On 14 December 2012, a lone twenty year old gunman wearing combat gear stormed into Sandy Hook Elementary School at Newtown, Connecticut, United States and fatally shot twenty children and six staff members, in a rampage that shocked the entire world. The gunman, Adam Lanza, committed suicide by shooting himself dead. Lanza’s mother was also found dead in her house by police officers after the shooting. This school shooting is the second deadliest in the United States of America (USA) after the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting.[1] The Sandy Hook shooting ignited fierce debate in the USA about the issue of gun control, especially after the spate of deadly gun crimes in America which includes the theater shooting at Aurora, Colorado on 20 July 2012.

Shooting
It was reported that the shooter, Adam Lanza, shot his mother dead at their home, took her legally-owned guns, and drove to Sandy Hook Elementary School. At the school, he forced himself into the school and opened fire at the children and school staff members with an assault rifle. School staff scrambled to block the classroom doors and hid the students inside closets to protect them. As the first responders began to converge at the scene, Lanza shot himself dead with a handgun.

The police lead children away from Sandy Hook Elementary School. Source: BBC
The police lead children away from Sandy Hook Elementary School. Source: BBC


Shooter
The motive of the shooter remained unclear, as Lanza did not leave any notes or letters explaining his actions. [2] Soon after the shooting, however, reports began to emerge about Lanza’s mental problems, which may have contributed to his actions that day. From young Adam was diagnosed with sensory integration disorder, a condition where he had “trouble coping with bright lights, loud noises, and knowing when he was in pain”. He was also diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, which makes social interactions difficult. Adam withdrew from his college and was not attending school since 2010.[3]

However, medical professionals and doctors cautioned against blaming Asperger’s Syndrome, which is related to autism, as the cause of the crime. The American Autism Society said in a statement that there is “absolutely no evidence or any reliable research that suggests a linkage between autism and planned violence”. Hence, the chances of such a massacre happening is the same as the rest of the population.[4]

Gun control in the United States
At the centre of the debate is the issue of gun control in the USA. The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution affirms the “right of the people to keep and bear arms”. With about 21% of individuals in the USA owning a firearm, the number of murders per 100,000 people is the highest among developed countries, at 3.2.

While the Second Amendment restricts the right of the federal government to ban firearms, state governments are still allowed to implement gun control measures. Assault weapons are banned or regulated in states like New York, New Jersey and California, but not the vast majority of states. Notably, Newtown, the place of the shooting, has an active gun culture, with strict laws regulating it.[5]

People supporting gun rights often argue that putting more guns in the hands of lawful citizens would lower crimes and prevent incidents like Newtown from occurring. They claim that potential criminals would be deterred from committing a crime if they know that their target is armed. Furthermore, an armed person, or teacher, in the case of the Newtown shooting, would be able to neutralise the shooter before he can exact heavy casualties. However, such a claim remains unverified.[6]

As a result of the Sandy Hook shooting, President Obama is proposing a gun control measures to curb gun violence. The proposals include:
  • Reintroduce an expired ban on "military-style" assault weapons
  • Limit ammunition magazines to 10 rounds
  • Background checks on all gun sales
  • Ban on possession and sale of armour-piercing bullets
  • Harsher penalties for gun-traffickers, especially unlicensed dealers who buy arms for criminals
  • Approve the appointment of the head of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives[7]

However, he faces formidable opposition in the Congress to enact such measures. Despite pleas by the families of the victims to ban assault weapons, there remain a substantial number of people who oppose any gun control measures. Texas Senator Ted Cruz said that they should not “needlessly restrict the constitutional liberties of law abiding citizens”.[8]

There are also influential lobby groups in the USA campaigning for gun rights, the most notable being the National Rifle Association (NRA). The NRA proposed in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting that armed guards should be placed in school, and blamed violent entertainment and games for gun crimes, much to the outrage of many in the United States.[9] The NRA also donates to the political campaigns of like-minded candidates in elections to further their cause.

Protestors holding signs as they participate in the March on Washington for Gun Control in Washington on Jan. 26. Source: ibtimes.com
Protestors holding signs as they participate in the March on Washington for Gun Control in Washington on Jan. 26. Source: ibtimes.com


To counter the strong influence of pro-gun groups in the USA, other anti-gun groups have also emerged. They include groups like Independence USA and Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Recently, in response to the spate of gun violence, Gabrielle Giffords, a former congresswoman who was shot in the head by a man during a public meeting with her constituents in 2011, launched a political action committee to “encourage elected officials to stand up for solutions to prevent gun violence and protect responsible gun ownership”.[10]

Looking ahead
Some states are working towards passing some gun control measures. Maryland is in the process of passing strict gun control measures.[11] New York state recently passed a tough gun control law which bans assault weapons, among other tough measures. However, some gun owners in New York are already seeking to overturn the law.[12]

Gun control remains a contentious and emotional issue in the country, and both pro-gun and anti-gun activists have strong political clout in the US political system. Therefore, the debate on gun control in the USA will not be resolved in the near future. It remains to be seen if a similar tragedy like the Sandy Hook shooting would occur again.

Thinking questions
  1. Is gun control the only method to prevent gun violence? What other measures can we consider?
  2. Should interest groups be allowed to influence the political process through lobbying and by sponsoring their political allies?


[1] Nation Reels After Gunman Massacres 20 Children at School in Connecticut
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/15/nyregion/shooting-reported-at-connecticut-elementary-school.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0
[2] Evidence hints at deadlier plan in Conn. Massacre
http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/dec/16/governor-gunman-shot-self-first-responders-closed/?page=all#pagebreak
[3] New photos, details emerge of Newtown mass shooter Adam Lanza
http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/lookout/photos-details-emerge-newtown-mass-shooter-adam-lanza-124951161.html
[4] Groups: Autism not to blame for violence
http://edition.cnn.com/2012/12/17/health/connecticut-shooting-autism
[5] In Newtown, an anguished debate over gun rights, controls
http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/12/17/us-usa-shooting-connecticut-guns-idUSBRE8BG00D20121217
[6] Balancing gun rights with public safety, The Straits Times, 21 December 2012
[7] US gun debate: Guns in numbers
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-20759139
[8] Father of slain Sandy Hook child pleads for gun control
http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18563_162-57571712/father-of-slain-sandy-hook-child-pleads-for-gun-control/
[9] 'The most revolting, tone deaf statement I've ever seen.': NRA condemned after its astonishing response to Sandy Hook massacre calling for schools to arm themselves
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2251762/NRA-condemned-astonishing-response-Sandy-Hook-massacre-calling-schools-arm-themselves.html
[10] Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly launch battle against gun lobby: No more 'fear'
http://edition.cnn.com/2013/01/08/us/giffords-website
[11] Md. Senate passes gun control bill
http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/politics/bs-md-senate-passes-gun-bill-20130228,0,7962023.story
[12] Lawsuit targets New York's post-Sandy Hook gun law
http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/01/30/us-newyork-guns-lawsuit-idUSBRE90T1GX20130130