The National Rifle Association called it “the most significant piece of pro-gun legislation in 20 years”. Signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2005, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act stops victims of gun violence from suing gun manufacturers for the misuse of “firearms that operate as designed and intended.” That same year, 10 people were killed, including the gunman in Red Lake, Minnesota. The gunman had killed his grandparents before he arrived at his high school. That shooting was the worst school shooting since the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, which claimed 15.
The previous year, Congress allowed the so-called “assault weapons ban,” a temporary provision of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act active from 1994 to 2004, to expire. In 2004, there were two reported school shootings, in New York and Maryland , the lowest number recorded following that 10-year period when assault weapons were banned. The number of school shootings that occur every year since then has only ever been greater compared with the year the ban expired. As more communities experience this specific devastation, scrutiny has grown over how officials respond year after year, which is often with “thoughts and prayers” and rarely with action.
In 1998, President Bill Clinton noted in a statement that the Westside Middle School shooting in Arkansas, where five victims died, was the third incident in the past few months: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their families and the entire Jonesboro community.” He repeated that response after Columbine: “To the families who have lost their loved ones, to the parents who have lost their beloved children, to the wounded children and their families, to the people of the community of Littleton, I can only say tonight that the prayers of the American people are with you.” Most recently, the official response to the shooting at Sante Fe High School in Sante Fe, Texas, on Friday was immediate and, predictably, full of “prayer.” The president and vice president offered “support and love” and “prayers of the American people.” Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) offered “fervent prayers” and promised to “bring justice.” At a press conference, Texas Governor Greg Abbott offered prayers to the families suffering and promised to “respond to this challenge.” This sentiment has cascaded as an echo during the past two decades to become the only consistent response to expect from officials following a school shooting.
Yet condolences from politicians (and particularly those with A grades from the NRA) don’t cut it anymore — and they haven’t for a long time. More and more, victims of gun violence are demanding action over supportive words.
Three of the most common ways officials have responded to school shootings with action include:
1. Increase security in schools.
The shooting incident at Columbine is credited with leading schools nationwide to increase security through the use of student ID’s, metal detectors, and backpack bans, and similar steps were taken in 2018 after the shooting in Parkland. Most recently, Congress passed a spending bill that reserves more than $75 million in 2018 and authorizes an additional $100 million each year for the next 10 years to improve school-safety measures, such as adding metal detectors and school security/safety training, according to USA Today. In Florida following the Parkland shooting, a $400 million school-safety bill was passed, with $97 million dedicated to hiring school resource officers, $98 million to securing school buildings, and $25 million to rebuilding the Stoneman Douglas High freshman building that was destroyed.
2. Raise the age limit to purchase guns.
Today, states are becoming more open to raising the age limit to purchase guns, most recently in states like Florida and Vermont. Following the Columbine shooting, it was reported that NRA donations to Colorado legislators may have contributed to the defeat of many proposed gun control laws in 2000, including one that would have raised the minimum age to purchase a handgun to 21.
3. Expand laws that limit gun sales.
In Florida, the same bill that raised the age limit also now requires a three-day waiting period to purchase firearms. In Oregon, laws were passed further restricting access to firearms for convicted stalkers, and in New York, similar action was taken to stop perpetrators of domestic violence from buying guns. In Vermont, broad action was taken so that all gun sales in Vermont must be conducted through a licensed dealer. Today, we’re seeing progress like this mostly concentrated in states. Newsweek noted that in 2017 there were no federal gun laws passed following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Following Parkland, of all the action the federal government took, like improving school safety, there were no steps taken toward gun control.
Gun control activists have not been satisfied with the actions taken by elected officials; in response, they have attempted to find their own solutions, too. Progress was made with background checks just before Clinton’s assault weapons ban when the group now known as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence pushed to get their “Brady Law” passed in 1993, which established the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System. After Sandy Hook, an organization now known as Giffords, established by Gabby Giffords and her husband to fight gun violence, reports that it has since helped to pass 200 gun-law reforms. In 2018, Parkland students clearly outlined their ideas in their manifesto, and top priorities point to more legislation that limits access to guns and improved databases (both for gun sales and background checks).
The Parkland students are following a legacy of student-led protests, In 1999, CNN reported that hundreds of students from Columbine protested an NRA convention in Denver that year. At the time, the head of the Colorado Coalition Against Gun Violence, Ted Pascoe, said, “Our message to the NRA is simple: Your agenda of gun proliferation in our state is not welcome. Not now, not ever.” At the same time, national movements focused on ending gun violence, including Black Lives Matter, March for Our Lives, and Sandy Hook Promise, have helped raise awareness for these causes.
Despite pushback, of all the demands made over the past two decades since Columbine, these are the steps that historically officials seem least likely to take, based on past and recent action taken:
1. Ban semi-automatic weapons.
Since Clinton’s assault weapons ban in 1994, there has been no federal legislation banning military-style weapons. While the federal government is currently considering banning bump stocks (which allow a rifle to rapidly fire many bullets) and bump stocks were recently banned in Florida, Vermont, and Washington, only seven states and D.C. have successfully managed to ban assault weapons.
2. Establish a centralized database of gun sales.
The Firearms Owner Protection Act of 1986 was passed three years before five died at Cleveland Elementary School in California. It’s a law that prohibits creating a national registry of firearms, firearm owners, or firearm transactions. In all states, licensed gun dealers must maintain records of both guns they purchase and guns they sell, but currently, there is no centralized database of gun sales for law enforcement to use as a tool to identify weapons used in crimes. The Los Angeles Times called the process used by the Justice Department to trace weapons used in a terror attack in 2016 outdated, noting it was like something from the 1970s.
3. Require universal background checks on all gun purchases.
Although all licensed gun dealers are required to run background checks before a sale can occur, The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence seeks legislation that requires universal background checks to prevent illegal firearm sales to convicted criminals. This type of legislation would close a loophole that exists in many states that allows private dealers to sell weapons without conducting a background check. After Columbine and Parkland, both Colorado and Florida refused to consider closing these “gun-show loopholes.”
The Washington Post recently estimated that, since 1999, more than 187,000 students have dealt with gun violence at school, a number that was made more chilling by the profoundly sad statement from a survivor of the Santa Fe High School shooting, who said, “It’s been happening everywhere. I’ve always kind of felt that eventually it was going to happen here, too.” It shows how far we’ve come since then-14-year-old Columbine survivor Katie Corona told The New York Times, “We had no clue what was going on.” Now generations of school-shooting survivors have banded together, echoing the ones who protested the events at Columbine in 1999 and join activists who have pushed for gun control for even longer. All of them have the same message for lawmakers: This should have never happened to us.