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
Of course, 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.
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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
A prime 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.
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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.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mass shootings aren't that common. Our panic is part of the problem.