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Why the RNC blamed “restorative justice” for the Parkland shooting

The father of a Parkland shooting victim said school discipline, not gun laws, was to blame for the mass shooting.

Andrew Pollack, the father of a Parkland shooting victim, speaks on the first night of the Republican National Convention on August 24, 2020.
Republican National Committee via Getty Images

Speaking at the 2020 Republican National Convention, the father of a 2018 Parkland, Florida, school shooting victim argued that the US’s gun laws weren’t to blame for his daughter’s death — but faulty school discipline policies.

“After my daughter’s murder, the media didn’t seem interested in the facts. So I found them myself,” Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow was killed by the Parkland shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, said. “I learned that gun control laws didn’t fail my daughter. People did.”

Pollack added:

Far-left Democrats in our school district made this shooting possible, because they implemented something they called “restorative justice.” This policy — which really just blames teachers for students’ failures — puts kids and teachers at risk, and makes shootings more likely. But it was billed as a pioneering approach to discipline and safety.

I was just fine with the old approach to discipline and safety — it was called discipline and safety. But the Obama-Biden administration took Parkland’s bad policies and forced them into schools across America.

This is a narrative that’s trickled through Republicans and the right in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting. They point to guidance, “Guiding Principles: A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline,” issued in 2014 by Arne Duncan, then President Barack Obama’s education secretary, as contributing to the shooting. The guidance largely focused on reducing schools’ reliance on suspensions, expulsions, and law enforcement for discipline, particularly against minority students. It suggested — and some schools adopted — programs that, at least initially, tried remedial approaches rather than those focused on punishment when a student acted out.

Research is still ongoing on the effects of these programs, although a Washington Post analysis suggested they do reduce the number of arrests taking place in schools. Trump’s administration, for its part, rescinded the Obama-era guidance supporting such programs in December 2018.

But there are several problems with blaming a remedial disciplinary approach, particularly the one prescribed by the Obama-era guidance, for the Parkland shooting.

For one, Broward County Public Schools, of which Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is a part, adopted the approach before the Obama-era guidance was released, introducing its own PROMISE Program (Preventing Recidivism through Opportunities, Mentoring, Interventions, Supports, and Education) in 2013.

This framework did not mean the school district didn’t punish the Parkland shooter for his disruptive and concerning behavior before the shooting. As the Washington Post reported, the shooter was sent to in-school suspension, received out-of-school suspensions, and was ultimately expelled a year before he carried out the shooting.

There were, as Pollack noted, plenty of red flags that the authorities appeared to miss, including an explicit threat to carry out a school shooting from a YouTube account named after the shooter.

Still, it’s difficult to blame the school’s discipline policy for the shooting. But the attempts to do so fall under the standard playbook gun rights advocates have deployed in the aftermath of shootings: one that seeks to blame anything but America’s loose gun laws.

This is a common tactic to deflect from the role of guns

Trump and other Republicans blamed video games and mental health issues for the Parkland shooting. They pushed for arming teachers. They ultimately homed in on and rescinded Obama’s school discipline policies.

What they didn’t want to talk about is guns.

This is an old playbook. After the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, gun rights activists and pro-gun politicians blamed violent video games (such as Doom), music (such as Marilyn Manson), and mental health issues for the massacre — but not guns.

It’s true that other factors do play a role in America’s high levels of gun violence (although video games don’t seem to play a major, if any, role). But guns themselves are a huge part of why the US suffers more gun violence than its developed peers: A 2018 study in JAMA found the US’s civilian gun death rate is nearly four times that of Switzerland, five times that of Canada, 35 times that of the United Kingdom, and 53 times that of Japan.

While those other countries require that people clear several hurdles to get a gun — if they can even get one at all — even a background check isn’t an absolute requirement in the US due to loopholes in federal and state laws. America also has the highest levels of civilian ownership of guns in the world, making it easy for people to buy, borrow, or steal a gun for violence.

This availability leads to more gun violence. The research, compiled by the Harvard School of Public Health’s Injury Control Research Center, is clear: After controlling for variables such as socioeconomic factors and other crime, places with more guns have more gun deaths. Researchers have found this to be true not just with homicides but also with suicides (which in recent years were around 60 percent of US gun deaths), domestic violence, violence against police, and mass shootings.

As a breakthrough analysis by UC Berkeley’s Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins in the 1990s found, it’s not even that the US has more crime than other developed countries. This chart, based on data from Jeffrey Swanson at Duke University, shows that the US is not an outlier when it comes to overall crime:

A chart showing crime rates among wealthy nations.

Instead, the US appears to have more lethal violence — and that’s driven in large part by the prevalence of guns.

“A series of specific comparisons of the death rates from property crime and assault in New York City and London show how enormous differences in death risk can be explained even while general patterns are similar,” Zimring and Hawkins wrote. “A preference for crimes of personal force and the willingness and ability to use guns in robbery make similar levels of property crime 54 times as deadly in New York City as in London.”

A chart showing homicides among wealthy nations.

This is in many ways intuitive: People of every country get into arguments and fights with friends, family, and peers. Every country has extremists and other hateful individuals. But in the US, it’s much more likely that someone who’s angry or hateful will be able to pull out a gun and kill someone because there are so many guns around and few barriers to getting the weapons.

Researchers have found that stricter gun laws could help. A 2016 review of 130 studies in 10 countries, published in Epidemiologic Reviews, found that new legal restrictions on owning and purchasing guns tended to be followed by a drop in gun violence — a strong indicator that restricting access to guns can save lives. A review of the US evidence by RAND also linked some gun control measures, including background checks, to reduced injuries and deaths, and looser gun laws to more injuries and deaths. A growing body of evidence, from Johns Hopkins researchers, particularly supports laws that require a license to buy and own guns.

America, then, will have to acknowledge the role of easy access to guns, along with other issues, to really address its unique gun violence problem.

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