Another senseless mass shooting, another national wave of mourning and anger, another presidential visit to a grief-stricken community. But as President Biden faces the cameras in Uvalde, Texas, this weekend, as he and other leaders offer their prescriptions for easing the public’s fears, let me suggest a more practical and immediate way for Americans to cope with this tragedy: turn off the television.
Politicians and journalists cannot resist exploiting the deaths of schoolchildren, but the ghoulish wall-to-wall coverage serves no purpose except to terrify adults and kids. Contrary to what you’ve heard from Biden and the media, school massacres like the one in Uvalde are exceptionally rare events. They actually occurred more often in the 1990s than recently—but back then, there wasn’t an army of satellite trucks competing around the clock to chronicle the horror.
“There is not an epidemic of mass shootings,” says James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University who has been tracking these events for decades and helps keep the AP/USA Today/Northeastern Mass Killing database. “What’s increasing and is out of control is the epidemic of fear.”
As Fox notes, the annual odds that an American child will die in a mass shooting at school are nearly 10 million to 1, about the odds of being killed by lightning or of dying in an earthquake. Those are also about the same odds that any American will die in a mass public shooting like the recent one in Buffalo. Such numbers, of course, are no consolation to the grieving parents and families in Uvalde and Buffalo, but neither is the frenzy to manipulate these tragedies for ratings and political gain.
There are legitimate issues to debate about criminal violence in America, which has indeed been increasing, but we’re not going to identify the causes or remedies by focusing on a few isolated crimes and traumatizing Americans in the process. Surveys show that half of Americans worry about being the victim of a mass shooting, and a third of them avoid going to certain places and events because of this fear. More than 60 percent of parents worry that their child will be killed in a mass shooting at school.
Children do need to be better protected from criminals, and there might be ways to make schools safer, but students don’t need the active-shooter drills now conducted in over 95 percent of the nation’s schools, and which are associated with higher levels of depression, stress and anxiety. Nor do children and parents need to hear the deceptive statistics promoted by the press and the White House’s fearmonger-in-chief.
“Why are we willing to live with this carnage?” Biden asked in his speech after the Uvalde killings, portraying them as the continuation of a decade of ceaseless slaughter by citing the “900 incidents of gunfire” on school grounds since 2012. But few students died in these incidents, which typically occurred outside the school building and often involved non-students going there after school hours. When Fox totals the number of students killed by any sort of gunfire at school in the past decade, including the victims in Uvalde, it works out to 10 deaths per year—among more than 50 million students. “Hundreds of children die every year in drowning accidents,” he says. “We need lifeguards at pools more than armed guards at schools.”
Journalists are similarly deceptive when they call Uvalde the 27th “school shooting” of this year, or classify the spree in Buffalo as one of the hundreds of “mass shootings” in America annually. But these “mass shootings” typically don’t result in more than one death, if that, and the ones with multiple fatalities typically involve family disputes at home, gang conflict, or other criminal activity like drug dealing or robbery. They’re not random attacks like that in Buffalo, which meets Fox’s criteria for a “mass public shooting”: one in a public place with at least four fatalities and not related to domestic violence, gang conflict, or other crimes. On average, a half dozen of these occur annually. Mass public shootings at schools are much rarer: a total of 12 in the past 34 years.
We can all agree that even one of these massacres is too many. But wallowing in the gruesome details will not prevent another, and neither will blaming the senseless murders on political enemies. We should be looking for ways to protect children and adults from all the dangers they face—including the recent homicide surge claiming nearly 100 additional lives every week. That carnage continues, and a presidential visit to Texas will do nothing to stop it.
Photo by Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images