The Definition of Insanity
Maybe it’s time to try a different approach to mass shootings.
On Wednesday afternoon, a man was shot and killed in Houston. According to KTRK, the Houston Police Department had yet to identify a motive for the shooting by the end of the day, but subsequent events seemed to suggest that it had been specific to the man who was shot. Less than two hours later, police responded to a call about a different shooting, at a location about two miles away; this victim, like the first one, was a young Hispanic man; the first set of shooters had been driving a stolen car; and per KTRK, neighbors say that the area “is known for gang activity.”
If Americans heard about either man’s death it was because the first of the two was shot outside a medical clinic specializing in women’s health care. “It’s just days after the mass shooting at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado that killed three people,” noted Sarah Jones at PoliticsUSA. Most Americans didn’t hear about the Houston shooting, however, or any other Houston shootings that happened yesterday; if not for the apparently coincidental detail about the Clinica Hispana, there is no reason to think that they would have.
By contrast, we all heard about the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. Fourteen people were killed at a state-run center for people with developmental disabilities, and their deaths quickly led to a ferocious national debate. The shooting was easy to politicize. The victims were government workers, having a Christmas party. The shooters, who were both shot and killed by police, were a husband-and-wife team. The husband was an American Muslim who had worked for the county for years. He had reportedly met his wife on a recent visit to Saudi Arabia, and brought her back to the United States. As of this writing, the exact motive remains unclear, but authorities have said that the shooting was “possibly terrorism,” and the wife had reportedly posted to Facebook a pledge of allegiance to ISIS.
Mass shootings themselves, of course, are one of the hottest hot-button issues of our time. The reaction to the San Bernardino shooting is by now familiar to most of us. Democrats, in light of this latest senseless tragedy, called for a serious national debate about gun control. Republicans defensively countered that guns don’t shoot people, people shoot people. The debate about San Bernardino will continue for a few days, unless there’s a worse mass shooting in the meantime, and it will probably not spur Congress to action, though Americans are fed up and heartsick, for obvious reasons. There have been so many mass shootings in the United States in recent years that it’s hard to keep track of them all. This latest one inspired a brief backlash to the inevitable calls for prayer, which has not yet proven to be an effective intervention.
But here’s the problem: neither has gun control. Most Democrats would say that’s because we haven’t tried it, because Republicans are beholden to the NRA and other gun-rights groups. And they’d be right. My colleague Robert Draper took a hard look at the NRA’s disproportionate influence over Congress back in 2013, and during the most recent legislative session Texans got a case study in how comically easy it is for gun activists to bully most Republicans. At the same time, it’s far from certain that the United States can end mass shootings by making judicious changes to national gun laws, or greater investments in mental health care, which is the other avenue of intervention most commonly proposed. I think we need to consider alternative interventions at this point, and I’ll propose one, but first I’ll explain why I think stricter gun control is unlikely to solve America’s mass shooting problem.
1. If we’re looking at any given mass shooting, you can identify specific restrictions that might, in theory, have minimized the carnage or prevented the specific incident, had they been implemented and effectively enforced. But you can’t come up with the same specific restriction in each case. It’s possible that better data would clear up which would have the most impact, and since I’m generally in favor of more data, I think we might as well encourage the CDC to study this question. Considering mass shootings as a group, though, the only clear common denominator is the Second Amendment, which is not going to be repealed.
2. Similarly, there is substantial state-level variation in gun laws (and government services), but this variation has not led to a geographic concentration of mass shootings in areas with more liberal gun laws. In general, in fact, there is not a clear connection between gun laws and gun crime. Researchers have occasionally documented a specific effect from a specific change. But overall, as I found while reporting the open carry story, there is little evidence to think that the relative liberality of gun laws is strongly predictive of the rate of violent crime, or to confidently predict that any given change to extant gun laws is going to have statistically significant effects either way. The national rate of gun crime has precipitously declined since the 1990s, and the trend is broadly consistent across states, even though every state has made different changes to its gun laws during the period in question, and some have much more permissive environments than others.
3. In the wake of the San Bernardino shooting, the New York Times reported that thus far this year America has experienced mass shootings every day, on average, and the cumulative death toll is more than 460 people. Those totals, however, count all shooting incidents that left four or more people injured or dead; other accounts define mass shootings differently. Mother Jones, for example, has built a database that treats “mass shootings” as separate from mass murders; as Mark Follman explained in an op-ed at the Times yesterday, the goal is to focus on the “seemingly indiscriminate attacks.” The fact that there is no official definition of mass shootings makes it difficult to be precise about the rate at which such incidents are increasing. But mass shootings are certainly not decreasing. In that respect, they’re an exception to the aforementioned national trend, which is well documented, in which violent crime rates have declined precipitously since the 1990s, as have gun crimes specifically. The decline of gun violence is especially significant because it underlines the uncertainty over whether mass shootings can be most effectively addressed by changes in gun laws. Even if changes in gun laws have affected the overarching rate of gun crime, mass shootings are an exception. Put differently, there are causal factors that explain changes in the rate of violent crime rate. Even if we can’t pinpoint what they are, the fact that mass shootings don’t conform to the trend suggests that there are additional or different causal factors at work.
So if we want to tackle mass shootings specifically, we need to look for a common denominator specific to mass shootings that doesn’t apply to other categories of violent crime. And in thinking about that, a couple of things come to mind.
In 1966 Charles Whitman climbed to the top of the University of Texas’s tower and began what is now remembered as America’s first mass shooting on a college campus.
The era of mass shootings in the United States has coincided with changes in technology, media distribution, and news consumption habits. In 1960 we had televised presidential debates for the first time. Americans who listened on the radio, thought that Richard Nixon won; those who watched on television were more likely to think that John Kennedy had prevailed.
It’s difficult to generalize about all mass shootings, but to the extent that these addled killers can be said to have a “reason,” it’s to get attention. The shooters themselves tend to frame their mayhem in reference to ideological or political ideals, but their commitments vary—the San Bernardino shooting was “possibly terrorism,” the Charleston shooter wanted to start a “race war,” the Colorado shooter was heard saying “no baby parts,” the Santa Barbara shooter was angry at women who had sexually rejected him, the Sandy Hook shooter was a nihilist—and the violence is, of course, self-discrediting.
The people killed in San Bernardino yesterday weren’t the only Americans shot and killed yesterday. They were just the ones whose deaths received national media coverage, as their killers could have predicted, and presumably did.
So here’s my proposal: I’d like to see a moratorium on nationally televised coverage of mass shootings. I don’t think television is an inappropriate medium for covering violent crime; local television, like KTRK, often provides the best coverage of local events. But I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that America’s most notorious category of violent crime, the one where we’ve made no headway, is the one most likely to elicit blanket coverage across the country in a highly visual medium. This would have to be a voluntary decision on the part of the networks. We obviously can’t ban any media organization from covering mass shootings; as a First Amendment zealot and journalist, I’d object to any such proposals on principle. But if all the networks agree to give it a try—and at the very least to not mention the shooter’s name—none of them are going to lose too much audience share. Maybe it wouldn’t make a difference. But so far, nothing else has.