“We’ve endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years,” President Barack Obama said in a statement responding to the fatal shooting of at least 26 individuals, including 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut Friday morning. This shooting caps a year filled with mass shootings, including five killed in Georgia, seven killed in Oakland, six killed in Seattle, 12 killed in Colorado, seven killed in Wisconsin, six killed in Minneapolis, and three killed in Oregon (a full map is available here). The American people should take the time to mourn the loss of those killed in these senseless acts of violence. But they should also use them as a time for serious introspection into our collective psyche and culture.
Public debate and discussion about the role of guns and gun culture in American society must be a key component of that process. The question that many Americans will be asking is: Why did the shooting occur and how can we prevent another shooting in the future? It is not just that guns are available, it’s also the culture that surrounds them. It’s about the people and the tools, not one or the other. A comprehensive attempt at gun control would better inform Americans about gun safety and the hazards of guns. But how best to do that? I offer one possible solution: the power of federal government intervention through schools.
That’s what worked to change cultural attitudes toward blacks in the second half of the 20th century. In the 1960s, America was undergoing its most contentious transformation of the postwar era. An oft-cited refrain from Southerners then was that culture cannot be legislated. Southerners, in a show of massive resistance, opposed court-mandated school desegregation, arguing that acceptance of blacks would only occur in due time, not through court decisions or federal mandates.
Due to the federalized nature of our political system, Washington had little power to interfere in state business. States often used a states-right argument to obstruct federal legislation and Supreme Court decisions granting equal rights to African-Americans. Yet, the federal government—in conjunction with the action of thousands of unknown individuals in local towns and cities across the country—was able to change the culture of civil rights in the United States during the 1960s and beyond. It did so by using the link between civil rights law and federal funding for schools.
The Johnson administration was able to push local school districts to desegregate only by offering federal funding for education if districts complied with new civil rights law. Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the Department of Health Education and Welfare (HEW) could withhold federal money from school districts that were in violation of the law. HEW’s power to influence school policy and cultural understandings of civil rights was significant. In fact, according to James T. Patterson’s book, Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and its Troubling Legacy, federal funding for schools increased from $2.7 billion in 1964-65 to $14.7 billion in 1971-72. The power to withhold these funds was crucial to changing the culture of segregated schooling in our society.