It was every parent’s worst nightmare. A 14-year-old boy, armed with a gun, walked into a classroom at his school and threatened to shoot anyone who called for help.
A three-hour standoff ensued at the Philip Barbour high school in Philippi, West Virginia on Tuesday. For much of it, 29 teenagers and their teacher did not know if they would live or die.
Forty-five minutes passed before administrators at the school even became aware that a hostage situation was unfolding in a second-floor social studies class. Thus began a sequence of action that has become all too familiar for a nation besieged by gun violence and where schools are often a target: a 911 emergency call was placed and the school was quickly evacuated, as police responded and set up a barricade.
Through calm negotiations in the most tense of atmospheres, the young gunman was ultimately persuaded to release the hostages without injury – and prevented from taking his own life – by a combination of authorities, the teacher and his own pastor, who offered his assistance when informed of the boy’s identity.
But the resounding relief among parents, educators and law enforcement was tinged with the knowledge that it could have been far worse. Within seconds, Philip Barbour high school could have added its name to the list of school massacres – Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook – that hold worldwide notoriety and rank among the deadliest mass shootings in US history.
And yet it was not this incident that captured public attention this week.
The fatal shooting of two journalists on live television in Moneta, Virginia , on Wednesday cast a spotlight on the nation’s gun violence in an even more public fashion than the mass shootings in movie theaters and schools that came before it.
Alison Parker, 24, and Andy Ward, 27, were shot and killed during a morning broadcast for WDBJ7, the TV station where they worked, by a resentful former colleague who had been dismissed two years earlier for erratic behavior.
Viewers who had woken up to a light segment on local tourism in central Virginia suddenly bore witness to a gruesome double murder. The chaos was captured in all of two minutes: the firing of shots, the screams as the victims attempted to run, and then silence.
The last frame on Ward’s camera would reveal the grainy image of a gunman walking casually away. Parker and Ward were both pronounced dead at the scene. Vicki Gardner, a third victim who was being interviewed by Parker, was shot in the back but survived. The shooter, Vester Lee Flanagan, 41, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound after being chased by police.
Colleagues remembered Parker and Ward as full of promise, the kind of people who lit up the room with their energy and warmth. Both were in committed relationships – their partners not only worked at the same station, but watched from the control room on Wednesday morning as the people they were preparing to marry were killed.
Shootings like these happen behind close doors, in homes and schools … This time the horror unfolded live for all to see
Gun violence in America claims roughly 88 lives each day, according to data compiled by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The shooting in Virginia would perhaps not have shocked the conscience of America had it fallen under the day-to-day gun violence that kills more than 32,000 per year. As Gabby Giffords, the former congresswoman who was shot in the head in a 2011 mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona , put it, what was unprecedented was not the shooting itself, but that two young journalists were executed on live TV.
“Many times, shootings like these happen behind close doors, in homes and schools and movie theaters. But this time, the horror unfolded live and on air, for all to see,” Giffords said in a statement with her husband, Mark Kelly, through their anti-gun violence group Americans for Responsible Solutions .
In the same week as the incident in Moneta, Virginia, Brianna Blackston saw her boyfriend Zachary McGee take his last breath, after he was shot outside a warehouse party in downtown Modesto, California.
Police said eight people were shot, including McGee, who was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Blackston walked out of the party to an eruption of gunfire. She was shot in the knees and hid under a car.
“It felt like it was never going to stop,” Blackston told the Guardian. “It was like a video game.”
Heather Graves, a spokeswoman for the Modesto police department, said police were still looking for the suspect in Sunday morning’s shooting.
“We had two more murders that week so we were working diligently on those as well,” Graves added.
In Cleveland, Ohio, 20-year-old Brionna Boddy was killed when a gunmen opened fire on a parked party bus, authorities said. A 26-year-old man and a 21-year-old man were also shot.
Some guests inside a house party came outside to see what had happened, but went back inside when they saw nothing, telling the police: “It was just someone shooting in the air. It happens all the time.”
In west Baltimore, 93-year-old Clara Canty was sitting on the steps of her rowhouse on Wednesday when a bullet grazed the top of her head.
Canty had been caught in the crossfires of a shooting in her neighborhood that left a 23-year-old dead and a 17-year-old injured, police said.
“It’s just something that I never experienced before. I never seen a person that got killed all of a sudden,” Canty told the Baltimore Sun on Thursday .
Everytown for Gun Safety , the group backed by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, a vocal proponent of stricter gun laws, estimates that as many as 135 school shootings have occurred since Newtown, in December 2012, resulting in at least 52 deaths and nearly 100 non-fatal gunshot injuries.
This week, in addition to the close call in West Virginia, a third grader who brought a gun to school accidentally shot a classmate , and Mississippi State University was placed on lockdown after a student threatened to kill himself and others.
In urban areas, the availability of firearms – mostly obtained illegally – has transformed gun violence into an intractable plague. In Chicago, one of the deadliest examples, there have been 1,897 shooting victims this year, according to data compiled by the Chicago Tribune. Among those victims in several shootings last Wednesday was a 14-year-old girl who was struck while standing on a corner .
The number of people who die from gun-related incidents dwarfs any deaths that happen through terrorism
The intersection of domestic violence and guns has also spurred calls for reform, with advocates highlighting statistics that reveal a greater threat posed to victims of domestic abuse when a firearm is involved. Women are five times more likely to be killed by their abuser if the abuser owns a gun, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence . The group also found that more than two-thirds of spouse and ex-spouse homicide victims over the last three decades were killed with firearms.
Americans for Responsible Solutions and Everytown have led the charge over the last two years in battling the gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association, to provoke reforms to gun safety laws at both the federal and state level. This week, gun control advocates renewed calls on US lawmakers to at the very least hold a debate, if not a vote, on legislative solutions that might curtail gun-related deaths and injuries.
They were echoed by Barack Obama, who after the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, made gun reforms a cornerstone of his agenda only to be stymied by Republicans in Congress.
“It breaks my heart every time you read or hear about these kids of incidents,” Obama said in an interview hours after Parker and Ward were killed. “What we know is that the number of people who die from gun-related incidents around this country dwarfs any deaths that happen through terrorism.”
It has been more than two years since the US Senate failed to pass legislation designed to expand federal background checks, proposals made in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, in which 20 children and six educators were killed, as well as the gunman and his mother.
Despite garnering the support of 90% of Americans, the bipartisan background checks bill was blocked by a Republican-led filibuster and not once revisited – even as high-profile mass shootings have continued to dominate headlines.
Politicians who oppose new restrictions on guns have been quick to point out that the law could not have stopped Vester Flanagan from shooting his former colleagues, their interviewee and himself in Virginia.
Although the state does have a massive loophole in its gun laws – no background checks are required for firearms purchased at gun shows – Flanagan bought his handgun legally after passing a background check.
His mental instability became apparent after the killings, but he had no known history of psychiatric treatment. He had no record of criminal felonies and had no protective orders against him. A waiting period would also not have helped, because he bought his pistol two months before the shootings.
But gun control advocates believe the shooting in Virginia is an exception to the rule. The majority of gun-related incidents, they have argued, could be prevented by proposals currently on the table, such as universal background checks, cracking down on the trafficking of firearms, or banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
“The idea of a background check was a really good idea yesterday, it was last month, it will be a good idea tomorrow no matter how the details of this particular idea unfold,” Colin Goddard, a survivor of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting and senior policy advocate for Everytown, told the Guardian.
“We should do them on all sales. That is the single most effective way we could prevent a gun from getting into the wrong person’s hands in the first place.”
With every incident, the gun reform movement gets the chance to gain another grieving relative with enough public capital to speak for the families of the other 616 families who died that week.
This week, Alison Parker’s father, Andy Parker, announced it would be his life’s mission to push for change.
“There has to be a way to force politicians that are cowards and in the pockets of the NRA to come to grips and have sensible laws so that crazy people can’t get guns,” Parker told CNN, the morning after the shooting.
“It can’t be that hard.”