Sandy Hook’s Legacy: Dartmouth Experts Look Back

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December 14 marks the anniversary of one of America’s darkest chapters, the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

That day in 2012, a gunman shot his way into the school and killed 26 people, 20 of them children. The horrifying event left America reeling and angry, and thrust the divisive issues of gun control and gun rights into the spotlight once again. A shooting today, December 13, at a high school in Centennial, Colo., makes the anniversary a double tragedy.

Sandy Hook sign

“Significant legislation and shifts in public opinion may be the wrong places to look for Newtown’s legacy,” says Professor of Government Dean Lacy. (Photo by AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

So how has America changed since Sandy Hook? As Dartmouth scholars look back on the past year, what’s clear is that the impact on American policy has yet to be determined.

At a vigil two days after the shooting, President Barack Obama vowed to do everything he could to avoid a similar tragedy. But in April, a bill proposed by Obama to expand gun regulations failed even to pass the Senate, which has a Democratic majority.

Statistician Harry Enten ’11, who was recently hired at the political blog FiveThirtyEight, says Democratic congressmen who represent more conservative-leaning states are less likely to support gun control.

“Some analysts like to talk about how the Democratic presidential coalition—minorities and young urban professionals—is for gun control,” says Enten. “But Democrats in states like Alaska and Arkansas need to rely on a different coalition to win—a coalition that is more gun friendly.”

Assistant Professor of Government Brendan Nyhan says that even if the bill did clear the Senate, it would have most likely died in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Nyhan, who has researched news cycles in the media, says support for gun control waned in the months following Sandy Hook.

“It’s true that media coverage of the issue and support for gun control increased after the shootings, but the debate has receded from the headlines and public support for new regulations has ebbed,” says Nyhan. “As a result, I don’t expect to see movement on this issue any time soon at the federal level.”

At the state level, an argument could be made that Newtown has helped ease regulations on guns. This week The New York Times reported that, since Sandy Hook, 109 new state gun bills have become law—70 loosened restrictions on guns, while 39 increased restrictions. Freedom Group, a collection of firearm manufacturers that includes Remington and Bushmaster, is expecting sales to be around $1.25 billion in 2013, or an increase of about 36 percent over 2012, according to CNBC.

But the debate on how to prevent such shootings doesn’t end with the gun debate.

In the days following Sandy Hook, National Rifle Association CEO and Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre called for armed police officers to be placed in schools, saying the “only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is to have a good guy with a gun,” The Washington Post reported. Others have sought to curb graphic violence in movies and video games. Some activists have clamored for improvements to the mental health system, in hopes of screening potential attackers and blocking the mentally ill from acquiring weapons.

Dror Ben-Zeev, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Geisel School of Medicine, notes that this week the White House allocated $100 million toward improving the nation’s mental health services and facilities.

But it remains to be seen how these funds will be used and whether they will have a meaningful effect on gun violence, Ben-Zeev says.

“Once in a while an individual will conduct an atrocious crime. It receives a lot of media attention and brings the issue of mental health to the forefront for a short while,” says Ben-Zeev. “But focusing just on people with mental health problems is clearly not enough. The proportion of violence that is committed by people with mental health problems is a tiny fraction of violent crime committed by people without it.”

“Some of these shooters were very socially isolated, disconnected, and disengaged from their community,” says Ben-Zeev. “I’m not convinced that, if an abundance of services were available to the individuals who went on to commit these crimes, they would seek them out, or remain engaged over time.”

Thomas K. McInerny ’63, MED ’64, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, says solutions must continue to be pursued. Gun violence is the second leading cause of death in children, he says.

“The core of pediatric care is prevention,” he says. “60 years ago, children died from things like polio and meningitis and diphtheria and then we discovered we can prevent these diseases. Gun violence is the same: We can prevent this.”

The images of Sandy Hook—students fleeing the school and crying parents desperately searching for their children—will continue to haunt us. But the lasting impact of the shooting on American policy is less clear.

Dean Lacy, professor of government, says one might see the effects of Newtown at the local rather than the national level.

“Significant legislation and shifts in public opinion may be the wrong places to look,” he says. “It is the accumulation of small changes in policy at the local level that may define Newtown’s legacy.”

“The doors at my son’s elementary school are now locked once school begins,” says Lacy. “That’s part of Newtown’s legacy.”