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When it comes to mass shootings, the panic is what's
fueling the crisis.
It's time for us to get responsible in the
way we cover mass shootings and the way we discuss them as a society.
James Alan Fox Opinion columnist
Published 12.34 p.m. ET Dec.3, 2019 | Updated
1:22 p.m. ET Dec.3, 2019
The number of shootings in which four
or more victims are killed has spiked to 32 thus far this year, according to
the Associated Press/USA TODAY/Northeastern University Mass Killing
Database. This alarming figure already surpasses the yearly total for any
point in time since the 1970s.
This past weekend saw a pair of
shooting sprees in New Orleans. Although the shootings fortunately did not
meet the definition of mass killings in terms of fatalities, they certainly
made residents of the Big Easy (and elsewhere) quite a bit uneasy.
Despite the recurring horrors of recent months, it would be inappropriate to
characterize the scourge of mass killings as the "new normal,"especially
since this year's carnage stands as a relatively short-term surge after many
years with no particular upward or downward trend. Hopefully, this spike in
mass bloodshed will not persist.
Whatever the future holds in terms
of trend, Americans are fearful and hyper vigilant. Just last month at a
Boca Raton, Florida mall, hundreds of shoppers ran for cover when a loud
noise was followed by screams about an active shooter. Contrary to breaking
headlines about gunfire, there was in fact no shooting or shooter - just the
sound of a balloon pop. And the only serious injury was the result of
someone who hit his head while running scared. Similar balloon-burst false
alarms also prompted widespread panic and lockdowns of buildings at Simmons
College and the University of Michigan.The public is
following the media's lead on mass shooting hysteria
who can blame those who assumed the worst given the pervasive media coverage
of mass shootings? Although there is little evidence that the risk is
anything close to epidemic proportions, despite what some observers have
suggested, fear is certainly rampant. One-third of Americans say they avoid
public places for fear of being the victim of a mass shooting. Moreover, six
out of ten worry that a mass shooting will occur in their community. When
compared with the actual risk, the climate reeks of hysteria.
Frequent stories about mass shootings as well as the prospect for tighter
firearms restrictions in response have apparently prompted many Americans to
stock up on weapons. The number of background checks for gun purchases
reached a near record level on Black Friday, according to FBI reports.
The recent surge in mass killings as well as the countless number of
thwarted plots to add to the carnage, reflect a contagion effect, which
should not be confused with the actions of a handful of copycats who seek to
outgun their undeserving idols. Contagion is not the result of mass
murderers being identified by name and photograph in the news.
Ironically, fear itself is a major source of the contagion. Endless
discussion and excessive worry over the risk of mass shootings play into the
mindsets of malcontents and hatemongers. Our obsession over a rare, although
awful, event serves as a constant reminder for angry and dispirited
individuals that the standard course of action in response to profound
disappointment and sense of injustice is to pick up a gun and open fire on
those perceived to be responsible. Our collective expressions of dread make
us appear weak and vulnerable, rather than strong and resilient.
Common sense solutions: Odessa mass shooting debunks argument against
universal background checks
Fortunately, contagion can dissipate as
quickly as it spreads. We have the ability to change the narrative.
We're doing the same thing we did in the 90s
example of how contagion builds and then dissolves can be seen in the string
of school shootings that emerged in the late 1990s. Between 1996 and early
2001, there were 8 multiple-victim school shootings perpetrated by alienated
teens amidst a climate of fear regarding school safety. President Bill
Clinton became so distressed, especially after a shooting in his home state
of Arkansas, that he convened a White House advisory committee on school
shootings. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education published a detailed
guide on school shooting warning signs and distributed the booklet to every
school in America. It's time to act:
is a health crisis, not a political football.
By March 2001, revered
newsman Dan Rather declared school shootings a national epidemic. Months
later, just as the new school year had begun, something even more terrifying
occurred: the September 11th attack on America. Immediately, the focus
turned to this new threat to our safety and security. Americans' fears
centered on terror from abroad, not from within school settings. Remarkably,
there wasn't another multiple-victim K-12 school shooting for four years.
The lesson, albeit a difficult one, is for us to stop obsessing over
mass shootings. We shouldn't ignore the problem, of course, but excessive
attention can fuel the contagion and thus increase the risk. Indeed, there
are many other perils that we face as a nation, from the opioid crisis to
climate change. At least these threats are not inspired by our fears and
concern.James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of
Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University, a member of
USA TODAY's Board of Contributors and co-author of "Extreme Killing:
Understanding Serial and Mass Murder." Follow him on Twitter: @jamesalanfox.