On Jan. 16, only about 20 minutes apart, shootings marred what would have been otherwise normal Friday evening basketball games at high schools in Mobile, Alabama, and Ocala, Florida. A student was shot and injured in each case; both survived. They were the 49th and 50th shootings at K–12 schools in the U.S. — calculated by Al Jazeera as incidents in which a gun discharges on school property and a student or teacher is involved but not police — since the December 2012 massacre of 26 children and staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. This is the fourth in a seven-part series examining the issues surrounding school shootings in the U.S. The other six parts took stock of where the gun control debate stands, how defense measures could traumatize kids, how threat assessments are being used to prevent school violence, why Massachusetts has the fewest guns deaths per capita, Newtown's grass-roots gun reform efforts, and where most gun violence against kids takes place.
ATLANTA — Fortunately, no one was killed in four incidents of gun violence in Georgia schools from January 2013 to March 2014. Luck ran out in October, however.
Teens were gathered in a parking lot at Langston Hughes High School in Fairburn, Georgia, a town south of Atlanta, on Friday night after a homecoming football game. Shots rang out, and 17-year-old Kristofer Hunter was hit. He died later that night at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta.
“You can’t even come to a football game and watch it anymore,” Khyra Perry, a stunned friend of Hunter’s, told local television station WSB after the shooting. “You have to worry about somebody getting shot.”
Since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, on Dec. 14, 2012, Georgia has had 12 shooting incidents at K–12 schools or colleges, according to Everytown for Gun Safety.
The gun-control advocacy organization, a merger of Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, has ranked Georgia — which ranks eighth in population — first among the states in school and college campus shootings since the Newtown killings.
The state has another distinction: It has some of the most relaxed gun laws in the nation.
And gun ownership is high. Across the South, 38 percent of households have a gun — compared with 35 percent in the Midwest, 34 percent in the West and 27 percent in the Northeast — according to a Pew Research Center survey published in July.
“What we know is that in a region where there are more guns, you’ll find more gun deaths,” said David Hemenway, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and the director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center.
Georgia gun advocates are proud of the prevalence of guns in the state and of a law the National Rifle Association called the “most comprehensive pro-gun reform legislation introduced in recent history.”
Dubbed the “guns everywhere” law, it took effect in Georgia in July, allowing firearms in many more public places, including churches, bars and some government buildings. Local school boards may allow staffers to carry firearms.
Few, if any, districts have opted to do that. (“We have not heard of any,” said Matt Cardoza, director of communications for the Georgia Department of Education.) The law does not allow guns in most areas of college campuses.
The law expanded the “stand your ground” law, which allows a person to use deadly force when threatened, to include people convicted of felonies. It permits guns to be carried as far as the TSA checkpoint in Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and forbids police officers to ask a person with a gun to produce a license unless the officer has a reason to detain the person.
Jerry Henry, executive director of Georgia Carry, a gun rights group that lobbied for the law, is pleased with the legislation. He believes homes and public places are safer when citizens carry guns.
“We’d still like to see school carry,” he said.
But Hemenway says the evidence shows otherwise, that higher household gun ownership rates directly correlate to higher suicide, gun accident and homicide rates. In addition, residents of the 15 states with the most guns are six times as likely to die in gun accidents than residents of the states with the fewest guns.
In his 2011 report “Risks and Benefits of a Gun in the Home,” Hemenway points to comparisons between the U.S. rate of gun deaths and rates in Australia, Canada and New Zealand — which have fewer guns and more stringent gun regulation. While those countries’ property and violent crime rates were comparable with the United States’, their murder rates were far lower.
“The issue is not really legal firearms,” said Darren Simpson, who has sold jewelry, guns and tools at County Line Pawn Shop in Marietta, Georgia, for nearly 19 years. “It’s the ones who purchase firearms out of someone’s trunk.”
“Society is like fudge,” he said. “Generally, we’re all sweet people, but we’re going to have some nuts.”
But according to a 2004 study by the U.S. Department of Education and the Secret Service, most students who carried out school shootings got their guns from home.
Georgia’s new gun law is only six months old, and there’s no indication yet of an increase in gun incidents at schools since then. Two of the 12 incidents in the past two years occurred after July 1, 2014, when the law took effect.
Seven of the 12 incidents occurred at Georgia colleges, including a suicide at Georgia Gwinnett College, a killing at Savannah State and injuries at Morehouse College and Paine College. Three other incidents involved gunshots that didn’t hit anybody.
The remaining incidents occurred at elementary and high schools.
In January 2013 a fight broke out in the courtyard at Price Middle School in Atlanta. Telvis Douglas, 14, was shot in the back of the head with a handgun. Miraculously, the injury was only a flesh wound.
A month later a 17-year-old girl took a handgun to Grady High School in Atlanta. The gun accidentally discharged, and the bullet struck her upper leg.
Earlier this year, students in the parking lot at Banneker High School in Union City, south of Atlanta, got into an argument. One of them fired shots in the air. No one was injured.
The incident that came closest to a mass disaster was 20-year-old Michael Brandon Hill’s entry into the Ronald E. McNair Discover Learning Academy Elementary School in Decatur in August 2013. Hill, who had a history of mental illness, carried an AK-47 and a bag of ammunition. He barricaded himself in the school office and exchanged gunfire with police.
School bookkeeper Antoinette Tuff called 911 and then began talking gently to Hill. She told him about her struggles in life, including raising a disabled child. She told him he hadn’t hurt anyone and could still surrender. She began relaying his messages to law enforcement. “He said he should have just went to the mental hospital instead of doing this, because he’s not on his medication,” she told the dispatcher.
At Hill’s request, she announced on the school’s public address system that he was sorry for what he had done and didn’t want to hurt anyone. She persuaded him to put his weapons and ammunition on the counter and told him she loved him. “We’re not gonna hate you, baby,” she said. “It’s a good thing that you’re giving up.”
Tuff was credited with saving lives that day. Her kind and comforting words are perhaps as much a part of Southern culture as a ready acceptance of guns.