Florida Gun Control Voices Grow Louder Following School Shooting

The latest in a long, long list of American mass shootings, and school shootings in particular, has provoked an increasingly familiar reaction. Hugely emotive, of course, the survivors, and families of the dead have, by and large, questioned the U.S. addiction to guns. The political response, tweeked by the puppet strings of the gun lobbyists, has been to offer "thoughts and prayers," the mealy-mouthed response of those who intend to do absolutely nothing in response to yet another tragedy.

Yet, in among all that, there is the twitching of some small submission. The concessions of small reforms in the manner of a tin-pot dictatorship faced with street protests, allowing minor changes in the hope of taking the steam out of growing unrest.

Hence President Donald Trump’s strangely technocratic response to the growing anger against legislators’ long-held resistance to gun control in America. The White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, let slip that Trump had talked with key senators about a bill designed to strengthen government authorities reporting crimes in order to have the power to ban people from buying a firearm. It sounds more like an instrument of post-slaughter blame (‘someone should have stopped him’) than one that tackles the nation’s obsession with its right to bear arms. But maybe, the president hopes, it will allow him the freedom to do nothing else.

Much depends on how this week’s emotional tidal wave builds, but it’s looking pretty strong—perhaps even inching to a tipping point.

The evidence for that comes from social media analysis firm Impact Social, who looked at social media posted geo-tagged to Florida (the state where shootings occured and where feelings are running highest) in the 5 days following the shooting. The data, totalling over 29,000 posts on social media and open news sites, has had re-tweets, shares and media reports removed. These are the offered-up opinions of Florida voters, the ‘key state’ in any election and one that Trump’s psephologists are watching warily.

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The pro-gun reform numbers are significant: 45% of posts are in favour of amending gun laws. As you’d expect, the conversations on this side of the debate are raw and emotional. There is a real and significant sense of exasperation that politicians appear either reluctant or unable to say anything meaningful on gun control. Troublingly for Trump and his supporters in the NRA, there is very little sign of defeatism. These people are angry and they want something to change now.

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The unctuous political responses have not calmed the anger—"keep your prayers" is widely repeated response as they urge changes in the law, with a variety of suggested outcomes—from better background checks on those purchasing weapons (the end of the scale where Trump may tinker with the legislation) to bans on certain weapons and limits on how much ammunition can be purchased. This isn’t just aimless yelling.

Where the conversations are especially ominous from the gun industry’s point of view is that they are taking place among voters, specifically calling on one another to get active, to campaign, to write to their elected representatives and show their disgust and anger. They also target the politicians to “stop taking the NRA dollar” and “stand up for people instead of guns.”  There is real frustration at the “weasel words” of politicians on gun reform, and consistent commentary that those who, at local, state and national level, have worked to prevent gun control should “hang their heads” as “they are complicit in the Florida school shooting.” There is also a strong call to stop voting for politicians who rely on NRA support.

This is beyond anger, this is moving towards becoming a significant issue for the previously untroubled relationship between the arms industry and politicians.

That pressure valve may find some release in the intriguing part of the debate where Democrats and Republicans alike discuss how they are 100% supportive of the 2nd Amendment while also in favour of gun reform. The logic lies in the changed landscape of the sheer scale of gun ownership, unimagined at the origination of the original draft.

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The anti-reform conversations are significantly less vocal—only 28% of the social media conversations, but they mostly share the well-rehearsed disbelief that gun reform would make any difference in preventing incidents of mass shooting. The ‘guns don’t kill people, people do’ argument, the one that ends with the call to arm teachers.

They look to the example of Chicago, where violent crime has increased despite efforts to curb the sale of guns, and dismiss comparisons with the UK and Australia, given the—rather strong—argument that the country is flooded with guns already. They also accuse Democrats of politicising the tragedy.

More widely, the pro-gun arguers find others to blame—family breakdowns, video games, TV violence, drugs… whatever faultline produces the ‘sicko,’ rather than the system that arms him. This enables them to passionately defend their ‘right to freedom’. The nadir of this argument ends, almost inevitably, with the need to “remind the snowflakes” that “2nd amendment will prevent both foreign invasion and civil war.”

The ‘snowflakes,’ though, are the ones that seem the better armed in this argument. They have emotion and a long list of blameless victims behind them. The cosy, symbiotic relationship between the NRA and politicians is under threat like never before, and the conversations in Florida, at least, show real signs of dividing a relationship that has underpinned electoral politics in the US for generations. The pressure may ease, and the rest of the country may not be demonstrating such heightened anger, but there’s a genuine sense that this time something, however small, may just give.

Jimmy Leach is a digital consultant, working on platforms and communications for governments, corporations and start-ups.

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