Why does this keep happening? And what can be done to stop it?
These questions elicit a familiar routine in the wake of mass shootings like the Valentine's Day slaughter of seventeen students and teachers in Parkland, Florida. Gun control advocates decry the gun lobby and document the NRA's contributions to Republicans offering "thoughts and prayers" to the victims. Wayne LaPierre, the executive director of the NRA, serves platitudes about armed Americans stopping "bad guys with guns" and warns Second Amendment enthusiasts that the lefties are coming for their weapons. We watch the families of the deceased mourn, and we hear anguished survivors beg lawmakers for tougher gun laws.
Each time, people wonder if this will be the mass shooting that sparks change. And each time—at least to date—those hopes have been dashed by inaction.
Amid it all, North Carolinians have spent the last two weeks trying to make sense of the news. Some packed town halls, while others absorbed the updates quietly. Parents discussed school safety with their children, and lawmakers proposed policy changes. Reactions to the shooting and suggestions for preventative measures ran the gamut.
For some Republicans in the General Assembly, the conversation quickly turned to giving teachers guns. House Speaker Tim Moore, after announcing the formation of a school safety committee, floated the idea of arming teachers if school districts and police stations were on board. (If that happens, North Carolina would join eighteen states that already allow teachers to bring guns to school.)
While Moore didn't promise that the proposal would see daylight, other lawmakers have been blunter. Last week, Republican state representative Larry Pittman, a firebrand from Concord, voiced his support for arming teachers and said he had already been in talks with a police officer about the possibility.
"We have to get over this useless hysteria about guns and allow school personnel to have a chance to defend their lives and those of their students," he said. "Many lives could have been saved that were lost before the police got there."
It's a position for which the NRA has long advocated. In 2013, an NRA-supported task force issued a report that recommended arming teachers. The proposal was met with stiff resistance from the American Federation of Teachers, whose president called it "a cruel hoax that will fail to keep our children and schools safe."
Kevin Neiley, a local school social worker with a background in mental health, agrees.
"I don't want any of my colleagues to be able to carry a gun to school," he says. "They're not trained. I've watched teachers escalate kids. They make it worse. They don't mean to, but we're not trained."
Neiley, whose position was created in the mid-nineties to address students' mental-health needs, said that he believes the core of the school shooting epidemic is access to assault rifles, not unaddressed mental health issues.
"If we had more mental health professionals in schools, we might be able to recognize the people in school shootings," he says. But, he adds, "you can't regulate mental health. The thing that kills people in all of these school shootings is assault rifles." (Last week, as survivors of the Parkland school shooting watched in the gallery, the Florida state House rejected a ban on assault rifles.)
Shana Broders, a fifth-grade teacher in Wake County, is also unconvinced that arming teachers would help prevent a future Parkland tragedy.
"I can't personally see how bringing more guns into a school will solve this problem," she says. "There are of course teachers, like in all professions, that are quick-tempered, possibly dealing with anger issues, emotional outbursts. Why would we want to arm them? And to have them near kids—I can't wrap my head around that."
Neither, it seems, can Republican state schools superintendent Mark Johnson, who earlier this week came out against arming teachers, proposing instead to hire more police officers to patrol schools.
In recent years, the NRA Foundation has lavished North Carolina schools with money. According to a 2016 report, the foundation gave $458,785 in grants to North Carolina schools, police departments, gun clubs, and Boy Scouts chapters to support, among other things, shooting programs for kids. One of last year's many grant recipients across the country was the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps. According to the Associated Press, the alleged Parkman shooter was a member of the school's JROTC program.
The NRA's broad influence among lawmakers was the subject of a scathing, student-led town hall last week at Raleigh's Pullen Memorial Baptist Church. There, North Carolina students and activists called on local lawmakers to enact stricter gun control laws and wipe their hands clean of NRA funding.
"I have a zero-tolerance policy on politicians that get money from the NRA," said Aaron Wolff, a survivor of the Virginia Tech massacre of 2007, to thunderous applause. "I also believe that arming our teachers is possibly the stupidest idea I've ever heard."
At the beginning of the event, U.S. Representative David Price, a local Democrat who has long pushed for the federal government to reverse its ban on studying gun violence, said it was "incredible" that the U.S. couldn't deal with a scourge that has plagued schools and communities.
"Other countries have mental health challenges, other countries have challenges with violence, but only in this country does this result in daily carnage on our streets," he said. "What is the difference? The difference is the weapon, the easy access to weapons, particularly weapons of mass killing."
Multiple speakers pointed to the gun of choice for Parkland suspect Nikolas Cruz, an AR-15 rifle, and called on Congress to reinstitute an assault weapons ban. In 1994, lawmakers passed such a law, but it expired in 2004. According to a Quinnipiac poll released last week, 67 percent of Americans support banning assault weapons, and 97 percent favor universal background checks.
State representative Cynthia Ball, a Wake Democrat, told the crowd she wished her colleagues in the General Assembly "had your like-mind." Ball asked them to keep an eye on HB 746, an omnibus gun bill that would allow North Carolinians to carry concealed handguns without a permit. The bill cleared the state House in June but has not received a vote in the Senate.
"Put the pressure on to make sure that bill does not come back to us in our short session," she said.
High schoolers talked about their fear of going to school in a climate where mass shootings seem increasingly common.
"I don't want to die in my high school. I don't want to die in college. Tell these people behind me," said Kees Koopman, a high school senior, referring to Republican Senators Richard Burr, Thom Tillis, and Representative George Holding, "that you do not want me to die. Go register to vote. Let them know. Let them know that you do not deserve to die in a country where gun violence has become too extreme."
His speech was followed by cries of "throw them out!"
"The fact that we are relying on teenage survivors of a mass shooting for a change instead of the politicians we voted in is unacceptable," added Emilia Cox, a freshman at Enloe High School. "Politicians need to make it harder for people to legally purchase military-grade weapons. They need to enforce stronger background checks. They need to stop taking million-dollar donations from the NRA. They need to stop praying and actually get up and do something before more lives are taken away."
She continued: "There's absolutely no logical reason an ordinary civilian needs an AR-15. Trump and other politicians in DC might think I'm just a kid who is not capable of making a difference, but we'll see what they think about that when I vote in 2021."