- Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.
In the year since a gunman butchered nineteen students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, the United States has suffered at least forty school shootings—perhaps most notably at the University of Virginia, Michigan State University, and the Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee. A bipartisan gun deal was passed last June, but contained only modest provisions. The cycle—horrendous violence, a clamor for change, and then a steady fading from public view—was thus repeated numerous times, each new round of gunfire offering another thundering reminder to American children and young adults that they have been left alone on the frontlines of our nation’s love affair with guns.
Indeed, perhaps the most tragic part of each of these latest shootings was how utterly unsurprising they were—how utterly prepared the students were for their fate and how utterly defenseless they were against the wrath of an AR-15. An opinion piece authored by the Washington Post editorial board after a shooting targeting the Edmund Burke School in Washington, DC’s Van Ness neighborhood in April 2022 commented that the community had been “lucky”—because the shooting was not worse. That is the reality of childhood and education in the United States in 2023. Over the past year, hearts have been shattered by the war crimes committed against children in Ukraine (over eight thousand civilians have already been killed in that conflict), and yet Americans are almost completely numb to the horrors experienced by children here. Students in the United States are now conditioned to believe it is a question of when, not if, they will find themselves the target of a school shooting. The sober lesson and sad reality: there is absolutely no good reason for U.S. students, at any school or level of education, to comfortably believe they are safe from gun violence.
Throughout the emergence of the school shooting epidemic as a major social and political issue over the past twenty-four years, it has typically been relegated to the sidelines—seen as an inconvenience and not as an important national priority. Why? Because “national security” or “homeland security” is usually conceptualized as a (foreign) threat to the state and its capital and to a government and society’s ability to survive and function, at home and abroad.
But just because school shootings are a domestic, internal threat posed by nonstate actors does not mean they should not be considered a national security issue. The Hobbesian social contract, as it is usually understood, holds that civilians sacrifice some of their individual rights in exchange for protection from the state. The contract gives states their sovereignty, through which they maintain a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. School shootings undermine such sovereignty. In fact, if students are not being protected from wanton use of force, then questions should be asked about whether the United States is even a functioning sovereign state at all. The United States willingly and aggressively deploys its soldiers around the world in the name of protecting Americans from violence and threats. But, as retired four-star Marine general John Allen writes, “Americans today are more likely to experience gun violence than they might in many of the places to which I deployed in the name of defending our nation.” And that is true not just in schools, but in places of worship, supermarkets, shopping malls, and broader city life too.
Beyond the damage wrought at home, school shootings are devastating to U.S. foreign policy and soft power. As I argued for NBC News THINK in the days after Uvalde, school shootings undermine the United States’ reputation and ability to portray itself as a bastion of democracy and human rights. Gun violence undermines Washington’s ability to speak out against violence abroad, whether state-sanctioned or not. China, Russia, and terrorist adversaries frequently reference violence in the United States as evidence of American hypocrisy or weakness. As Stacey Abrams declared in 2019, “One of the challenges…endemic to gun violence is that we cannot challenge and chastise other nations for the security of their people, when we allow our people to be randomly murdered for the lack of spine to call out the problem.”
And close allies, too, watch in shock as American politicians continue to oversee the slaughter of children with very little response. Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in April, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas remarked that “in my international engagements, there are two questions that almost every single time are posed of me about our country. One, is the political divide…And number two, they ask about guns, and the number of killings in our country, and it is incomprehensible today.” In one example, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted after Uvalde, “As a nation that goes through the pain of losing innocent young lives, Ukraine shares the pain of our U.S. friends.” Several allied countries have issued travel advisories for citizens visiting the United States. Canada, for instance, urges travelers to its southern neighbor to “familiarize yourself on how to respond to an active shooter situation.”
There is also the sober reality that the American school shooting model is now being imported by similarly disaffected young people abroad. In what some have called “the Columbine effect,” violence inspired by the 1999 killers has struck countries including Brazil, France, and Russia. In Canada, a shooter who attacked a mosque in 2017 had closely studied American school shooters, including the Columbine killers and an incel terrorist who killed six at the University of Santa Barbara in 2014. According to Quebec Superior Court documents, “the offender then identified with the killers, especially those who had been bullied in their youth and had then killed themselves.” School shootings, in other words, have joined far-right terrorism as an unwelcome American export.
Yet other nations have responded differently. After eight children and a security guard were murdered in a recent school shooting in Serbia, for instance, the government announced a series of gun control measures designed to prevent future violence, and a gun amnesty saw citizens return over three thousand illegal guns. As ABC News chief foreign correspondent Ian Pannell wrote after that incident, “What amazes Brits, Australians and now Serbs, is how a nation’s children can be gunned down and there not be change to try to protect them better.”
The American national security apparatus is shifting from focusing on counterterrorism (a threat which, even in its most deadly year of 2001, killed around one-fifth of the average number of people killed yearly by domestic gun violence) to a great power posture that is even less likely to directly affect the everyday lives of Americans. But some energy should be kept for issues here on the home front, daily battles that actually do impact our way of life. Giving the school shooting issue a national security spotlight would offer it an essential element it somehow has seemingly never had: urgency and constant frontline attention. It may also allow countermeasures to benefit from that rarest of commitments usually reserved for national security and foreign policy issues: bipartisanship.
A national security pedestal would have more pragmatic implications, too. Seeing school shootings through a national security lens might open more resources and leeway for federal agencies like the FBI, DHS, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives to undertake more preventative efforts against potential would-be attackers, similar to counterterrorism efforts to interdict plots developed by more ideological violent extremists. It would also broaden the committees working on the challenge on Capitol Hill, increasing the political energy expended to tackle the problem.
The typical response to mass shootings in the United States—politicians offering “thoughts and prayers” alongside half-baked, politicized, and unrealistic policy proposals—is so prosaic it has developed into a meme. But solutions do exist in the gray zone between buzzwords and political point-scoring. Democrats have failed to pass sweeping gun control—but more energy aimed at half-measures like background checks and licenses, ammunition control, and illegal gun enhancements might achieve incremental victories. Republicans have blamed mental health and video gaming, but failed to act. More widespread counseling and support for young people who find themselves so alienated from society that they would be willing to murder children might also make inroads.
The third path—that focuses not on guns or the attacker but on hardening schools against potential attacks—simply cannot be a solution. For starters, as army veteran Phillip Carter argues, “a good guy with a gun would turn a mass shooting into a firefight, potentially killing additional bystanders in the crossfire.” Alternatively, as seen in Uvalde, even armed police officers fear the firearms often used in school massacres. Schools need to be safe not because they are hardened targets but because people do not have the means or desire to attack them.
The author thanks Ella Busch for her research support.