One of the most fascinating contentions out of Steven Pinker’s 2011 book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” is that we are actually in the most peaceful time in world history. It may be hard to swallow at first – how can you honestly say, with all the bloodshed going on today, that we are in the most peaceful time ever? Pinker argues that we are not in a peaceful time, but it is most likely more peaceful than before. Back when the world had no internet, no phones, no newspapers, etc., there were massacres that people simply didn’t hear about like we do today. Since we can see violence on the news everyday now, it just seems like it happens more now. Whether or not you are persuaded by his well-researched book, we should look at contemporary violence and ask about a similar thing: Are mass shootings happening more now? Or are they just being reported more often?
The answer may surprise you, but it is quite clear. By looking back just a few decades, the Harvard School of Public Health made a timeline which shows a very clear trend. The only thing that we have to wonder about is the definition of a mass shooting. Mother Jones had this to say about the definition:
There has never been a clear, universally accepted definition of “mass shooting.” The data we collected includes attacks in public places with four or more victims killed, a baseline established by the FBI a decade ago. We excluded mass murders in private homes related to domestic violence, as well as shootings tied to gang or other criminal activity. (Qualitative consistency is crucial, even though any definition can at times seem arbitrary. For example, by the four-fatalities threshold neither the attack at Ft. Hood in April nor the one in Santa Barbara in May qualifies as a “mass shooting,” with three victims killed by gunshots in each incident.) A report from the FBI on gun rampages, issued in late September, includes attacks with fewer than four fatalities but otherwise uses very similar criteria.
It’s certainly true that by manipulating statistics (such as by limiting the definition of mass shootings) you could probably weaken the argument, but the timeline below paints a stark picture.
Are mass shootings being reported more? Hell yes, but that’s because they are occurring more. In fact, in the United States, gun deaths are so common now that news programs only show ones that are the most sensational. Considering how often they occur, we can understand why – if they were all reported on thoroughly, there would be no other room for anything else.
Reknowned social psychologist Robert Cialdini talked about what he called “social proof” in his famous 1984 book, Influence. Social proof is essentially the desire to do something because others are doing it, such as the case of peer pressure. The social proof model was applied to copycat suicides, which could be a further explanation for why there are more mass shootings now. People imitate the behaviour of people they deem similar to themselves; and this creates a deadly snowball effect that we can see in the numbers.
Therefore, it should be no surprise that there is actually data that suggests that suicides increase after reports of suicides. In other words, the more people hear about other people killing themselves, the more likely they are (statistically speaking) to do the same.
So is it any surprise that media coverage of school shootings may actually contribute to a perpetuation of further school shootings? Researchers in the United States obviously have a lot of data to sift through, considering how many shootings there are around the country (there were 13 school shootings just in the first month of 2014). But so far, experts are expecting that the studies will point in the same direction. Forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz described it in a BBC interview from 2009 like this:
We’ve had 20 years of mass murders throughout which I have repeatedly told CNN and our other media, if you don’t want to propagate more mass murders, don’t start the story with sirens blaring. Don’t have photographs of the killer. Don’t make this 24/7 coverage. Do everything you can not to make the body count the lead story, not to make the killer some kind of anti-hero. Do localize the story to the affected community and make it as boring as possible in every other market. Because every time we have intense saturation coverage of a mass murder, we expect to see one or two more within a week.
Unfortunately for the “greatest country in the world,” one of the deadliest, most accessible weapons ever invented have become such a characteristic part of the culture that they are unlikely to give them up soon. This is despite the fact that it’s been exactly two years since 20 elementary-school students were gunned down in a single incident that rocked the nation.
Honestly, though… what do I know? I am totally ignorant of the joys of owning a gun, because I have the misfortune of living in a country where their ownership is illegal – Japan.
On second thought, I would rather not know what it’s like to have guns as a part of my life than accept rampant and random gun deaths as an inevitability. They should not be an inevitability, but an anomaly.