authorities had been responding to reports of his growingly erratic behaviour for years. The FBI received a tip on January 5 about his reported “desire to kill people, erratic behaviour and disturbing social media posts.” It was not followed up, prompting FBI Director Christopher Wray to apologise, promising a full investigation. 

For survivors, waves of inconsolable heartbreak has pervaded their daily lives. Normal life at high school was put on hold, as students and teachers were laid to rest. “Facing your own mortality as an adult is hard enough. I can't imagine what it is like for a teenager,” Ken Cutler, whose wife teaches at the school, told the Washington Post.

Amidst their grief, the students have been prolific voices for change. “Don’t let any more children suffer like we have. Don’t continue this cycle,” Christine Yared, a 15-year-old student who survived the shooting, wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times. “Next time it could be your family, your friends, your neighbours. Next time, it could be you.”

New student-led groups have emerged to demand greater gun control. Students from Stoneman Douglas are spearheading the ‘#Neveragain’ movement, pressuring politicians to provide tangible action on gun violence. Their planned ‘March for our Lives’ demonstration in Washington DC on March 24 has inspired countless others across the country. 

“My message for people in office is you’re either with us or against us. We are losing our lives while the adults are playing around,” Cameron Kasky, a student who survived the shooting, told CNN’s ‘State of the Union’ programme.

A student writes on a memorial left on a fence surrounding Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 21, 2018.

Persistent tragedy

The right to bear arms has a long history in America, enshrined under the Second Amendment of the US constitution. The estimated 265 million civilian guns in the US today are increasingly bought as “everyday tools of self-defence,” David Yamane, professor of sociology at Wake University, told The World Weekly.  

Yet the presence of guns is tinged with tragedy. Whilst FBI data has highlighted a decline in overall violent crime in America (falling 48% between 1993 and 2016), gun violence remains prolific. Everytown for Gun Safety, a non-partisan non-profit organisation dedicated to reducing gun violence, analysed gun violence between 2012 and 2016. It found that an average of 35,141 people were killed by guns each year. Put another way, 96 people on average were killed by guns every day.

In 2017, 285 American children unintentionally killed, or injured, themselves or someone else when they gained access to a gun, according to Everytown monitoring of public reports.

Indeed, the Parkland shooting was one part of the wider picture of American violence. Suicides account for around 60% of deaths tied to guns each year, forming part of the rising numbers of “deaths of despair” in 21st century America – identified by a recent study in the British Medical Journal. 

Race is a stark differential amongst victims of gun violence. Black Americans (despite making up only 13% of the population) are eight times as likely as their white counterparts to be victims of homicides.

Gun violence reaches into the home. In an Everytown report on mass shootings between 2009 and 2016 (defined as four or more victims killed not including the shooter), 54% of the 156 identified mass shootings were related to domestic or family violence. A gun in an environment of domestic violence leaves many women feeling more threatened, and five times more likely to be shot and killed.

Breaking the deadlock

Defining the solutions to gun violence divides America. After last week’s shooting, guns rights' supporters focused on the mental health of the shooter, stressing that guns were not the issue. “So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed… Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again,” US President Donald Trump tweeted after the shooting.

Some observers questioned Mr. Trump’s commitment to protecting schools. His 2019 budget proposal includes sweeping federal education cuts such as cutting $25 million to funds used for school safety measures like counselling and conflict resolution.

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a non-profit group committed to reducing gun violence, argued that the solution was gun control. Its demands were echoed by many like-minded groups: banning assault rifles like the weapon used in Parkland (an AR-15 can be legally bought in Florida aged 18), instituting legal mechanisms to allow people to petition a judge to temporarily confiscate guns from those exhibiting violent ‘red flags’ (just five states have such laws), and ensure background checks on all gun sales.

States with strict gun control have, according to research from the Giffords Law Centre for Gun Violence Protection, the lowest death rates from guns in the country. Massachusetts is one of them, recently having invested heavily in community intervention programmes to tackle high violence in urban areas, particularly amongst its communities of colour. 

The National Rifle Association is a prolific presence in the gun control debate. A recent freedom of information request from the Brady Campaign revealed that the NRA “heavily influenced” the writing of a Trump administration white paper in early 2017 on curtailing federal regulations for gun usage. “Their considerable influence in Washington is really a reflection of their sizeable membership of voting gun owners,” Sarah Bryner, research director at the Centre for Responsive Politics (CRP), told TWW.

This influence is backed up by prolific political spending. In the 2016 election cycle, according to CRP data, the NRA spent $54.6 million on pro-gun rights, largely Republican, candidates during the 2016 election cycle. In the aftermath of the Parkland shooting they have rejected calls for more gun control, and instead support more armed security in schools.

“Evil walks among us, and God help us if we don’t harden our schools and protect our kids,” NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre told the Conservative Political Action Conference.

The student protests that have flared up in Florida and in Washington DC this week drew relentless attention to the NRA, chanting “shame” outside the office of Florida’s Republican Governor Rick Scott, and promising to vote out politicians funded by the NRA.

Activists and students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School attend a rally at the Florida State Capitol building to address gun control on February 21, 2018 in Tallahassee, Florida.

Demands for sweeping political change on guns face an uncertain reality. The Florida legislature, with survivors of the Parkland shooting watching from the balcony, voted against even debating a ban on assault weapons.

President Trump showed some flexibility on the issue, backing a total federal ban on ‘bump stocks’ (which give semiautomatic weapons nearly the firing rate of an automatic weapon) and higher age limits on gun purchases. The NRA, which oppose both ideas, called them “troubling.”  

He also supported ‘concealed-carry’ gun licenses for trained teachers as a “deterrent” against a shooter. It is a popular idea in conservative circles, but generally divisive. One Parkland shooting survivor likened the idea in an interview “to putting a Band-Aid on a stab-wound, they don’t ultimately fix things.”

Finding agreement on gun use in America can seem impossible. “These are questions about American identity that go beyond guns,” argues Professor Yamane, “dividing the nation on what should be allowed and disallowed, who and what should be regulated.”

This division is only exacerbated in the frenzied platform of social media. Russian bots spread misinformation about the shooting. But certain right-wing American sources were a significant part of the spreading of falsehoods. Conspiracies ranged from claims that the children speaking out after the Parkland shooting were “pawns” of the Democrats, to even more outlandish claims that they were paid “crisis actors.” “If you had seen me in our school's production of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, you would know that nobody would pay me to act, for anything,” Cameron Kasky told CNN when asked about the claims. 

But public opinion is not set in stone. A Quinnipiac University poll conducted after the Parkland shooting found that 53% gun owners supported banning assault weapons and 97% supported universal background checks. Overall, 67% of surveyed Americans supported stricter gun laws – the highest public support for gun control ever recorded by the university.

Guns remain ubiquitous across America. Several towns faced national scrutiny over raffles – organised before the shooting – held in the last week. One of the prizes? An AR-15.

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