The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Gun reforms alone ‘not enough’ to stop school shootings

A wreath hangs on a fence outside Oxford High School in Oxford, Mich., on Dec. 7, after a mass shooting. (Emily Elconin/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

Jamaal Bowman was the founder and principal of the public Cornerstone Academy for Social Action Middle School in the Bronx before he was elected in 2020 to the House of Representatives, after defeating a 16-term incumbent who was expected to win his primary earlier that year.

In this post, Bowman, who has long been focused on social justice issues, writes about why gun control reforms will not be enough to stop the next school shooting.

How to start ending the school-to-prison pipeline — by an educator now a U.S. legislator

By Jamaal Bowman

Before I came to Congress, I spent most of my life in New York City schools. As a principal in the Bronx, my days (and nights) revolved around the middle school students who were under my care. My entire purpose at Cornerstone Academy — and my life’s work — was to make sure my students were learning, growing, happy and safe. In my humble opinion, there is no more important job in the world, and none more challenging. But when someone enters your school and starts shooting, the job becomes an actual nightmare.

Last month, a 15-year-old student at Oxford High School in Michigan allegedly killed four of his classmates with a gun, and injured seven more. My heart and spirit break for the families, friends and loved ones of the victims. They were just children, and they should have been safe at school. Once again, a community and nation are reeling.

Anyone who tells you there’s one easy answer to this horrible problem isn’t being honest. But as someone who went straight from the halls of middle school to the halls of Congress, I also know — firsthand and for a fact — that anyone who says this problem is unsolvable is also not being truthful.

More than 278,000 students have experienced gun violence at school since Columbine

The most obvious solution, the one that could have prevented most of the 149 school shootings we’ve already witnessed this year, is common-sense gun reform. Two bills, the Bipartisan Background Checks Act and the Enhanced Background Checks Act passed the House nine months ago and are sitting in the Senate immobilized because there aren’t 60 senators with enough courage to take on the gun lobby. That’s why we also need to abolish the filibuster and get big money out of politics — so that the will of the American people, and not National Rifle Association money, is reflected in the laws that govern us.

And federal versions of two laws we have in New York state could very well have prevented this Oxford tragedy entirely: a safe storage law that requires guns to be locked up, with ammunition stored separately, in homes where someone under 16 is present, and an ERPO (extreme risk protective order), which allows family members, law enforcement officers or even educators to petition the court to have guns removed from someone who might be a danger to themselves or others.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, 75 percent of school shooters studied from 2008-2017 used a firearm that they took from a parent or close relative’s home.

Of course, the solution isn’t limited to legislation that makes it harder for anyone to buy and be reckless with a gun. We also have to look at federal policy rooted in harm, profit and neglect that lays the groundwork for violence and allows it to flourish. We must ensure that all federal policy is rooted in care.

How can schools detect potentially violent students? Researchers have an answer.

On the day that the 15-year-old student in Oxford brought a gun to school, he also cried out for help, according to authorities. He literally wrote, “The thoughts won’t stop. Help me,” on a drawing that foreshadowed him killing people with a gun, police said. Also on the drawing were the words: “My life is useless.”

A teacher who saw it did the right thing and made a referral. The suspect’s parents were called and a meeting was held between them and a school counselor — but his bag was never searched, and the parents refused to take their son home. The student was also not referred for a psychiatric evaluation.

This entire scenario also speaks to the inequity and difference in how some schools and students are overpoliced in comparison with others. That afternoon, without proper conduct or mental health policies employed, this student allegedly unleashed gunfire on his classmates.

I’m sure this wasn’t the first time this person cried out for help — at home or at school. But are parents trained to recognize the warning signs? Are school officials? Many who aren’t familiar with these issues assume the answer is yes. But as someone who worked in schools for 20 years before coming to Congress, I know that the answer is usually absolutely not.

As a result, kids go to school every day, year to year, and are often unseen. Most don’t go on shooting rampages. But far too many do. And each time, innocent people die and the soul of our nation is crushed.

If we want to prevent the next school shooting, we need to see the warning signs. That means giving K-12 educators the training and resources they need to understand when students are struggling, and how to do something about it. It means supporting parents, holistically and comprehensively, to do the same — especially in a country when too many are left to themselves to do the toughest job in the world. It also means ensuring that federal policy always centers well-being and care for the American people.

In America today, 14 million students have police officers in their schools but no counselor, nurse, psychologist or social worker. That means there are fewer people to recognize the warning signs, fewer people for struggling students to turn to when they need help, and fewer people to stop these tragedies from occurring in the first place.

After all, there is only so much a police officer can do when bullets are already flying.

Of course, we must pass comprehensive, common-sense gun reforms immediately. Each day we wait is a day that more guns are getting into more of the wrong hands. As elected leaders of this nation we must do our job and act.

But to prevent the next school shooting, gun reforms alone are not enough. To keep our students safe, we need policy that cares for and invests in them — and as important, invests in their parents, their teachers and their access to enrichment opportunities and mental health professionals.

If we continue to go the way of harm, profit and neglect instead, these shootings will become more firmly entrenched and normalized in the American psyche. We can’t let that happen. Every life is precious, and these are tragedies. We have a moral obligation to act now.