Just as we were wrapping up the series on gun control, there is another shooting. It seems as if they happen far too often, as if we are becoming more and more violent as the years progress, and must do something to reverse the process.
Yet as with many things in which we rely on our impressions, this is not true. Rather, the 1990s were a peak decade, and the aughts, the first decade of this century, decisively less violent in terms of such mass killings, according to those who study the issue seriously. Further, the United States was considerably more violent in the past, with the 1920s holding the record for number of mass shootings in a single year. It only seems to us as if there are more such shootings today.
One reason for this is media saturation. It is difficult to imagine a shooting occurring anywhere in this country where no one on site would have a camera; they have become ubiquitous, existing in even cheap cell phones, and many will take motion video. The nearly universal access to the Internet similarly means that anything “exciting” that happens is known around the world in minutes, and mass shootings are exciting, partly because they are dreadful, but partly because they are uncommon and most of us will never be in one. The fact that news of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut was spread to so many so quickly (by the time those of us on the three to eleven shift were awake, it was already being discussed retrospectively by radio pundits) made it seem as if it could happen to any of us, but then, so do stories of lottery winners, and most of us are quite aware of the unlikelihood of winning a major lottery prize. There are many unexpected tragic events–fatal school bus accidents, train wrecks, airplane crashes, killer storms, earthquakes. Yes, they happen when and where least expected, and yes, they are least expected everywhere always, but they do not happen everywhere always. It is precisely how rare they are that makes them so shocking: we did not expect it, because it almost never happens to anyone. So, too, it is the rarity of such shootings that make them shocking, and the fact that the people did not expect it that makes it feel as if it could have been us. Indeed, it could have been us, but we are more likely to be killed by drunk drivers or household accidents, and most of us manage to avoid these deaths and die of something else.
Indeed, the number of deaths in the United States from gun-related violence of all types (including robberies, gang violence, and murders of individuals) is about thirty-two thousand per year. Alcohol kills more than twice that number, over seventy-five thousand a year, of whom forty-one thousand die from injuries in accidents (mostly automotive) and another thirty-five thousand from diseases, mostly cirrhosis. Drunk drivers alone kill an estimated twenty-seven people per day–far more in a month than random shooters of the Sandy Hook variety kill in a year. Alcohol is the worse killer. Yet we attempted to outlaw alcohol, and the result was booming criminal activity and the result that any suggestion that alcohol ought to be more strictly regulated is ridiculed as impossible. The majority of drinkers, we are told, drink responsibly, despite the fact that every day an estimated three hundred thousand drive drunk. Whether the claim that the majority of gun owners are responsible is true is almost irrelevant: irresponsible drivers clearly outnumber irresponsible gun owners, with as deadly a weapon.
We focus on these shootings because they are emotionally wrenching and well publicized–the fact that over two thousand children die of cancer every year does not touch us so much as the appeal of one dying child in an Internet video. It is certainly tragic when anyone dies of any cause, the more so if he might have lived long and done much, and the more so if we think it could have been prevented. Guns make such murderous rampages easier, but high school students have built their own bombs, and used knives and axes and metal pipes and two-by-fours in fatal violence. Someone who wants to kill can find a way.
Next week we will reconsider the concept of screening people to find the threats before they act.