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Sandy Hook: Political paralysis on gun laws despite public support

People in Newtown, Connecticut, attend a vigil remembering the 58 people killed in a shooting in Las Vegas on October 4, 2017.
People in Newtown, Connecticut, attend a vigil remembering the 58 people killed in a shooting in Las Vegas on October 4, 2017. Spencer Platt / Getty Images / AFP |

Five years after 26 children and staff were shot and killed at their Connecticut school, the US Congress has defeated every attempt to strengthen gun control. And yet mass shootings have become increasingly deadly.


"We can't tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change," then president Barack Obama told a vigil in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 16, 2012.

Two days earlier, Newtown – a hitherto unremarkable town of around 27,000 people – had been catapulted into the national consciousness when 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot his way through the glass doors of the local Sandy Hook elementary school before going room to room in a killing spree that would claim the lives of 20 children and six members of staff.

It was the deadliest school shooting the country had ever witnessed and the fact that the victims were 6- and 7-year-olds made the killings even more shocking and difficult to comprehend. But five years on, it seems that little progress has been made on making sure that such tragedies are a thing of the past.

Highest number of firearms in the world

Although the national soul-searching and grieving that comes in the aftermath of a mass shooting had already become familiar – the Columbine school massacre 13 years earlier being a notable precedent – there was a feeling in the wake of Sandy Hook that a watershed moment had arrived.

As Obama gave his emotional speech in front of grieving parents and the world's media in Newtown, some hoped that this would finally be the moment the US addressed its problem with gun crime.

"On a federal level, very little has been done at all and that is the really sad thing about all this," says Dr James Densley, an associate professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University and the co-author of "Gun Violence in America", an in-depth report on gun crime published earlier this year.

There have been efforts to address the issue that many experts believe is at the heart of US gun violence – the staggering number of firearms circulating in the country. The UN estimates there are 88 guns for every 100 people in the United States, more than any other country in the world. The next-highest is war-torn Yemen, with around 55 guns per 100 people.

Obama did attempt to introduce a series of laws designed to restrict access to guns in the wake of Sandy Hook. These included efforts to ban assault weapons and armour-piercing bullets as well as to close a loophole that allows gun buyers to avoid background checks by purchasing a weapon from a private seller.

All these measures, however, were defeated in Congress.

More awareness, little progress

Most gun laws meet a similar political fate, despite the fact that stricter firearms laws are supported by the majority of Americans. A 2016 Gallup poll, for example, found that 55 percent of Americans favoured stricter gun laws compared to 33 percent who wanted to keep the laws the same and 11 percent inclined to relax gun laws.

The numbers are even more one-sided when it comes to specific measures. A 2015 CBS News and New York Times poll found that 92 percent of Americans supported universal background checks for all gun sales, including private purchases.

Nevertheless, turning the public will into actual laws has proved, time and again, an impossibility in Washington.

"The gun lobby – groups like the NRA (National Rifle Association) – are very powerful, particularly in the red states, i.e., those that typically vote Republican," Densley tells FRANCE 24.

"There's a very small percentage of powerful people that consistently derail these efforts."

Mass shootings increasingly deadly

Amid the political inaction, it is perhaps unsurprising that there has been little change when it comes to large-scale gun violence in the United States.

"The rate of mass shootings in the US is about 20 a year and it has been that way for about the past 30 years," says Dr Densley.

But there has been one startling difference in recent years: Mass shootings are becoming increasingly deadly.

"The five most deadly mass shootings have all occurred in the past ten years," Dr Densley said. "You have the Las Vegas shooting this year, in which 58 people were killed, the Orlando nightclub shooting the year before – 38 killed, Virginia Tech – 32 killed, and then Sandy Hook."

A number of theories have been put forward to explain these steadily increasing death tolls – the use of the type of "bump stock" device seen in the Las Vegas massacre, for example.

"There also may be a contagion effect," says Dr Densley. "When there's one mass shooting, you get copycat shootings. The perpetrators have this perverse incentive to try to outdo the last mass shooting and obtain the sense of celebrity and notoriety that comes with it."

An 'evolving threat'

Along with other tragedies like Columbine, Sandy Hook has had an effect on the education system. How to prevent shootings and what to do if one takes place is now as much a part of forward planning for many schools as hiring substitute teachers and mapping out the year's budget.

Dr Amy Klinger is the co-founder of the Educator's School Safety Network, a national non-profit organisation that provides schools with training and advice on how to prevent and deal with safety threats, including shootings. This can include, for example, training staff on how to carry out a rapid evacuation or how to barricade themselves and students in a room to avoid an active shooter.

Klinger says there was a general increase in interest among schools about gun crime prevention in the wake of Sandy Hook, although these good intentions can sometimes be misdirected.

"After Sandy Hook we saw, for example, a dramatic increase in demand for buzzer systems – where anyone wanting to enter the premises has to buzz to be let in," she tells FRANCE 24. "But this was the same system they had at Sandy Hook and it took the shooter about 30 seconds to get in anyway."

While such physical security systems have their place, they are useless if staff are not given the necessary training to "screen people before they enter, or what to do if someone breaches the system", says Klinger. "Without that, you're not any safer."

Added to this problem is what Dr Klinger sees as the ever-changing nature of the threat to school safety, with authorities making plans that may have stopped the last attack but might not prevent the next one.

"Schools are better equipped now to deal with a 'traditional'-style attack – like at Sandy Hook – but my concern is that the threat is always evolving and they might not be ready for that. It could be a bomb attack or a large-scale attack at a school football game," she says.

"We need to evolve as the threat evolves."

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