Connecticut school shooting: we need to treat mass killings as an epidemiological problem

America’s periodic school shootings, I think, fill a similar psychological space for the Left as Islamic terror does for the Right. The horrific images and the unnerving out-of-a-clear-blue-sky nature of the attacks make them terrifying, out of all proportion to the absolute risks, and the political narrative of preventability and blame is easily framed: “fewer guns (for school shootings), or more, say, ethnic profiling of terror suspects (for terror attacks), would have prevented this tragedy”.

To be clear, at least in the case of the Sandy Hook murders, the political narrative is probably, partly, true. Tim Stanley is right to say that “no law can abolish the human capacity for evil“. However, a human’s ability to act effectively on that evil is limited by his access to tools. It’s illustrative that, on the same day as the Sandy Hook horror, a man went on a knife rampage in a school in China, stabbing 22 children but killing none. If you want to kill people, it’s easier with a gun, and while it’s not an absolutely hard-and-fast law that more guns in a society means a higher rate of homicide, there is a strong correlation (and an even stronger correlation when limited to handguns, as opposed to all types of guns). America’s gun laws seem to make mass killings especially likely: Time magazine has listed the 25 worst mass shootings of the last 50 years; 15 of them took place in the US. (Finland is in second place, with two.)

But while your relative risk of being the victim of a mass shooting does spike hugely the moment you get off the plane at LAX or JFK, your absolute risk is still extremely low. Grant Duwe, a criminologist, estimates your odds of being a victim as about the same of being struck by lightning. There have been (I think, from adding up these numbers) 263 deaths in mass killings, defined as four or more dead not including the killer, since 1999’s Columbine massacre. According to the Centre for Disease Control’s National Vital Statistics Reports, 12,632 people were murdered with a gun in the US in 2007 alone: on Friday, it is very likely that the Sandy Hook killings were only a minority of the total gun deaths in the country, which average about 80 a day. Even among the set of gun victims, mass-shooting victims are a microscopic subset. (That, of course, makes the case for gun control rather more strongly, if anything.)

But in general, when we think of US firearm violence, we don’t think of domestic shootings or robberies-gone-wrong, even though they make up far, far more of the steady background crackle of gunfire in the States. We think of the high-profile but low-incidence cases of a lone, disturbed man or teenage boy walking into a school or college or place of work and opening fire on strangers.

The reason we think of that is the psychological shortcut called the “availability heuristic”, which I’ve written about before. When asked how likely something is to happen, we don’t answer with our knowledge of statistics: instead, we substitute the answer to a much easier question, “How easily can I think of an example?”. With school shootings, or terror attacks, we can of course think very easily of examples, because they are awful and thus memorable, and because, of course, they are saturated across the news. Just as with terror attacks, the social response to mass killings – metal detectors in school doorways, class in-the-event-of-a-shooting drills, like fire drills, for children – is disproportionate to the actual risk, and in a sick way represents a victory for the murderers.

Because, it must be made clear, social panic and notoriety are exactly what many mass killers want. Dr Park Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist and criminologist who specialises in these sort of murders, explains that for a certain kind of killer, publicity and “desire to terrorize the community as a whole” are motivators. That might not sound likely in cases where the perpetrator kills himself, but as Dietz notes, “they, like other suicides, may expect to witness the aftermath. (Some suicide notes refer to the joy the decedents expect to experience in watching the mourners suffer.)”

Extrapolating from that, he has said elsewhere that if you want to prevent future mass killings, the best way is not to paint killers as anti-heroes, not to start coverage with sirens blaring and grim reports of death tolls:

Here’s my hypothesis. Saturation-level news coverage of mass murder causes, on average, one more mass murder in the next two weeks. It’s not that the news coverage made the person paranoid, or armed, or suicidally depressed, but you’ve got to imagine this small number of people sitting at home, with guns on their lap and a hit list in their mind. They feel willing to die.

When they watch the coverage of a school shooting or a workplace mass murder, it only takes one or two of them to say – ‘that guy is just like me, that’s the solution to my problem, that’s what I’ll do tomorrow’. The point is that the media coverage moves them a little closer to the action. Is that causation? Legally, maybe not. Epidemiologically, yes.

Dietz admits that there isn’t sufficient data to back his hypothesis up with numbers, but there is very good evidence for a similar copycat effect in suicide and media coverage.

There has been lots of coverage of the killer. He was a goth, he played video games, he was autistic, he had a “personality disorder”, his mother was a survivalist. I doubt whether any of these are useful risk indicators for mass shootings; I’m sure there are thousands of people across the US who match that description but who will never hurt another human being. Returning to Dietz, the warning signs that might give away a future mass killer are “not very specific and so they apply to many people who will never be violent toward anyone but themselves … In order to be able to catch in your net everyone who will do a mass murder, you need to err on the side of catching hundreds or thousands of people with similar behaviors who will never commit a mass murder, no matter what you do.” That’s unlikely to change. Catching individuals before they do these terrible things is unlikely. Instead, we need to look at mass murder as an epidemiological problem, and working out what we can do to reduce their likelihood.

That means, first, asking whether there should be guidelines in place for coverage of mass murders, just as there are for suicides, which media outlets should agree between themselves, following expert advice. I don’t know what they might be, but reducing the number of times the killer is named and portrayed might be a good idea, and reducing as far as possible the drama of any descriptions. This obviously needs to be weighed against the legitimate journalistic duty to investigate and reveal the facts.

But more importantly, perhaps, it needs to be remembered that there isn’t a plague of these killings spreading across America. The playgrounds are not battlegrounds and children are not dying daily in a hail of bullets. Periodically, a deeply disturbed man will convince himself that the answers to his problems – whether they’re problems of inadequacy or paranoia or rage – lie in an ammunition clip. But it’s very rare. Not as rare as we would all like, but America’s parents don’t need to live in daily fear that their children will be massacred in the classroom, any more than they do that they’ll be struck by lightning. We all want to know what it is in the American psyche that allows this sort of horror: I suggest we’re asking the wrong question. In a society of 300 million people, there are going to be a handful of dangerously unstable men. We can take sensible steps to avoid inflaming them, or to reduce their access to weapons (a good idea anyway, as we saw above, since homicide levels are linked to gun ownership levels). But we shouldn’t act as though mass murder is a bigger problem than it is.

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