Content warning: Mentions of gun violence.
The first school shooting I heard about was Sandy Hook. In December 2012, a gunman opened fire on the Connecticut elementary school, leaving 27 people dead. Several years later, another gunman murdered 17 more students and teachers atMarjory Stoneman Douglas High School. In 2021, yet another school shooting only an hour from my hometown resulted in four fatalities at Oxford High School.
But only after receiving a text message from my girlfriend at Michigan State University explaining the unfolding violence on campus did I really begin to grasp the scope of America’s gun violence problem.
Mass shootings have become far too common in the United States. Every time one happens, people are shocked, angry and disgusted. Protests erupt at state capitols and pieces are written in school papers. And as we grieve, we can’t help but feel duped by our politicians. A recent op-ed for The Michigan Daily captures this sentiment well: “We suffer much bloodshed, completely surprised and untrained, all the while knowing that a couple cursive lines on an official piece of paper are all it takes to protect us.”
The author’s rage is understandable and universal. It’s the same rage I and so many others share. But contrary to the op-ed’s claim, “a couple cursive lines” would not have saved lives at MSU. The gunman did not obtain his weapon through any legal loophole or because of a flimsy legislative code. He never should have had it in the first place. After carrying a concealed gun without a permit in 2019 — a felony — prosecutors allowed him to plea the charges down to a misdemeanor to avoid a trial. This left the door open for his future, legal purchase of firearms.
He bought two pistols in 2021.
If our existing laws had been rightfully enforced, the shooting at MSU may never have happened. Those that commit gun crimes need to be punished, or the violence will continue. While the vast majority of Democrats and those that lean Democratic nationwide favor stronger gun control measures, liberal district attorneys across the country have become dangerously soft on prosecuting violators. Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg, exemplifying this trend, campaigned and won in 2021 on the promise to, as described by The New York Times, “avoid prosecuting people for gun possession unless they were actually involved in violent crime.”
A nation that hopes to maintain law and order cannot make exceptions for anyone. Rules only have meaning if we enforce them, and right now, we’re not. In Cook County Ill., which includes the city of Chicago, only about 35% of those convicted for illegal firearm possession actually went to prison, according to 2019 data from Loyola University. New legislation alone will not prevent gun violence — properly sentencing criminals will. This soft-on-crime approach has been a disaster for Chicago, with homicides peaking at 802 in 2021 at their highest level in over 20 years.
Cases like New York and Chicago represent the general degradation of statute into mere suggestion. But killers don’t respond to suggestions. Fears of over-incarceration are certainly well-founded for some offenses, but when lives are on the line, we need prosecutors to toughen up. A harder stance on their end will make progress easier to achieve.
The National Rifle Association’s go-to talking point is that “criminals, by definition, do not obey the law. Gun control laws only affect law-abiding people who go through legal avenues to obtain firearms.” They have a valid concern, and until criminals are meaningfully penalized for disobeying the law, it will remain valid.
It’s understandable why many Republicans still don’t support requiring a permit for concealed carry when the MSU gunman and others can choose not to get one without suffering the consequences. But if conservatives see America’s “bad guys with guns” being held to the same standard as “good guys with guns,” their whataboutism will lose legitimacy. Stricter gun control is necessary, but we need buy-in from everyone if we want to achieve it.
Universal background checks, stronger red flag laws and thorough mental health screenings are all important steps toward ending mass shootings. But they do not represent the finish line. The Sandy Hook shooter stole his guns from his mother, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter had no criminal record to prevent him from legally purchasing one and the Oxford High School shooter received his gun from his father. These circumstances require a different solution.
We can stop mass shootings before they happen if we follow the warning signs closely enough and respond quickly. All three of these gunmen indicated their destructive intentions well before the final incident occurred. The Sandy Hook shooter told another person what he planned to carry out at the school four years before actually going through with his killing spree. The man was concerned enough to contact the police — who did nothing.
The Stoneman Douglas gunman had a history of violence that resulted in multiple 911 calls by relatives. Over a month before the Stoneman Douglas shooting, his behavior had become so deranged that the FBI was contacted by someone concerned that he might attack the school. The FBI did nothing.
The Oxford gunman had scrawled pictures of guns and dead bodies onto a class assignment, along with a series of disturbing messages. A teacher caught him and sent him to the office. Without even searching his bag (which may have contained his gun), administrators sent him back to class.
If law enforcement and school staff had taken seriously what they were seeing and hearing — that the people in question were a clear threat to their peers — they could have saved lives. Whether that means temporarily institutionalizing potential shooters or confiscating the guns from their homes until a review of their case and mental health can be carried out, swift and resolute action is justified.
None of these tragedies were unforeseeable, which means they were preventable. Time and again, we are told “if you see something, say something.” In all three of these cases, somebody said something. But if we’re to avoid more shootings, we need people in power that actually do something.
Jack Brady is an Opinion Columnist writing about American politics and culture. He can be reached at email@example.com.