Why America doesn’t know how to stop school shootings

An officer walks outside of Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24. An 18-year-old gunman killed 19 children and two teachers there. Allison Dinner/AFP/Getty Images/TNS

As of right now, in the entire country, there is just a single federally funded study on preventing gun violence in America’s schools. It started in September.

And in the days since 19 children and two teachers were gunned down in their classroom at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, members of the research team of about a dozen scientists and educators have been furiously emailing back and forth, asking how they can speed up the work on their three-year grant.

“We really don’t know what works and what doesn’t to keep schools safe from events like Tuesday,” said Charles Branas, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University and one of the lead investigators in the study. School districts across the country are formulating policies in a vacuum without “any evidence to hang their hat on.”

Wait, what? Columbine. Sandy Hook. Parkland. The federal government wasn’t funding this kind of research before? The answer is no — not for more than 20 years.

In 1996, Congress passed the so-called “Dickey Amendment,” named after the late Rep. Jay Dickey, R-Ark., who retired from Congress with an A-plus rating from the National Rifle Association. The measure effectively cut off funding for research on gun violence at the Centers for Disease Control.

Dickey had a change of heart following the 2012 massacre in a Colorado movie theater that killed 12 people. He partnered with a former nemesis, Mark Rosenberg, then director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, to argue that gun violence should be treated like a public health crisis. In a 2012 op-ed article in the Washington Post, they implored Congress to restore the funding.

“We were on opposite sides of the heated battle 16 years ago, but we are in strong agreement now that scientific research should be conducted into preventing firearm injuries,” they wrote. “Ways to prevent firearm deaths can be found without encroaching on the rights of legitimate gun owners.”

It wasn’t for another six years that a Republican president, Donald Trump, signed a spending bill that restored CDC research for gun violence and prevention. In 2020 and 2021, Congress allocated $25 million over three years for such research, split between the CDC and the National Institutes of Health. But that’s a pittance, Rosenberg says, compared to the $200 million annual spending over 50 years on research into preventing motor vehicle injuries. That spending has helped save 600,000 lives — about the same number of lives, he notes, lost to gun violence between 2000 and 2020.

Branas and his team are studying about 650 public schools across the country in urban and non-urban centers. The team is looking at schools that have experienced gun violence and those that haven’t, examining the effectiveness of about two dozen safety tactics and policies.

The study is in such early stages that there isn’t even preliminary data. “It’s really unclear if arming teachers is a solution. Teachers already have a major job in a classroom,” he told me. “We haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of the implications of running kids through lockdown drills.”

The CDC and NIH have awarded some 28 grants to study a range of gun violence issues, including the best ways to intervene and prevent threats of gun violence on social media; how to figure out who is most at risk of being victims of gun violence and who is most at risk of perpetrating violent gun acts; and the development of a website to teach children hunting, shooting and firearms safety.

“Science is not the set of perfect answers,” Rosenberg told me. “It’s a tool for reaching the answers.”

Branas hopes his team’s findings can be used by school districts around the country to inform prescriptive measures and prevent other children from being senselessly gunned down.

I look forward to their findings. But when it comes to gun violence — as with vaccines and climate change — I worry whether data and scientific arguments are enough. The aftermath of a mass shooting is by now sadly familiar. There’s a template, with rolling coverage leading up to a visit from the president, an impassioned plea for stricter gun laws and failed votes in Congress.

The vast majority of the country supports universal background checks, most people want to ban gun purchases by those with mental illness, and they don’t want people carrying concealed weapons without permits. And yet there is a feeling of hopelessness that American society is incapable of doing anything about these massacres. Maybe we hugged our children a little tighter and a little longer this morning before we sent them off to school. What else can we do?

“It makes us doubly motivated that we have to find something, that we have to contribute to a solution here,” Branas told me. “And that drives an inkling of optimism for us.”

Julianna Goldman is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist who was formerly a Washington-based correspondent for CBS News and White House correspondent for Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Television.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

WPBloom

Recommended for you

(6) comments

rdsouth

The underlying problem is that the will of the majority of the people is thwarted by structural corruption.

Charlie McGrath

I just love this paper allowing one sided narratives. Censoring opposing views. Don't worry about protecting your family. The police will protect us just like they did in Texas.

Eagle24

So much for the good guy with a gun being the answer to a bad guy... 12-17 Texas law enforcement officers in the school hallway wasting time while 2nd graders are begging for help... thanks again GOP/NRA/Bushmaster... tick tock...

hermit thrush

the problem with the gun issue is that we have a large faction of the country that simply loves guns and they don't give a [bleep] about anything else. the evidence is overwhelming that gun control works and that our lax gun laws lead to a lot of needless death, but they ultimately don't care, they just deny it all.

KRobbins

Elise Stefanik wants our state to be Texas. Look at Concealed Carry Reciprocity. Also, the Times Union has pointed out her husband is a gun lobbyist. How convenient is that?

KRobbins

In Uvalde, the good guys with guns mostly stood around and waited while the shooter finished his massacre. So Elise, what’s the current talking point? Our rep gave some thoughts and prayers drivel on the day of the shooting. The day after, she was right back to demonizing immigrants. What must it be like to be so devoid of morals?

Also, I’ll just throw in a praise for Chris Jacobs from the Buffalo area who says he’d back an assault weapons ban. 🙏

Republicans are always all up with “American exceptionalism” but we’re the only country that can’t solve this. Mindless slogans are not the answer.

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.