Mass Shootings in America: Politics in the Spotlight

Connecticut State Police/Getty Images

Connecticut State Police/Getty Images

A school shooting in Roswell, New Mexico in January resulted in the injury of two students there. On Wednesday this week in Kissimmee, Florida, a man and woman were hurt in a mall shooting. These are only a few examples of small scale active shooter incidents in America.

Shootings in Santa Barbara, California and at Sandy Hook Elementary School are more widely known, but many other tragic and violent cases have taken place this past year. The Federal Bureau of Investigation defines an active shooter incident as one in which there is “an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.”

These types of events have been increasing, according to the FBI study of 2000 up through 2013 released on Wednesday. The report shows a 6.4 incident yearly average for the first seven years increasing to a 16.4 percent annual average for the second seven-year period considered. As the graph below illustrates, there has been an obvious increase since 200, and despite a short drop in 2011 since the spike of 26 active shooter incidents in 2010, the numbers still remain higher than previous years up until last year.

The purpose of the study as it is described by the FBI is rather bleak when looked at critically. “Because so many of these incidents unfold so rapidly” the agent in charge, Katherine Schweit, said that the study “demonstrates the need not only for enhanced preparation on the part of law enforcement and other first responders, but also for civilians to be engaged in discussions and training on decisions they’d have to make in an active shooter situation.”

This is grim for a couple of reasons. Primarily, it’s grim because it suggests that incidents of this nature are becoming common enough that, just as we prepare children for what to do in the events of a school shooting these days, we must prepare civilians in general for random shootings anywhere, at any time. That’s hardly good for a public’s sense of security and safety. It’s also an unfortunate necessity because it rekindles old, unoriginal, and ineffective arguments.

Looking at injury and death numbers like the ones shown on the table above, and keeping in mind that sense of danger highlighted by Schweit’s statement, there’s an obvious place for this discussion to go. The gun control debate and second amendment rights counterargument is one that has been waging for years, reinvigorated with each successive school shooting and passage of legislation like Georgia’s Safe Carry Protection Act, known as “Guns Everywhere” by critics.

The gun control debate is treading water out at this point, especially given the political environment in Washington at present leading up to the midterms, and the possibility that Congress will have a majority of Republicans in both Houses after the votes are all counted in fall. What’s more, the Sunlight Foundation looked at funding levels in gun control and gun rights lobbying after both the Columbine and Sandy Hook shootings. The Foundation’s graph, shown below, illustrates the reality gun rights expenditures saw considerably higher boosts following both, and it’s also worth noting the surge in gun rights legislation that often follows shootings.
There are four measures that can be taken in opposition to active shootings such as this country is increasingly seeing. One is legislative, i.e. the deeply worn gun debate. One is precautionary education; teaching the public what to do in the event of a shooting. There is merit and unfortunate necessity to this approach, but it’s hardly a solution to the core problem. A third deals with police preparation. Police can be educated and trained with the most extensive and up-to-date information. Law enforcement can be taught to prepare for future situations based on the experience taken from past tragedies.

There is potential drone application that could be developed for future situations to monitor events as they happen from above in order to better safeguard the lives of officers and civilians. However, drone use is greatly complicated by vital legal concerns and privacy protection necessities. The growth in active shooting data also brings up concerns that an increase in shootings could be used as justification for undue police force and/or weaponization — overarming police officers with equipment like the tanks seen so much in the media recently. This problem is a problem the United States has had to acknowledge this year as a result of police response in Ferguson.

The fourth and final measure is perhaps the most neglected and most vital: mental health awareness and affordable psychiatric treatment, services, and support. One thing many — though certainly not all — public shootings have in common is that the perpetrator is often found later to have been suffering from mental illness. Perhaps until the stars align and legislatures on the state and national level are prepared to pass laws regulating gun use in America in a way both sides of the aisle and issue can agree on, money currently being poured into ad campaigns on both sides would be better spent advancing the severely lacking and underfunded mental health services in the United States.

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