Chris Cassella, ’20, grew up in Orange, CT, about 30 miles from Newtown, where the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting took place in 2012. “I was very young when 9/11 happened, so for me, this was my ‘shocking moment,’” Cassella said. “I know exactly where I was, what I was doing, and I saw how things changed in my community in the aftermath.” 

Now a politics, philosophy, economics, and law (PPEL) and political science double major, Cassella saw the A&S Summer Fellowship program as a chance to research mass shootings and their impact, a topic that means a great deal to him. “For me, Sandy Hook was so close to home, it’s still present, and it’s something that could happen to any of us,” he said. “The research fellowship is a great opportunity to answer questions about why shootings happen, what have we done about them, and since they keep happening, what can we do in the future?”

Cassella’s project involves creating a timeline of mass shootings that have occurred, beginning with the Columbine, CO shootings in 1999, and then looking at pieces of gun legislation that were or were not put forward after significant mass shooting events. “I’m using that data and tying it into what I’m calling ‘gun politics,’ which relates more to consumer behavior, activity from interest groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA), and public opinion, measured through polling, protests, and other activity,” Cassella said. “Looking at specific pieces of legislation allows me to measure the public opinion at the time, because legislation of this sort is generally spurred by citizens demanding action.”

Cassella has documented 28 mass shootings, where 7 or more people were killed, beginning with Columbine and continuing through the Santa Fe, TX school shooting in May 2018. Within that same time period, he has found about 200 pieces of legislation that have been introduced dealing with guns, background checks, or gun control; many of them were included as part of larger appropriations bills which could lead to more likely passage.

He also spent time trying to understand the culture around guns, and why people are so fascinated with them. “I traveled to a gun show in DC, and walked around and talked to people who tried to sell me guns,” he said. It was a way of life he hadn’t encountered before. “I learned that everyone is scared that someone is going to kill them, and that’s why they want to have guns,” he said. “I’m trying to remove the politics and my personal bias from it to understand the issue from all sides. But at the same time, I’m not interested in taking people’s guns away, I just want to try and figure out how we can stop mass shootings.”

“I’m still in the midst of conducting the research, which means I haven’t drawn any conclusions yet,” Cassella said, “but one thing that has become very clear through this project is that the issue is really messy, and people get furious about it. Gun control now is so polarizing, it’s to a point where we can’t even talk about it.” And to him, that’s a problem. “At its core, politics needs discourse and discussion,” he said.

Cassella has been grateful for the opportunity to work on the project. “With this research, I have the ability to think of questions, write them down, and devote all of my time this summer to answering them,” he said. “It’s different than anything I’ve done before, and I wasn’t sure that I would like it, but it’s been nice having so much free reign.”

While he isn’t sure his career path will include research, Cassella is focused on finding a way to make a difference. “I want to go into a field where I can help others who haven’t been as fortunate as myself, where I can make an impact,” he said. “I’m considering NGO’s and think tanks, but I think my next step will be applying to the Brady Center for Handgun Violence's internship program, with hopes of becoming a policy researcher.