It’s often said that we’re in the midst of a vast Culture War. Every possible subject – from feminism and veganism to Trump, the alt-right and the limits of free speech – is fiercely and relentlessly debated across newspaper articles, online forums, YouTube videos and social media. The latter, particularly, has weaponized discourse, with opinions shot this way and that. But it’s the real-life shots ringing out in America that have aroused the most fury in recent months.
Everyone has an opinion on what should be done about mass shootings – it’s a subject that’s been debated again and again for decades, as the epidemic of massacres in the United States carries on. After every incident, pundits declare that THIS is the turning point, THIS is when enough is enough, only for the momentum of protest to be stopped in its tracks.
But the killings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February this year do seem to have triggered a genuine political earthquake. This is arguably not because of the extent of the massacre itself. When Nikolas Cruz calmly took an Uber to his school, telling the driver he was “going to music class”, then entered the premised and slaughtered 17 people, he committed a crime no more grisly and horrifying than any number of prior horrors – whether you cast your mind back to the Virginia Tech massacre of 2007, in which a student gunned down 32 people, or right back to 1999’s Columbine massacre, which is arguably the most emblematic of mass shootings.
What sets the Stoneman Douglas assault apart is its timing. It’s come in the wake of the mass uprising of the #metoo movement, as well as Black Lives Matter. It is a brave new era of unapologetic progressivism and revolutionary possibilities. And, in direct response to Stoneman Douglas, the world has since seen the March For Our Lives demonstrations, calling for a fundamental shift in America’s relationship with guns.
But the other side – the NRA, Republicans, libertarians – have been quick to respond, claiming gun control is not the solution. Indeed, guns have been offered as the answer to gun violence. Trump himself suggested teachers may be better off armed. This point of view accepts that firearms are infinitely entangled in the American way of life, so the only practical solution is to literally fight fire with fire.
It’s a thorny issue, and it may be instructive to consider the relative lack of mass shootings in modern British history. The most notorious was the Dunblane massacre of 1996, in which a lone lunatic entered a Scottish school and murdered 16 children and a teacher before committing suicide. It was described by one MP as a “slaughter of the innocents” and led to the effective banning of handguns in Britain – a country that never had much of a gun culture to start with.
Would more massacres like Dunblane have had happened since then without the ban? Impossible to say. The one major outrage to take place since Dunblane was the Cumbria murder spree by taxi driver Derrick Bird in 2010, which he carried out with a legally-owned shotgun and rifle. But, while such weapons are still in use in the UK, such massacres are thankfully very few and far between, especially when compared to the onslaught across the Atlantic. Some may argue this suggests it’s a question of culture rather than the availability of weapons themselves. It could also be argued the spate of shootings in the US is due to a doomed domino effect, or a kind of grisly baton-passing, with each new shooter taking dark inspiration from the previous one to hit the headlines.
So what can really, actually be done about it? Banning guns outright is the most radical answer, but unfeasible in the face of the Second Amendment. Instead, there are possible half-measures, like raising the minimum age required for ownership, or carrying out more extensive mental health checks. It’s now known Nikolas Cruz had been on the authorities’ radar because of his often vicious, antagonistic behaviour, and had even been transferred to a special school for children with emotional problems. In November last year, someone had even called the police to report him as a “school shooter in the making”. He’d also emblazoned his racist, homophobic, generally violent views across social media in the lead-up to the massacre.
This has led some pundits to suggest Cruz had lashed out after being bullied, sidelined and ignored by his peers, and that school shooters might be stopped in their tracks if properly befriended. One Stoneman Douglas survivor, Isabelle Robinson, utterly rejects this view. “The idea that we are to blame, even implicitly, for the murders of our friends and teachers is a slap in the face to all Stoneman Douglas victims and survivors," she has said. “No amount of kindness or compassion alone would have changed the person that Nikolas Cruz is and was, or the horrendous actions he perpetrated.”
It can be impossible to fathom or predict the various triggers for these events. Cruz was emotionally turbulent for years. Derrick Bird, the Cumbria killer, seemed to have snapped after financial pressures, and even confessed his “paranoia” to a friend the night before he went berserk. In 1991, a man called George Jo Hennard seemed to have been driven to mass murder by sheer misogyny, rampaging through a Texas cafeteria while loudly declaring women to be “vipers”. The Virginia Tech shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, railed against his fellow students for being “sadistic snobs”, and saw their pampered, flashy lifestyles as grounds for execution.
Meanwhile, some killers have themselves been confused by their own actions. Charles Whitman, the infamous Texas Tower Sniper of 1966, even left a suicide note saying he could not “rationally pinpoint any specific reason for doing this”, and asked that his brain be analysed after his death to see if there was a physiological reason for the massacre he was about to commit.
Ultimately, there are as many potential “reasons” for mass shootings as there are potential mass shooters out there, which is so many believe it’s the guns themselves that should be removed from the hands of those we simply can’t see coming. Whether such a cultural shift is even possible in the lifetimes of the Stoneman Douglas survivors remains to be seen.