As President Obama announced tough new proposals for gun control (like an assault weapons ban and mandatory background checks) in response to last month’s massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., it’s worth remembering another school shooting and the lessons that it has to offer Americans on gun violence.
On Jan. 11 in Columbia, S.C., a boy armed with a gun killed one of his schoolmates and severely wounded several others. Presumably firing upon them in retaliation for bullying, he expressed no regret for his deed.
It’s a disturbing story of the sort that raises questions about the direction the world is heading in – the kind of story that makes us long for simpler times.
The year, however, was 1890.
Many gun advocates, of course, would like us to believe that school shootings are a recent phenomenon. After all, if the problem is new and guns are old, then the problem can’t be the guns. The root cause, instead, must be an eroding set of values, or inadequate diagnosis of mental health disorders, or a culture of violence at which video games are the rotten core.
Yet the truth is that children have been dying from gun violence in schools for generations.
The first school shooting, in fact, is older than America. It took place in 1764 when four Lenape warriors shot a Pennsylvania teacher in front of his students. Since then, motives have varied, but the effect has always been similarly grim. In 1853, a student in Kentucky shot and killed a teacher for punishing his brother. In 1891, a 70-year-old man fired a shotgun at students at a school playground in Newburgh, N.Y. In 1946 a 15-year-old student was shot in the basement of his Brooklyn school by "seven thugs."
School shootings, in short, are not a new phenomenon, and have occurred with relative frequency since before the Civil War.
The problem, certainly, has gotten worse with the rise of semiautomatic weapons. A scan of newspaper headlines reveals that prior to their proliferation, multiple fatalities in school shootings were a rarity. In 1917, for instance, a young man shot and killed a high school student. But according to The New York Times reporter covering the story, he had no opportunity to reload his weapon and had to use “some pieces of old iron” to fight through the crowd and make his escape.
And the problem has also become more visible. Whereas once a distant shooting garnered little attention in crowded local newspapers, TV cable news teams are now on the ground within hours to play out every possible angle of a story.
But even as more attention has been drawn to such incidents, many continue to believe that firearms are not the problem. Why? Because Americans live in a nation with a celebrated gun myth – a largely invented history of heroism, rather than murder, that is steadily renewed by groups like the National Rifle Association.
In school or out, however, scholars have shown: Guns make violence more deadly. According to the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, there is substantial evidence that more guns means more murders. And economist Richard Florida has presented compelling evidence that states with tighter gun-control laws have fewer gun-related deaths. Yet public opinion has largely slid in the wrong direction. According to Gallup, 78 percent of Americans polled in 1990 favored stricter gun laws – a figure that declined to 62 percent in 2000 and 44 percent in 2010, though it rose back up to 58 percent in late December, following the Sandy Hook shooting.
Not surprisingly, then, Americans have continually failed to place consistent and substantial limits on firearms and most egregiously on semiautomatic assault weapons. In fact, some propose adding more guns to the mix. In Utah, teachers have been undergoing concealed weapons training sponsored by the Utah Shooting Sports Council. The NRA wants guards with guns at every school in the country. And former Secretary of Education William Bennett recently opined that it might be a good idea to have “one person in a school armed, ready for this kind of thing.”
What the public needs to understand is that school shootings are tragically not a new problem caused solely by recent social or cultural shifts. This is an old problem, and the historical record is littered with stories of firearms ending lives in classrooms. But as those guns have gotten bigger, faster, and more accurate over the years, their death toll has become greater. And still many Americans ache for a past in which guns protected liberty and did no harm. But that past is imagined.
Many of Mr. Obama’s proposals will meet with hard resistance in Washington, backed by a powerful NRA lobby. But leaders in Congress with the moral courage to take on the gun issue must act now, in the wake of a shooting that has stirred Americans into a state of outrage. Because if they wait, their window of opportunity will close. Americans will return to our more ordinary concerns and gradually forget Sandy Hook, just as we have forgotten so many of its antecedents.
Who, after all, keeps alive the memory of the 1989 shooting in Stockton, Calif. in which a gunman sprayed elementary school children with a legally purchased assault rifle? Not the NRA. Not the gun lobby. Not an under-informed public or those with a nostalgic view of the past. Only the wounded who lived to see adulthood. And the families of the dead, who didn’t.
Jack Schneider is assistant professor of education at The College of the Holy Cross and author of “Excellence For All: How a New Breed of Reformers Is Transforming America's Public Schools.”