Watch the CBSN special “Mass Shootings: Five Years After Sandy Hook,” right here on Thursday at 8 p.m. ET.
The December 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that left 20 students and six educators dead, along with the gunman and his mother, left a lasting mark on the way America thinks about school safety. It helped usher in an era of “active shooter drills” and difficult conversations about safety for even the youngest kids.
Five years on, the gun debate remains as contentious ever, and deeply partisan. On the anniversary of Sandy Hook, CBS News took a poll on on attitudes to guns in America. The results were striking, if unsurprising. Americans who own guns see gun ownership as making America more free & safe. Americans who don’t own guns feel the opposite, and are far more likely to describe gun violence in the United States as a crisis.
Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy represented Newtown five years ago, and he challenges the new narrative that in the days after a mass shooting, gun control is effectively off-limits for political discussion. Speaking to CBSN, he said: “We have to be talking about policy change every single day in this country or we’ll never do anything about the 90-something people a day who die. It is a political issue. The only way this changes is by the laws of this country changing.”
That, however takes a meeting of minds on a topic in which there’s often little middle ground.
In the days leading up to the fifth anniversary of the attack in Newtown, Connecticut, CBS News producer Christina Ruffini facilitated a series of conversations with residents of Colorado, a state where gun issues have remained divisive, even after two infamous mass shootings at Columbine High School and in an Aurora movie theater.
In one conversation, Daniel and Jessica — parents of young children who came to the table with opposing political views and very different opinions about gun laws — talked candidly about their expectations from lawmakers after the Newtown shooting.
“I feel like that was a really big turning point for America in my opinion, in that not providing any substantive legislation after that, in my mind, made it OK that these kids died,” Jessica said. “No one seemed to care. I mean if our most innocent and vulnerable population is not being protected a little bit better and there is not going to be some move toward ‘let’s rethink our position,’ it’s never gonna matter.”
Daniel said he’s not sure what the answer is for solving the problem of mass shootings.
“I have a kid and I can only — I couldn’t imagine what those families went through, and how do you prevent that tragedy, and how do you stop that? I wish I had an answer for that,” Daniel said.
Still, Daniel and Jessica found a path to agreement on how mass shootings have changed the school experience, making active shooter drills a regular part of students’ lives.
“I got an email a couple of weeks ago that my daughter was participating in active shooter drills and they were teaching them to hide. So they wanted to alert the parents in case the kids came home and talked about, ‘We hid from Ms. Melissa today,’ and I just found it so disheartening and honestly it made me really angry,” Jessica said. “And I felt like someone’s right to own a piece of metal was infringing on my child’s right to live. It frustrates me immensely that we have to have those and I feel like Newtown was the big turning point for that.”
While Jessica said she sees drills as “infringing” on children’s rights, Daniel said he’d rather make sure his child is prepared.
“When I went to school it was fire drills and tornado drills, and unfortunately now it’s ‘hide from Ms. Melissa.’ You know, it’s kind of back to when kids had to hide under the desk in case there was a bombing or something,” Daniel said. “It is the world as it is and I’d rather have my daughter when she gets to that point be prepared. It sucks. I’m never gonna disagree with that, but I’d rather have her know than not know.”
In one conversation, Ruffini spoke with Tony, who adamantly supports the right to own a gun, and his friend Warren, who adamantly believes in regulating firearms. She asked Tony if his belief in gun rights would waver in a hypothetical scenario involving empirical evidence “that if we make everyone in the country turn in their assault rifle we will cut shooting deaths in this country by a significant amount.”
“I would not,” Tony said, adding that he believes armed civilians deter potential foreign invaders. “You’d really be giving a lot of our neighbors far more reason to think the United States is weak. We have never been invaded, not only because of our geographical situation, but also because …”
“So you think ‘Red Dawn’ is gonna happen?” Warren interjected, referring to a 1984 film depicting a Soviet invasion.
“No, I don’t think it’s gonna happen,” Tony responded. “I think it won’t happen because we’re armed.”
Ruffini then offered a similar scenario to the anti-gun Warren, asking if he would buy an assault rifle in a hypothetical scenario in which “we have statistically proven that you and your family will be safer if you own” one.
“I really don’t know because I want to keep my family safe, but to what lengths am I willing to go? I don’t know until we’re in that situation…until I was living in a place that was so dangerous, that that was the only way to keep people safe,” Warren said. “I think that’s a different world than I live in right now.”
When it comes to assault weapons, Americans are largely split along the same lines as Tony and Warren. A CBS News poll released Monday found while there is strong bipartisan support for background checks for all gun buyers, Americans are torn on whether gun violence represents a crisis — Democrats are three times as likely as Republicans to see it that way — and near evenly divided on whether to ban assault weapons.
The poll, which was conducted by telephone between Dec. 3 and Dec. 5 among a random sample of 1,120 adults nationwide, found 49 percent favor a ban, while 48 percent oppose.