On May 18th, 17-year-old student Dimitrios Pagourtzis entered his high school around 7:30am in Santa Fe, Texas, headed to an art class and began to open fire. Ten people were killed and thirteen wounded. Amongst the victims were a beloved 63-year-old teacher and a 17-year-old Pakistani exchange student. To carry out the attack, Pagourtiz used both a shotgun and a 38-calibre revolver he stole from his father. The horror of the shooting unfolded for 25 minutes before Pagourtiz was arrested and taken into custody.
The Santa Fe High School shooting has been reported to be the 22nd school shooting taking place this year in the United States (U.S.). This worrying trend is aggravating the frustration across the country over gun regulation. Recent polls have estimated that roughly 70% of U.S. public opinion is now in favour of stricter gun laws. Why is Congress, therefore, not taking any actions? Is the power of the NRA and the gun lobbies this robust, countering the majority of US voters?
It is not unusual following a school shooting, to witness the tide of U.S. opinion to be leaning towards more restrictive gun laws but, as time goes by, the outrage tends to slowly fade away. However, there have been some indications that this could be changing. For example, the Parkland shooting that occurred earlier this year in Florida was seen by many as a watershed moment; a bottom-up movement emerged from students who were directly involved in the deadly attack. The Parkland students started a ‘Never Again’ campaign that ultimately led to the ‘March For Our Lives’ demonstrations in Washington D.C. and across America. The turnout for the protest was around 1.2 to 2 million people, making it one of the largest protests in American history.
Since the Florida shooting, there has been incremental, but positive shifts in policies. Florida’s governor Rick Scott was able to pass a bill that raised the age for buying a gun from 18 to 21 and a ‘red flag legislation’ to remove guns from individuals showing signs of violent behaviours. Nonetheless, in the U.S., there is still a habit of pro-gun advocates being more vocal and politically active than gun control advocates. Despite the progress being made, the Congress is still blocking many actions to materialize. Moreover, following a Republican tradition, President Donald Trump does not seem interested in expanding gun-control policies as exemplified in his controversial comments on arming teachers.
However, are school shootings solely a gun-related issue? The frequency of such events seem to suggest something deeper could be at stake here. In 2015, in a piece for The New Yorker, Canadian journalist Malcolm Gladwell made a powerful argument by referencing a sociological theory of riots. The idea behind this theory is simple: some people do not need encouragement to throw a rock at a window and start a riot. Others need to see a hundred people throwing rocks before considering joining the riot. Ultimately, anyone could join in, as riots are a contagious phenomenon. Gladwell applied this to school shootings to illustrate the complexity of the issue. Of course, guns play a massive role in the context, but is it enough to fully account for what seems a deeply rooted American epidemic? In the case of the Texas shooting, Dimitrios Pagourtzis was described as a quiet kid but also sometimes as someone funny and friendly. Could it be that American popular culture has turned an act, previously defined as extremely deviant, into something kids like Pagourtiz come to view not as unimaginable to carry out as they previously would have? This is the same question we must ask when discussing school shootings.