This is the first part of a three-part series examining mass shootings from a critical thinking and media literacy perspective.
With the recent tragic attacks in Dayton and El Paso, the world once again turns its attention to mass shootings. It’s a subject that has captivated America for years, with little progress in understanding the nature of the problem.
The topic of mass shootings is fraught, not only with political agendas but also with rampant misinformation. Facile comparisons and snarky memes dominate social media, crowding out objective, evidence-based evidence and analysis. This is effective for scoring political points but wholly counterproductive for understanding the nature of the problem and its broader issues.
The public’s perception of mass shootings is heavily influenced by mass media, primarily news media and social media. In my capacity as a media literacy educator (and author of several books on the topic including Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us), I have in past articles for the Center for Inquiry attempted to unpack thorny and contentious social issues such as the labeling of terrorists (see, for example, my April 2, 2018 Special Report “Why ‘They’ Aren’t Calling It ‘Terrorism’–A Primer”) and the claim that “the media” isn’t covering certain news stories because of some social or political agenda (see my November 9, 2018 piece “‘Why Isn’t The Media Covering This Story?’—Or Are They?”).
In this three-part series, I will focus on myths about mass shootings in America specifically. My focus is not on the politics of gun control or criminology but instead misinformation and media literacy, specifically spread through news and social media (“the media” in this article). A comprehensive analysis of the phenomenology of mass shootings is beyond the scope of this short article series; my goal is to help separate facts from myths about mass shootings so that the public can better understand the true nature of the problem.
Specifically, in this series I will tackle 1) the nature and frequency of mass shootings, 2) the demographics of mass shooters, and concluding with 3) applying media literacy to mass shooting statistics. As with any topic, the best place to start is with definitions, so I will begin by taking a closer look at the nature and frequency of mass shootings.
How Common Are Mass Shootings?
Mass shootings, and especially the subset of shootings at schools, are often portrayed in the media as “horrifyingly common” and “the new normal.” Sarcastic phrases and memes such as “another day, another school shooting” reinforce the idea that they happen all the time. Following many outrages—ranging from school shootings to real or perceived un-American actions by Donald Trump and others—it’s common to hear concerns that Americans are “numb” to terrors and that the transgressions are becoming so routine and “normal” that citizens have lost their ability to be outraged.
However, the reaction to school shootings suggests that Americans are anything but numb or indifferent to the violence. People do not protest against events, situations, and conditions that they consider normal or ones that they are numb to. Protests and boycotts have become common following school shootings (whether those have resulted in political action is another question).
The concern that Americans are numb to violence is widespread and often shared on social and news media. It’s a common claim among pundits and politicians. For example, in an October 1, 2015, speech shortly after a shooting in Eugene, Oregon, President Obama said that given the frequency of mass shootings, people had “become numb to this. … And what’s become routine, of course, is the response of those who oppose any kind of common-sense gun legislation.”
The Washington Post followed up two months later with an article titled “President Obama’s Right: Americans Might Be Growing Numb to Mass Shootings. Here’s Why.” The piece explores a few reasons a steady stream of violence could desensitize the public. The author, Colby Itkowitz, did himself no favors by referencing dubious and discredited theories about the influence of video game violence on real-world violence (Donald Trump was widely and rightly ridiculed for suggesting just such a link).
So are mass shootings common or not?
The public is understandably confused about how common mass shootings are because they get their information about such events from the media, which distorts the true nature and frequency of these attacks.
Most of us, thankfully, have no direct experience with mass shootings or school shootings; they happen occasionally and result in dead bodies, trials, news coverage, and often convictions—but there are also 325 million people in America. The chance of some person, or a few dozen people, being a victim of a mass shooting somewhere in the country on any given day is nearly 100 percent, but the chance of any given specific person—say you or me—being a victim is remote.
Let’s briefly sample prominent headlines from the past few years describing the frequency of mass shootings.
The Washington Post’s Christopher Ingraham wrote on August 26, 2015, that “We’re now averaging more than one mass shooting per day in 2015.” The New York Times headlined on December 2, 2015, “How often do mass shootings occur? On average, every day, records show.”
The verdict: about one each day, or 365 per year.
In 2016 The Economist, using information from Mother Jones, determined that there were fifty mass shootings through June 2016, which would come to about 100 for the year. Mark Hay, a writer for Vice.com, tracked American mass shootings for 2016 and concluded it was over three times as many, 370. (Note that the Pulse nightclub shooting, which occurred in 2016, is treated as a single mass shooting despite its then-unprecedented number of victims.)
The verdict: between one every third day to one each day, or 100 to 370 per year.
A CBS News headline from October 2, 2017, by Graham Kates stated “Report: U.S. averages nearly one mass shooting per day so far in 2017.” Newsweek’s John Haltiwanger echoed the statistic the same day with the headline “There’s a mass shooting almost every day in the U.S.”
The verdict: about one each day, or 365 per year.
Which brings us to last year, when on November 29, Meghan Keneally of ABC News noted that “2018 has seen more than 1 mass shooting per month in the US.” This is of course startlingly good news. It means that mass shootings dropped by about 70 percent from the previous years, from about 365 per year to about thirteen per year.
Except that the numbers are misleading.
The Washington Post’s Christopher Ingraham, who had reported in 2015 that mass shootings were happening about once a day, revisited the subject the following year, taking a closer look at the numbers. He offered an insightful analysis:
On Thursday, a gunman shot and killed three people and injured 14 more in Hesston, Kan., before he was killed by police.
It was the 49th mass shooting of 2016.
No scratch that, it was the 33rd mass shooting.
Actually, wait: It was only the second mass shooting this year, and it barely made the cut.
It’s said that the Inuit people have 50 words for snow. Sometimes it seems like Americans have nearly as many definitions for “mass shooting.” Which definition is correct? They all are—it just depends on what you want to measure.
Limiting mass shootings in this way is useful because it tends to filter out all but the big, headline-grabbing incidents that most people think of when they think “mass shooting”: Kalamazoo, Charleston, Umpqua.
But the definition omits a number of shootings that many reasonable people would consider a mass shooting. The man who shot up a theater in Lafayette, La., last summer killed only two people and wounded nine others—not a mass shooting, per Mother Jones’ definition. The killing of three people and shooting of 16 others at Fort Hood in 2014 isn’t included because not enough people died. Ditto the rampage at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic last year.
It seem that many mass shootings are an extension of other types of violence. Some of the bloodiest stem from domestic violence incidents, while some of the most common occur in the tight confines of nightclubs or just outside their doors. Many more stem from drive-bys or other street or home shootings, frequently pegged as gang related but often just interpersonal conflicts carried out on an opportunistic basis (often on holidays and weekends when people are out and about—and perhaps angry and liquored up) and made disproportionally deadly by the spray-and-pray style and culture of much of our gun violence. Only a few incidents fall under the indiscriminate rampage category, with which we often associate mass shootings in the US … Yet the only mass shootings that regularly grab our attention and drive national conversations are the indiscriminate public rampages. And when we talk about them, we focus on the perpetrators … This focus makes sense. Humans are drawn to the unusual—news isn’t news unless there’s something new about it, and common forms of gun violence don’t hack it compared to boogeymen we can project all our fears onto. However this focus has a nasty habit, in many jurisdictions, of increasing gun sales and loosening gun laws, and may in fact contribute to the ongoing increase in rampage shootings by giving perpetrators the infamy so many seem to be seeking.
Why Mass Shootings Seem More Common Than They Are
Why do shootings seem so common? Much of the answer lies in the news media and psychology. John Ruscio, a social psychologist at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, describes “the media paradox”: The more we rely on the popular media to inform us, the more apt we are to misplace our fears. The paradox is the combined result of two biases, one inherent in the news-gathering process, the other inherent in the way our minds organize and recall information. As Ruscio explains:
For a variety of reasons—including fierce competition for our patronage within and across the various popular media outlets—potential news items are rigorously screened for their ability to captivate an audience. … The stories that do make it through this painstaking selection process are then often crafted into accounts emphasizing their concrete, personal, and emotional content.
In turn, the more emotional and vivid the account is, the more likely we are to remember the information. This is the first element, the vividness bias: our minds easily remember vivid events. The second bias lies in what psychologists term the availability heuristic: our judgments of frequency and probability are heavily influenced by the ease with which we can imagine or recall instances of an event. So the more often we hear reports of plane crashes, school shootings, or train wrecks, the more often we think they occur. But the bias that selects those very events makes them appear more frequent than they really are.
Imagine, for example, that a consumer group dedicated to travel safety established a network of correspondents in every country that reported every train and bus wreck, no matter how minor, and broadcast daily pictures. Anyone watching that broadcast would see dozens of wrecks and crashes every day, complete with mangled metal and dead bodies, and would likely grow to fear such transportation. No matter that in general trains and buses are very safe; if you screen the news to emphasize certain vivid events, accidents will seem more dangerous and common than they actually are. That explains, in part, why many people fear flying even though they know that statistically it’s one of the safest modes of transport. Though crashes are very rare, the vividness and emotion of seeing dramatic footage of crashed planes drowns out the rational knowledge of statistical safety.
James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University, said his research showed the number of such shootings has roughly held steady in recent decades. He said that if analysts added a single year, 2014, and looked at four-year intervals instead of five-year intervals, the average number of annual mass shootings actually declined slightly from 2011 to 2014, compared with the previous four-year period. … While the numbers shift from year to year, there has been no discernible trend in the numbers or in the characteristics of the assailants, said Professor Fox, who is also a co-author of Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder. “The only increase has been in fear, and in the perception of an increase,” he said. “A lot of that has been because of the nature of media coverage.”
Another aspect of the phenomenon is that people see (and share) misleading statistics. For example, a widely shared meme circulating in mid-February 2018 stated that there had been eighteen “school shootings” so far in 2018. This may help explain the sentiment that Americans have gotten used to these school shootings or have become “numb” to them. It’s easy to think that when you hear an alarming statistic like “a dozen school shootings already this year,” and you’re wondering why you didn’t hear about more of them or how so many shootings could have escaped your attention or not had more emotional impact on you.
When we looked into it, we found that although all the incidents involved the firing of weapons on school grounds, some bore little resemblance to what most of us would think of when we hear that a school shooting has taken place. Two were solely suicides, for example (one of which Everytown retracted on 15 February after the Washington Post pointed out that it occurred at a school that had been closed for several months). Three involved the accidental firing of a weapon. Eight resulted in no injuries. Only seven were intentional shootings that occurred during normal school hours.
When we examine this feeling, however, the fact that such a meme can elicit this (intended) effect undermines the notion of our numbness: the meme’s message is startling—as it was designed to be—because viewers are alarmed when confronted with the fact that so many shootings escaped their notice. This meme would have no effect at all if, indeed, viewers did not care about shootings. It would be met with a shrug and scrolled past rather than induce self-reflection. Instead, the meme caused many to wonder how they missed so many important news events—but did they?
It’s important to understand that the number reflects a very broad definition of “school shooting.” When you look at the breakdown of “school shootings,” you realize that many were not incidents you’re likely to have heard about on national news or really cared about if you had: a suicide in a school parking lot, a gun that accidentally went off into a wall, a school bus window shot out with no injuries, etc. The phrase, as defined by the organization Everytown for Gun Safety—whose statistics are widely quoted—includes not only active shooters targeting students at school (i.e., what most people think of when they hear that phrase) but also accidents, suicides, events that didn’t happen at a school, non-injury incidents, and so on. People shouldn’t feel badly that they don’t remember details of events they likely never heard about.
Some have suggested that it doesn’t matter whether there were one, three, eleven, or twenty shootings at schools or cities over the first two months of 2018; “even one is too many.” This is a common retort, but it is misguided; quantifying a threat is important to understanding it. That’s the position that Trump has taken on many threats to make Americans fearful, including attacks by Muslim extremists, and that’s the basis for his statements such as Mexicans are “bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Framing the scenario dishonestly as “one Mexican rapist is too many” clouds the issue rather than clarifying it with reliable data (such as the fact that immigrants are far less likely to commit a serious crime than natural-born Americans). Putting threats in perspective is one role of journalists and skeptics. A first step in trying to address or solve a problem is determining its scope and nature.
In Part 2 of this series I will examine the different types of mass shootings and the demographics of mass shooters.