One category of responses could be called “personal responsibility” theories. Some of the respondents believe that these crimes are caused by the personal deficiencies in the people who are committing the crimes. These are people who believe that deterrent criminal justice policies would go a long way to solving the problem. To them, today’s young people are more apt to commit these kinds of crimes because they have not been properly schooled in how to act. These eschew theories that suggest that crime can be caused by environmental factors or opportunity.
There is another category of responses that might be called “environmental crime” theories. These are people who believe that crime is primarily caused by the things that surround a person. For instance, some people believe that crimes are committed because young people are influenced by the images they see on television. They think that when young people are shown images of violence, they are more likely to act violent. Others still believe that the media coverage of the events can be a contributing factor to these crimes, as young people will seek out attention for their crimes because they know that the news media will feature their story. Ironically, these are the kinds of people who tend to believe that school shootings are not that big of a deal. From a policy perspective, these people might think that it is best if media did not give these events the sort of coverage that these events get.
Some of these responses could be categorized based upon the political leanings of the people who said them. This was clear both from the overt manifestations of political intent and the covert manifestations. Code words like “thug” and mentions of the liberal media reveal that some people believe that this issue can be broken down on political lines. “Personal responsibility” then becomes a code word that allows these kinds of responses to subvert discussions about the role of guns in these crimes.
In this instance, the facilitator did a good job of keeping the discussion moving in the right direction. The discussion was one among people who had very different ideas and viewpoints. Not only did these people disagree, but in many cases, they had extreme viewpoints on these issues. Gun control was especially heated, with people getting personal with one another. The facilitator did a good job of throwing his weight around in order to stop people from using these kinds of personal attacks. One of the best things the facilitator did was to point out early when the discussion seemed to dove-tail. Still, the facilitator did allow the discussion to reveal other, more pertinent discussions on the same lines. This was a smart move, as it allowed the participants to reveal some of the assumptions and biases surrounding their viewpoints. The facilitator asked appropriate questions given the purpose of this exercise. He was direct. In some cases, the questions were leading. This is the one critique that one could offer of him and his work. He asked certain leading questions in an effort to produce the diversity of responses that he was looking for. His participants ran with this.
Focus group research has some clear advantages over surveys. For one, focus groups are extremely in-depth and detailed. One can get much more information from the participants. With surveys, people might not go as in-depth. Likewise, the discussion cannot take on forms that the facilitator lets them take through evolution. On surveys, things are somewhat structured and limited. While this can give more organized information that can be better used, it also limits the insights that might be gained through the process. If one was using this exercise to then go and design a survey, one might want to ask directly what the causes of school violence are. One would need to provide responses related to guns, related to media portrayals of violence, related to parents, and even related to a lack of punishment in the criminal justice system. The survey might even allow the individuals responding to choose more than one of these responses.
There are examples of symbols and metaphors in this exercise. Participant #6 wanted to use the metaphor of cars and drunk driving in order to make a point about guns. He argues that guns, if they are understood like vehicles, are not the cause of violence, but rather, the conduit for violence. They are tools used by people who would otherwise be making bad decisions anyway. This participant is using the fact that people do not blame cars for drunk driving deaths to prove that people should also not blame guns for causing shooting deaths. This is a powerful representation, though some were able to refute it through the process, pointing out that cars serve different purposes other than killing people.
A policy analyst could certainly use this information to shape new policies. There is some good information in these responses about the types of things that people might support. More importantly, an analyst could use this information to know the kinds of connections that people draw in their minds between crime outcomes and potential causes of crimes. For instance, an analyst would know from this information that any kind of gun control legislation in the wake of school shootings is going to draw some support from those who support environmental crime theory, while it is going to see push-back from people who apparently believe that attempts to legislate guns are a violation of the constitution.