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Geoff Johnson: Is it a U.S. gun problem, or a cultural one?

A commentary by a former superintendent of schools. Last week, in the latest U.S. mass shooting at a local St. Louis high school’s football jamboree, eight-year-old Jurnee Thompson was shot and killed.
Members of the Rutter family of Sandy Hook, Conn., embrace early Christmas morning as they stand near memorials by the Sandy Hook firehouse in Newtown, Conn.,Tuesday, Dec. 25, 2012.

A commentary by a former superintendent of schools.

Last week, in the latest U.S. mass shooting at a local St. Louis high school’s football jamboree, eight-year-old Jurnee Thompson was shot and killed. The child was described in the media as “an innocent bystander” and in a public statement the local police chief said “she had done nothing wrong.”

The almost acquiescent, world-weary “just another school shooting” thinking behind both of those extraordinarily insensitive statements is chilling. They reveal an increasingly anesthetized state of mind about the death by gun of an eight-year-old “innocent” child.

In other words, there’s nothing unusual about any of this anymore. Childhood innocence, at least in the United States, has been lost.

Coming to terms with “innocence lost,” some U.S. parents now equip kids with bulletproof backpacks to wear to school, readily available and advertised everywhere.

Architects involved with U.S. school design now include considerations of when, not if, an active shooter will be on a school campus.

It’s important for teachers and students to have an impenetrable refuge when, not if, the school shooting is in progress, said Jim Childress, principal at Connecticut-based architectural firm Centerbrook Architects.

The deadliest school shooting to date was the December 2012 Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, in which a gunman killed 27 people (mostly children) at an elementary school with a semi-automatic rifle.

The killer was 20-year-old Adam Lanza, who used his mother’s legally obtained Bushmaster semiautomatic XM-15.

The Stoneman Douglas High School shooting of Feb. 18, 2018, resulted in the murders of 17 students and teachers.

This time the killer was Nikolas Cruz, a 19-year-old recently expelled student. He used a legally purchased Smith & Wesson M&P semiautomatic rifle.

Between the Sandy Hook murders in 2012 and the Stoneman Douglas High School attack in 2018, there were 49 other elementary or high school shootings where the shooter was a student, the youngest being 12 years old and the oldest 18, according to Wikipedia.

Most of the weapons wielded by the students were carelessly stored handguns or shotguns brought from home.

The number of firearms available to American civilians is estimated at more than 393 million, according to a 2018 Switzerland-based Small Arms Survey (SAS) report.

Compared with most other countries, the United States has the highest ownership and least restrictive gun ownership laws in the world, with 120 guns per 100 people, according to Axios. The U.S. also has highest per capita rate of firearms-related murders of all developed countries, according to the Washington Post.

In Canada, during the 2012-2018 period, there was only one student-involved K-12 school shooting. In 2016, a 17-year-old male suspect, who had used a shotgun brought from home, was apprehended and placed into custody.

In Canada, gun ownership sits at 34.7 per 100 persons but, according to a Canadian Press article by Joan Bryden, gun control in Canada could wind up being a defining issue in the federal election, with spokespeople for the Liberal Party zeroing in on Andrew Scheer’s not-quite-forgotten leadership campaign platform, which was deleted from his website but had included pledges to “increase gun magazine capacity and cut red tape for gun purchases.”

In 2012, Maxime Bernier, a Quebec MP at the time, said MPs and gun-rights advocates celebrated together on Parliament Hill after the vote, against the advice of police chiefs, which ended the long-gun registry in this country.

Predictably, political leaders in the U.S. are anxious to avoid the political consequences of applying the same kind of restrictions that have successfully reduced gun killings in other countries on the deeply embedded U.S. gun culture.

U.S. leaders opted instead to identify video games as the cause of student gun violence.

In Japan, about 60 per cent of the population play video games, but gun killings are rare in a country that bans possessing, carrying, selling, or buying handguns or rifles. There were only six gun deaths in Japan in 2014, compared with more than 33,000 in the United States, according to

Adam Lankford, a criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama, suggests that there is a link between school shootings and the American preoccupation with fame.

“There is a ‘fame at any cost’ mentality,” says Lankford, referring to the many mass killers who explicitly cite fame as their motivation.

“We know that a lot of public mass shooters, particularly when they’re young, have admitted that they really want to be famous, and that killing is how they’re going to do it,” Lankford said.

As U.S. gun rights activist Bob Barr said: “It’s not a gun-control problem; it’s a cultural-control problem.”