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America's increasing moral panic over active shooters is overblown and counterproductive:

James Alan Fox, Opinion columnist
Published 3:15 a.m. ET Aug. 6, 2018

Active shooter situations have become the latest moral panic. FBI data and news coverage blow attacks out of proportion, causing us to fear the rarest of events.

Reports that there was an active shooter barricaded inside an Ohio military hospital Thursday sent employees scurrying for safety as teams of first responders rushed to the scene. News of the crisis spread quickly throughout the national media and the Twittersphere. By the time officials gave the "all clear," it became apparent that a planned active shooter training exercise had been mistaken for the real thing.

Although actual active shooter events can be devastating, the level of fear associated with this modern-day boogeyman is out of control, leading to countless false alarms:

►An unfounded report of an active shooter inside a California hospital Wednesday prompted a "code black" lockdown of the facility and a massive police response.

►An attempted robbery of a jewelry store on July 28 inside a Texas mall created havoc when the sound of breaking glass was mistaken for an active shooter event, sending terrified shoppers rushing for the exits.

►As fireworks lit up the sky above Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, last July Fourth, word spread through the crowd that there was an active shooter among them, sending thousands running for their lives. However, there was no shooting and no gunman - just folks misinterpreting the sound of firecrackers.

Satanic cults, child abductions by strangers, pedophile daycare workers - all were at some point considered threats of some magnitude, albeit small. Yet, in classic moral panic fashion, frightened Americans overstated the risk and embraced overresponse.

Of course, anyone who sits in a classroom or at his desk at work, or who visits a shopping mall or restaurant, faces the possibility of confronting an armed assailant. But the likelihood is akin to that of being killed by lightning.

How did we get to the point where the term "active shooter," a relatively recent addition to our lexicon, reflects a menace of intense concern?

In recent years, the FBI has produced a series of reports on active shooter events, dispelling a number of common misconceptions. For example, the latest update indicated that, contrary to what many believe, active shooters are generally not driven by serious mental illness. Moreover, they tend to target specific victims as opposed to shooting indiscriminately.

Are there really more active shooters?

The FBI statistics remain dubious, however, in terms of the reported increase over the past two decades, which has many observers thinking in epidemic terms. According to the FBI database, partially assembled by accessing news archives, the number of active shooters - defined as a gunman "actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in populated areas" - grew from one case in 2000 (the massacre of seven employees in Wakefield, Massachusetts) to an average of dozens over the past few years.

Is the increase in actual cases or in the ability to locate cases from years gone by, especially when the press was not so vigilant in reporting on armed assailants who, despite their intentions, failed to kill lots of people? It is hard to fathom that in 2000, there was not more than one person in this entire nation who picked up a loaded gun with the desire to kill many people in a public place. Actually, there was, among others, a Pittsburgh man who killed five in a hate-inspired rampage. He just didn't make the FBI database.

In the four years since the FBI began surveying active shooter events, 27 percent of assailants failed to kill anyone. In the first four years of the FBI database (2000-03), only 9 percent killed no one. Either active shooters of recent vintage are poorer marksmen, or the less serious cases of earlier years were not identified.
The other factor driving misperceptions of risk is the over-the-top news coverage. As in the recent episode at YouTube headquarters, as soon as the 911 calls arrive, satellite trucks and helicopters are dispatched to the scene transmitting live images into living rooms across America.

Our fear doesn't match the level of risk.

As a result, the level of fear is well out of proportion with the risk. For example, a recent poll of residents of Anne Arundel County, Maryland, found that two-thirds feared that an active shooter would strike at a local school. Sadly, there was indeed an attack, but instead of striking a school as residents feared, he struck the very newspaper that published the survey results.

Although fear can sometimes encourage taking reasonable precautions, in the case of moral panics, the steps are often useless, of questionable value, or even counterproductive. Consider these examples:

►Some schools, despite limited budgets, are purchasing active shooter insurance in case of liability.

►For school teachers, a few hours of training at a shooting range and simulated exercises hardly qualifies them to be prepared sufficiently for the real thing.

►It is debatable whether active shooter drills in schools and workplaces really help, but they certainly can arouse fear. The message is: "We wouldn't be doing these drills were we not in real danger." Inadvertently, the drills can also inform a disgruntled student or employee of the best attack strategy.

►In 2016, Michigan established an active shooter alert system patterned after the Amber Alert. Unlike kidnappers, active shooters rarely venture very far or remain active for long. Widely broadcasting an alert could do more to frighten than protect citizens.

Overall, one of the most significant downsides to our hypervigilance is the constant reminder of danger and the possibility of false alarms. Plus, the more we obsess over active shooters, the more we entice angry individuals to seek redress with a gun.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors. He is co-author of Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder.  Follow him on Twitter @jamesalanfox.