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America's increasing moral panic over active shooters is overblown and
James Alan Fox, Opinion columnist
Published 3:15 a.m. ET Aug. 6, 2018
Active shooter situations have become the latest moral panic. FBI data
and news coverage blow attacks out of proportion, causing us to fear the
rarest of events.
Reports that there was an active shooter barricaded
inside an Ohio military hospital Thursday sent employees scurrying for
safety as teams of first responders rushed to the scene. News of the crisis
spread quickly throughout the national media and the Twittersphere. By the
time officials gave the "all clear," it became apparent that a planned
active shooter training exercise had been mistaken for the real thing.
Although actual active shooter events can be devastating, the level of
fear associated with this modern-day boogeyman is out of control, leading to
countless false alarms:
►An unfounded report of an active shooter
inside a California hospital Wednesday prompted a "code black" lockdown of
the facility and a massive police response.
►An attempted robbery of
a jewelry store on July 28 inside a Texas mall created havoc when the sound
of breaking glass was mistaken for an active shooter event, sending
terrified shoppers rushing for the exits.
►As fireworks lit up the
sky above Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, last July Fourth, word spread
through the crowd that there was an active shooter among them, sending
thousands running for their lives. However, there was no shooting and no
gunman - just folks misinterpreting the sound of firecrackers.
Satanic cults, child abductions by strangers, pedophile daycare workers -
all were at some point considered threats of some magnitude, albeit small.
Yet, in classic moral panic fashion, frightened Americans overstated the
risk and embraced overresponse.
Of course, anyone who sits in a
classroom or at his desk at work, or who visits a shopping mall or
restaurant, faces the possibility of confronting an armed assailant. But the
likelihood is akin to that of being killed by lightning.
How did we
get to the point where the term "active shooter," a relatively recent
addition to our lexicon, reflects a menace of intense concern?
recent years, the FBI has produced a series of reports on active shooter
events, dispelling a number of common misconceptions. For example, the
latest update indicated that, contrary to what many believe, active shooters
are generally not driven by serious mental illness. Moreover, they tend to
target specific victims as opposed to shooting indiscriminately.
there really more active shooters?
The FBI statistics remain dubious,
however, in terms of the reported increase over the past two decades, which
has many observers thinking in epidemic terms. According to the FBI
database, partially assembled by accessing news archives, the number of
active shooters - defined as a gunman "actively engaged in killing or
attempting to kill people in populated areas" - grew from one case in 2000
(the massacre of seven employees in Wakefield, Massachusetts) to an average
of dozens over the past few years.
Is the increase in actual cases or
in the ability to locate cases from years gone by, especially when the press
was not so vigilant in reporting on armed assailants who, despite their
intentions, failed to kill lots of people? It is hard to fathom that in
2000, there was not more than one person in this entire nation who picked up
a loaded gun with the desire to kill many people in a public place.
Actually, there was, among others, a Pittsburgh man who killed five in a
hate-inspired rampage. He just didn't make the FBI database.
four years since the FBI began surveying active shooter events, 27 percent
of assailants failed to kill anyone. In the first four years of the FBI
database (2000-03), only 9 percent killed no one. Either active shooters of
recent vintage are poorer marksmen, or the less serious cases of earlier
years were not identified.
The other factor driving misperceptions of
risk is the over-the-top news coverage. As in the recent episode at YouTube
headquarters, as soon as the 911 calls arrive, satellite trucks and
helicopters are dispatched to the scene transmitting live images into living
rooms across America.
Our fear doesn't match the level of risk.
As a result, the level of fear is well out of proportion with the risk.
For example, a recent poll of residents of Anne Arundel County, Maryland,
found that two-thirds feared that an active shooter would strike at a local
school. Sadly, there was indeed an attack, but instead of striking a school
as residents feared, he struck the very newspaper that published the survey
Although fear can sometimes encourage taking reasonable
precautions, in the case of moral panics, the steps are often useless, of
questionable value, or even counterproductive. Consider these examples:
►Some schools, despite limited budgets, are purchasing active shooter
insurance in case of liability.
►For school teachers, a few hours of
training at a shooting range and simulated exercises hardly qualifies them
to be prepared sufficiently for the real thing.
►It is debatable
whether active shooter drills in schools and workplaces really help, but
they certainly can arouse fear. The message is: "We wouldn't be doing these
drills were we not in real danger." Inadvertently, the drills can also
inform a disgruntled student or employee of the best attack strategy.
►In 2016, Michigan established an active shooter alert system patterned
after the Amber Alert. Unlike kidnappers, active shooters rarely venture
very far or remain active for long. Widely broadcasting an alert could do
more to frighten than protect citizens.
Overall, one of the most
significant downsides to our hypervigilance is the constant reminder of
danger and the possibility of false alarms. Plus, the more we obsess over
active shooters, the more we entice angry individuals to seek redress with a
James Alan Fox is the Lipman
Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University
and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors. He is co-author of
Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder. Follow him on