The Gun Lobby’s New Tactic: Redefining 'School Shootings' So They Don’t Count

The Right Wing

The drumbeat of news about gun violence in the United States is so steady and rhythmic these days that it’s starting to fade into the background. Another week, another school shooting. One of the biggest risks now is of a population-wide numbness, eroding the will to tackle the crisis. So perhaps we should be grimly grateful whenever the gun lobby demonstrates that it retains the power to horrify.

Case in point: this sequence of tweets by the conservative journalist Charles C Johnson, featured on Glenn Beck’s website The Blaze and onHot Air, and being forwarded enthusiastically everywhere among pro-gun tweeters and bloggers. (I found it via Quinn Norton.)

Johnson takes it upon himself to debunk the claim, made by the gun reform group Everytown for Gun Safety, backed by Michael Bloomberg, that there have been 74 school shootings since Adam Lanza killed 20 children, six adults and himself at Sandy Hook elementary School 18 months ago. In fact, Johnson concludes, there have only been seven. How does he manage this feat of mathematical magic? Simple: by narrowing the definition of “school shooting” so far that almost none of them count.

Let’s be fastidiously fair to Johnson and his supporters by acknowledging that a handful of the incidents he identifies do seem misclassified. Most people, for example, would surely agree that a shooting that doesn't happen on a school campus isn’t a school shooting. But the rest of his alleged debunkings offer a truly depressing glimpse of how pro-gun argumentation works these days.

It doesn’t count, for example, if you’re a student shot at school by a gunman who wasn’t originally planning to shoot up a school that day:

It doesn’t count if the bullet you’re injured by, on school grounds, was discharged accidentally:

It certainly doesn’t count if you’re the one who shoots yourself to death at school:

It isn’t a school shooting even if it’s a shooting, at school, so long as the victim, on this occasion, is an adult rather than a child:

It most definitely doesn’t count if the shooting is gang-related – a recurring theme in Johnson's tweets – though he never clarifies why:

It doesn’t count if the shooting arises from a dispute over a games console:

And (there are many, many more similarly tendentious examples, but I'll stop here) it doesn’t count if it was in the school parking lot:

In short – as far as I can follow the logic – the message to parents concerned that there are loaded weapons going off on school property, and that their sons and daughters are at risk of being hit by bullets from those weapons, is this: it doesn't really count unless the shooter is a pupil, not involved in a gang, who made a pre-meditated plan to massacre a large number of students. 

And not in the parking lot.

(If you think this kind of absurdity is confined to the fringe, see this only slightly less mendacious CNN piece, which brings the figure down from 74 to 15 by excluding, among others, shootings motivated by "personal arguments, accidents [or] alleged gang activities and drug deals". Johnson says the cable channel stole his work.)

What’s especially dispiriting about this flat denial of reality is how little prospect it offers for rational discussion or compromise. Even if you're a supporter of gun control, you can still hold a reasoned discussion with somebody who believes that the benefits of widespread firearms ownership outweigh the harms. You can discuss international comparisons; and how no comparable country experiences anything like this level of gun violence; the other person can seek to establish why those comparisons aren't relevant; or that, yes, violent deaths are actually in decline in the US, and so on. But when the pro-gun side of the argument consists of simply insisting that the gun violence that people are so distraught about isn't real gun violence? Then there's no clear way forward at all.

And let’s not forget the bigger point here. A pro-gun journalist applies the most stringent imaginable criteria to the term 'school shooting'; he rejects every instance he possibly can, for reasons many might regard as spurious, and then triumphantly declares that there have only been … seven bona fide school shootings in America since December 2012!

Only seven school shootings since December 2012. 

I hope I never to get to the point at which the word "only" in that sentence makes even the slightest bit of sense.

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