Umpqua shooting - a tragedy, not a trend
James Alan Fox 10:19 a.m. EDT
October 2, 2015
shooting sears deep into our collective consciousness, but it is hype and
hysteria on the rise, not violence.
Another mass shooting sears deep
into the collective consciousness of the American people. Another school,
this time a community college in an otherwise peaceful town in rural Oregon,
is devastated by a young man taking aim at students trapped in classrooms.
Nine are murdered, and many others wounded, before the gunman is killed in a
shootout with the police.
Within a few hours, President Obama
appeared before the camera, reinforcing the notion that America is under
siege. “Somehow this has become routine,” noted Obama with obvious emotion.
“The reporting is routine.”
Although the sense of urgency may be
overstated, Obama is certainly correct about the almost formulaic media
response. The Oregon shooting had countless news outlets flooding the
airwaves and the Internet with questionable statistics on the incidence of
mass shootings along with sidebar listings of the deadliest shooting sprees
in U.S. history. In the usual rush to offer up some breaking information,
news reports were embellished with unconfirmed details about the massacre
and the assailant that did little but fuel a contagion of fear.
context, media folks reminded us of the unforgettable, high profile
shootings that have taken place over the past few months, hinting of a
problem that has grown out of control. They lumped together rather different
types of incidents (the hate-inspired church killing in Charleston, the
random shooting at a Louisiana movie theater in which two victims were
slain, and the targeted killing of two employees of a Virginia television
station by a disgruntled former co-worker seeking payback for perceived
mistreatment) as if there is a pattern emerging.
Further adding to
the state of alarm and confusion, headlines featured scary yet conflicting
statistics from various sources. By reducing the standard threshold in
defining a mass shooting (four or more killed by gunfire, not including the
perpetrator), the incidence can reach incredible proportions. For example,
the “Mass Shooting Tracker” website redefines a mass shooting as an incident
in which at least four people (including the assailant) are shot, but not
necessarily killed. By this criterion, there have been nearly 300 thus far
Notwithstanding the sadness caused by each of these
tragedies, nothing has really changed in term of risk. One can take
virtually any period of months or years during the past few decades and find
a series of shootings that seemed at the time to signal a new epidemic. The
‘80s were marked by a flurry of deadly postal shootings, which gave rise to
the term “going postal.” The ‘90s witnessed a string of mass shootings in
middle and high schools carried out by alienated adolescents with access to
borrowed guns, prompting the venerable Dan Rather to declare an epidemic of
More recently, the “active shooter” has become the
new boogeyman armed with a gun. Of course, there were shootings in public
places long before this frightening catchphrase was created. Nowadays, any
time someone shows up with a gun in a school, a church, a movie theater, a
shopping mall or a restaurant, twitter becomes alive with messages of alarm.
I certainly don't mean to minimize the suffering of the Oregon victims
and their families, but the shooting spree is not a reflection of more
deadly times. Consider the facts.
According to a careful analysis of
data on mass shootings (using the widely accepted definition of at least
), the Congressional Research Service found that there are,
on average, just over 20 incidents annually. More important, the increase in
cases, if there was one at all, is negligible. Indeed, the only genuine
increase is in hype and hysteria.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.