BY BIANCA GIRAULT: According to the Children Defense Fund’s “Protect Children Not Guns” 2012 report, 2,793 teens and youths died due to firearm fatalities last year. The tragedies included that of Adam Lanza, who, while illegally possessing a handgun, murdered twenty children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Shortly after, Hadiya Pendleton, a fifteen-year-old African American high school student, was murdered by two gang members that illegally obtained handguns in Chicago. However, the United States Congress’s decision to analyze gun policies was largely motivated by the shooting at Sandy Hook, while Pendleton’s death was seen as nothing more than the result of long-term violence that continues to exist in Southside Chicago. This visceral response by the nation to Sandy Hook begs the question, why were these equally tragic events treated so differently by the media and policymakers? Congress’s immediate gun policy response to the murders at Sandy Hook demonstrates that mass shootings matter more in affluent suburban US cities than single deaths in urban communities of color. Congress’s justification for revisiting legislation on gun violence demonstrates that there is an inequality between mass shootings and individual murders specifically amongst different ethnic groups.
The mass shooting at Sandy Hook opened the policy window for stricter gun control laws. Lanza used two handguns registered to his mother to facilitate a mass shooting. The massive deaths of these children intrigued Congress because the children were between the ages of six and seven years old and attended school in a safe suburban city. This situation demonstrated that shootings could take place in any type of setting and amongst a significantly younger population. The number of casualties in Newtown obliged Congress members to discuss immediate prospective policy actions on creating gun laws that protect the safety of youth. The fervent discussion surrounding gun policy reform was primarily focused on mass shootings as a result of the deaths of these twenty children. Therefore, President Obama and Congress were motivated to evaluate gun policy laws since the passing of the 1994 assault weapon ban that expired in 2004.
Less than a month later, the need for gun policy reform was strengthened by the death of Pendleton. In 2013, Pendleton was ‘mistaken’ for a rival gang member by Kenneth Williams and Michael Ward, who shot her in a local Chicago park. Shortly after, President Obama responded to her death by creating a gun trafficking bill that includes a provision named after Pendleton to prevent individuals from purchasing guns for those who that do not meet the eligibility requirements. However, the Senate took an unreasonable amount of time to consider this provision; despite Pendleton’s death after the shooting in Newton, Congress’ failure to give further consideration to gun policy after Pendleton’s death exemplifies that there is more value placed on the lives of some youth than others in America. Moreover, it depicts how Congress perceives Pendleton’s death as a matter of inevitable long-term violence in Chicago. Congress members did not enforce new gun policy laws following her death because she was killed in an urban city that is nationally recognized for an influx of murders and the formation of gangs.
Furthermore, the American people’s feelings at large greatly impact Congress’s decisions on gun policy. John Kingdon reveals in Agenda’s, Alternatives, and Public Policies, that policymakers decide how to address policy by looking to stakeholders’ moods and responses on these issues. This is evidenced by the relationship between the citizens’ reactions and the policy response towards the mass shooting at Sandy Hook. The debate over gun laws was not generated because children died, but because the lives of multiple Caucasian children were lost in an affluent city. Although Pendleton is a member of a vulnerable population, her age and single casualty did not stir the same policy response from citizens; thus influencing Congress’s lack of discussion on gun policy. The racial and socioeconomic factors that differentiate Pendleton and the children at Sandy Hook are sub- factors that create a division in the urgency for gun policy reform. Despite mass shootings, Pendleton’s death also shows us that gun control laws are a relevant policy issue that needs to be strongly addressed at a national level.
The policy response to gun policy reform raises concern about the U.S.’s progress towards addressing the role of policymaking amongst all racial groups. In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. used his I Have A Dream speech to express that the national justice system would be a reality for all children. Although his speech was motivated by racial inequality, he aspired that all people would be treated equally and have the opportunity to seek justice in the future. His dream is yet unachieved, evidenced by Congress’s policy responses towards deaths of many Caucasian youth, in contrast to an individual African American teenager. The shootings in Connecticut and Southside Chicago demonstrate that Congress will only approve gun policy reform as it pertains to mass shootings of those whom America feels is our most compelling population – suburban Caucasian children.
A student at the Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service, Bianca Girault is pursuing her Master of Public Administration- Policy Analysis and currently works for the U.S. Federal Government.