Why People Are Over-Reacting to the Midnight Movie Massacre (Mathematically Speaking)

For the last two years I was employed as a contractor for the Department of Homeland Security with the official title of “Risk Analyst.” Along with a team of complete and total geniuses (no hyperbole), we were tasked with investigating risks to United States citizens from terrorism, transnational crimes and natural hazards. And after putting together a detailed report outlining exactly where our nation’s dollars should be spent to get the most protection possible, it was promptly thrown out because it didn’t match up with what the bureaucrats were expecting. And the reason for that is their perception of risk, which is the same reason that people are about to over react to the recent events in Colorado . . .

Risk is a simple thing to understand mathematically, but massively complex to apply. The formula is very straightforward:

Risk = Threat x Vulnerability x Consequence

Where:

  • Threat = The probability of being attacked in a specific manner
  • Vulnerability = The probability of the attack being successful GIVEN that it is in the process of happening
  • Consequence = The bad stuff that happens if you are attacked successfully

Naturally this is very easy to apply with things like economic losses, but when you start adding people into the equation it gets messy. We start coming across questions such as “what is the value of a human life?” Which if you’re the U.S. Government is somewhere around $6 million, by the way. But mostly I prefer to keep dollars and lives separate in my analyses. Enough about that, back to the point at hand.

If you’re doing a straight analysis of terrorism events (and I would classify the Colorado shooting in that category), you quickly see that even based on open source information, the risk is extremely low. The actual number of initiations per year for terrorism events is classified, but we can safely assume that the majority of foiled terrorism plots are immediately paraded in front of the media.

So, MAYBE one or two legitimate initiations a year (threat). And since the news isn’t constantly filled with reports of terrorist attacks, it’s a safe bet that the vast and overwhelming majority are foiled (vulnerability). The issue is that a successful attack would be devastating (think nuke over Manhattan) (consequence).

Terrorism is what we call a “low probability, high consequence event.” It will almost never happen, but when it does, the consequences are unthinkable. But because of the low probability the actual risk from terrorist attacks is extremely low.

Let’s scale this down to a personal level from a national level.

For the individual, the biggest consequence of concern to you is the lives of you and your family. Even if you’re a sad, lonesome single man like me that goes to the movies alone, your life is your biggest concern. Whereas the government has to be concerned with a great number of lives, all you really care about is the lives of your immediate family.

There are a great number of scenarios which may result in the loss of you life. Like an airplane crash. Or a car accident. Or a house fire. Or a mass shooting. And while there may be differing levels of threat and vulnerability for these events, the upper boundary of the consequence remains the same: you could die. So while governments are also concerned about loss of life, the reality is that there is no real upper bound for death tolls for attacks but there is a definite “hard ceiling” for the death of your family.

Which means that when assessing the risk to you and yours, the only logical approach is that the probability of the event happening dictates how concerned you are about that particular scenario, since the consequence side of the equation is constantly pegged at the top of the scale. You should be looking for high probability scenarios first and worrying about those in order of probability.

But it’s not, and people don’t.

While the eventual outcome is the same, what really drives people’s level of concern over a particular scenario is how novel and terrifying the experience prior to the death (not that you’d remember it). People are used to the idea of dying in a terrible car accident or burning to death in a house fire, but mass shootings are typically a more concerning scenario and therefore perceived as a higher risk despite the facts at hand.

For example, for the United States:

100 people PER DAY die in car accidents (source).

2,640 people PER YEAR die from house fires (source).

167 people died from mass shootings… in the last DECADE (source).

From a straight analytic standpoint, there’s no reason to be concerned about mass shootings. None whatsoever. The probability that you will be involved is so small that my calculator switches to scientific notation when I try to compute it.

But people will still be concerned.

It’s human nature to place a higher value on a scary death than a normal death. So while the final result is the same (your untimely demise) the difference in how you get there is the differentiating factor. What we’re dealing with is an emotional reaction to a situation rather than a logical reaction and that’s something that people don’t understand and don’t want to face.

The primary reason that people are finding this scary is that they don’t have control over that situation. People fear plane accidents more than car accidents because they’re not the ones in control of the aircraft. Its the same for other “random” events like terrorism and mass shootings. We’re perfectly happy driving ourselves of a cliff to a gruesome death, but when our lives are in someone else’s hands we begin to fear that situation.

This exact same reaction has led to our government throwing their money away on ridiculous expenditures to make sure that low probability, low consequence risks don’t happen (because they’re scary to the handful of people that would die) rather than spending money on minor improvements that would drastically reduce high probability high consequence risks. It’s the same reaction that fuels every post-massacre response from the government.

So what does that mean for those of us who understand the relative risks? It means that we have an uphill battle to fight against the emotional response of those who are overly concerned about this scenario, and generally facts and numbers don’t do any good. They will keep seeing themselves in that scenario and become more and more afraid.

I don’t have a solution to this problem. If I did I wouldn’t have quit my job in frustration at seeing my work going unused. But hopefully if we are persistent enough we can make them understand as well, and let them stop living in fear.

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About Nick Leghorn

Nick Leghorn is a gun nerd living and working in San Antonio, Texas. In his free time, he's a competition shooter (USPSA, 3-gun and NRA High Power), aspiring pilot, and enjoys mixing statistics and science with firearms. Now on sale: Getting Started with Firearms by yours truly!

53 Responses to Why People Are Over-Reacting to the Midnight Movie Massacre (Mathematically Speaking)

  1. avatarDon says:

    Good points. Just look at the public reaction to 9-11, airplane crashes, etc. We live in a country of 300 million + people you have more change to be struck by lightning (another extremely unlikely event).

    • avatarAaron says:

      A few months after the Sept 11 attacks, Monica Crowley said on WABC, “OK, it’s the holiday season. Listen carefully… I want you to be very, very watchful when you’re out there shopping and enjoying yourselves. The terrorists are out there, and they may strike at the mall, at the movies, etc” (I’m paraphrasing).
      Boy did that make me angry – it wasn’t just her patronizing didactic preschool teacher tone of voice. It was knowing that everyone listening to her had a far greater chance of dying in some other way. She should have said, “OK, it’s the holidays, be on the lookout for drunk and/or distracted drivers. Don’t overload your Christmas tree with lights. If you start to feel dizzy or lightheaded while shoveling snow, take a break or if necessary, call a doctor.”

    • avatarPeter says:

      Post 9/11 I could not begin to tell you how many people I knew that said they were afraid to fly, although the majority of the victims were at work that day.
      I never had anyone tell me that they were afraid to go to work.

  2. avatarMatt in FL says:

    I really don’t see our culture ever changing about this. It’s nice to think that we can make the emotional-decision-makers eventually come over to our side and think logically and rationally, but it’s highly unlikely. The problem is that logic fails when it comes into contact with someone who simply insists that this Never. Happen. Again.

    It’s hard to reason with the unreasonable, because they’re having a different conversation than you.

    For what it’s worth, though, I think the world needs a leavening of those touchy-feely types. I think the conflict and interplay between them and the more logical types are part of what makes our way of life what it is.

    • avatarSilver says:

      The problem is when the illogical types begin outnumbering the logical, and take their votes with them. Inmates running the asylum, so to speak.

  3. avatarChaz says:

    Switching to a different but related concern, could you expand upon threat analysis in the context of folks trying to decide whether to carry concealed? Instead of an emotional over reaction to crime perhaps some pro gun people still are under reacting because they perceive a very low threat level.

    • There’s two facets to risk reduction with concealed carry.

      The first part is that it does indeed reduce the vulnerability for a large number of low probability events, like robbery or rape or assault or spree killers. It gives you the ability to protect yourself which reduces the probability of an attacker being successful (vulnerability). All of those low probability events add up to a significant risk reduction on your part, and does indeed make sense for the average citizen.

      The second part is the psychological peace of mind that it gives. It puts you in control of a situation rather than the other way around, which allows you to think more clearly and calmly before reacting.

      But of course there’s the whole risk homeostasis thing, which is the idea that since you have reduced your risk you can enter into a situation with a higher level of threat without worry. So that alley that you would have avoided suddenly becomes an option.

      • avatarsara says:

        If someone decides to carry a concealed weapon to “reduce their risk” doesnt that add to societies risk of that person? who is to say that that person is safe to handle a gun? I dont want someone to be able to own a gun just to make themselves feel better about walking in an ally, it is not a good enough reason.

        • avatarNigil says:

          You just made the kind of emotional response that this article is about. You are concerned that the next person to carry a gun is law abiding (won’t carry without permission) but also irresponsible and/or violent, which is mathematically insignificant relative to the millions of responsible gun owners. While those people do exist, they are very, very rare, and your desire to restrict someone carrying a weapon so they can walk in the alley behind their apartment without fear is out of proportion to the actual risk they pose to you, personally.

  4. avatarAnonymouse says:

    VERY good point, and one so often missed. The one I use for scale is over 10 people a month are killed by collisions with deer.

    So by any such reasonable logic, we should spend 10x more dealing with the Threat of Bambi than the threat of Spree Killers, as those 4 legged rodents really are trying to kill us…

    • avatarMoonshine7102 says:

      Hey, I try to do my part every November here in Minnesota. But I’m just one guy. It’s a thankless job, and I’m tired. It’d be really nice if the government could subsidize the cost of some upgraded hardware…

  5. avatarChaz says:

    Changing the subject slightly but still related, could you expand upon threat assessment in the context of a pro-2A gun owner deciding whether to carry concealed? Instead of emotionally over reacting are some folks under reacting by concluding that their treat level is just too low to bother?

    (tried to post this earlier but nothing happened… in case this eventually shows up twice)

    • avatarPascal says:

      IMHO, where you live will play a big part, Chicago vs Miami-Dade County vs Salem, NY. I have no stats to back it up, but I bet its no different than the stats shown above.

      Being situationally aware and avoiding bad areas matters a lot.

      As per the shooting this weekend, you cannot avoid random acts of violence no more than you can avoid a airplace that goes down due to mechanical problems or pilot error. You should prepare like you would for a natural disaster…but there is high-probability you will leave this life never being involved in a DGU situation.

  6. avatarRalph says:

    The overreaction is the direct result of media promotion. We all know the mantra of “journalists” — if it bleeds, it leads. Well, if it bleeds a lot, it leads a lot.

    The media are a bloodthirsty crew. They love death and destruction, pictures of dead bodies and making sh!t up to fill in the blanks (James Holmes being a Tea Party Republican, for example). Okay, the First Amendment protects all that. But what really gets me peeved is that most psycho-killer-mass-murdering-bastards are publicity hounds. They want to make a big splash, and the media aids and abets the murderers’ fantasies of domination and power.

    The media and the publicity-focused killers are partners in crime. You can’t have one without the other.

    • avatarfuzzy says:

      Everything that needs saying about journalists was said in Kirk Douglas’ excellent movie “Ace in the Hole” (aka “The Big Carnival”.)

    • avatarjwm says:

      yes ralph, 1a protects their rights. for 1 month i’d like to see reporters have an equal number of restrictions placed on their 1a rights as i have on my 2a rights. it might open people eyes a little.

    • avatarBLX says:

      So let’s forget this bunghole’s name, along with all the other bungholes that did similar things, like the Norway guy. The urge to do this stuff would dry up is my guess.

  7. avatarSilver says:

    Sensationalism sells, period.

  8. avatarvirtualjohn says:

    I really like this article. Excellent analysis. This being about guns we might add that factor and see how it affects our view and response to threats.
    I am not a number cruncher nor do I have access to the proper numbers to plug in. perhaps someone else could follow my reasoning and do so.
    Would carrying a gun stop or lessen your risk of death in an auto accident?
    Would carrying a gun stop or lessen your risk of death in a house fire?
    Would carrying a gun stop or lessen your risk of death in a mass shooting?
    Now how many other situations would your carrying a gun stop or lessen your risk of death?
    When added together does the probability of ALL those situations in which a DGU might be helpful not justify carrying a gun?
    My point being yes the risk of being in a mass shooting is small but when added to all the other possibilities; robberies, burglaries, car-jackings, rapes, assaults, murders, etc. we might be victim to or a witness of, Carrying a gun makes as much sense as putting on your seatbelt or having smoke detectors in your home.

    • avatarDean Weingarten says:

      I carry for a multitude of reasons, but the foremost is as a political statement. Carrying a gun makes the statement that I have rights the government may not take away, that the Constitution means something, and that I take my rights seriously. This helps to protect my security in multiple ways that are not easily measured.

      I believe that an out of control government is far more of a threat to me than deer are.

      • avatarRyan says:

        ^This.

        I live in Illinois and I work in a High School. But if I could I would…and mostly for this reason.

        Secondarily is to have OPTIONS when confronted with a violent situation to overcome it successfully.

    • avatarNigil says:

      I have recently begun always wearing a seatbelt, and always wearing my motorcycle helmet, specifically due to my desire to carry (I’m in Illinois). It occurred to me that if I feel that carrying a gun would be good for me, overall, I should not be hypocritical and refuse to apply other easy to use risk reducers simply for comfort’s sake.

  9. avatarsoccerchainsaw says:

    Good writeup about the risks, probabilities, etc. Imbedded in this article and in others (and the comments that follow) is the sentiment that the armed citizen’s only real obligation in a life/death encounter is to him/herself and the immediate family. I’m not sure what exactly I would do in any given violent situation but can we have a little discussion about this philosophy? What about the idea that in any given violent occurance when the good rise up to snuff out the evil actions of the bad, eventually the social environment that was previously conducive to violence becomes toxic to violence? Fewer young men (& women) will be seduced by the false promises of the dark side (too Star Warsy?) and overall violence will drop. Your future unimagined grandchildrens’ lives may be saved decades later by what you do today. Plus right now, do we really want to live in a world in which no one is willing to help a neighbor?
    I suspect in any given situation many of us will do that little calculation, “what are my chances of being successful in stopping the bad guy?”, “what are the chances that I will be prosecuted/persecuted for my actions?”, “what are the chances that I will die if I step in”, etc., etc. Often the event is over by the time these calculations are thought through. There are those who will simply step up and act hoping for the best. Those that are successful will be called “heroes”, those that mess up will be made to be goats. What to do, what to do?

    • avatarvirtualjohn says:

      “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”
      oft attributed to Edmund Burke, most definitely from Sergei Bondarchuk

  10. avatarJoseph says:

    Good article Nick, I think you put into perspective what a lot of us have been thinking. God bless the victims and their families, but I’m already tired of the never ending media coverage and “analysis.”

  11. avatarMike Lief says:

    Well said. However, I’d sugest that the reason to carry when out and about is precisely because the risk — loss of life (yours or your family’s) — is the intended outcome of the event, unlike a house fire or a traffic accident, where the event is a product of negligence or chance. The risk-benefit analysis to carrying has little-to-no downside to carrying, with severe consequences (on admittedly rare occasions) for leaving it in the nightstand.

    On an unrelated note, unless you’re conducting a threat assessment of bear attacks, it’s “grisly,” not “grizzly.”

  12. avatarMark says:

    Crime occurs where law enforcement personnel are absent, but the victim is always there. Deter crime by arming potential victims!

  13. avatarMike Lief says:

    Seriously? My comment just disappears with click on the “Post Comment” button?

    Man, that’s infuriating.

    But this one posts?

    Cripes.

  14. avatarDon Curton says:

    I think part of it boils down to how manageable the risk is in our personal lives.

    Car wrecks? I rarely drive at night, thus avoiding most of the drunks. I know my route and the hazards thereon. I’m free by law to buy the safest possible car made, and take whatever defensive driving courses I can afford.

    House fires? I maintain my house, make sure the wiring is up to code, don’t leave the fireplace going all night, etc. I’m also free to spend as much money as I can afford to upgrade my house, install fire suppression, alarms, etc.

    Crime? I avoid bad parts of town. I live in a nice neighborhood, keep my yard well lit, and generally avoid bad people in bad places. I have some control here, with or without a gun.

    A random maniac in a random theater? No control, no way to avoid it, just random chance. Plus a myriad of rules, regulations, and laws preventing me from even a token defense.

    We can accept the routine hazards because we do have some control over them. It’s the random aspect that throws us, since you can do everything right and then “WHAM” you’re dead. Same with serial killers, it the randomness that freaks people.

    • That’s what drives the fear – the loss of control over the situation.

      We’re perfectly happy as long as we’re the ones in control, but as soon as someone else has control over our fate we’re terrified.

      I probably should expand on that…

  15. avatarThe Truth says:

    I understand the frustration on this board, but there is an element you are leaving out. The level of horror of a death is also based on the “who” that caused your death. The fault of a hitting a deer (great stats btw) is either the driver’s lack of attention or the deer, in which case the family grieves and moves on. Although tens of thousands are killed by car accidents, they are less horrific because these are accidents and we usually can’t say they are acts of evil. Losing a loved one to a terrorist organization, a mass murderer, or a corporation who sold you a defective product, even – seem preventable and the anger is much more easily directed at someone, than an “act of God” and all those other silly phrases that we use when shit just happens. In addition, humans tend to become bored with events the occur often, that’s why most car accidents are not “news” but a guy slapping on body armor and killing 12 people in a movie theater is news, as it does not happen every day, so we “over” react.

  16. avatarAharon says:

    Nick, thanks that was an interesting piece. Reading the actual numbers of how many people die daily in car accidents, annually in fires, and in a decade from mass shootings were great informative comparisons. Seems like you’ve done some interesting work as a Risk Analyst.

  17. avatarbontai Joe says:

    I probably over reacted imediately after 9/11, I stock piled food, water and ammo because I had no way of knowing if it was over, or if there were 10 or 100 or 1000 more terrorists planning more attacks. On that September day, the media reported the possibility of closing all bridges over the Delaware river, preventing me from getting home that eveniong. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. But that was an organized attack involving at that time, an unknown number of terrorists. This shooting in Colorado, was one lone gunman. I think we should all be aware that there MIGHT be a few copycats out there that also want their 15 minutes of fame, but the risk is less than that from a large organized terror group like Al Qaeda. For the next month or so, I’ll be more situationally aware of my surroundings while in public places, scanning for the nearest exit, suitable cover, where to direct my family if I hear gunshots, but I won’t be preaching at the family every minute of the day about us all bunkering down in the basement.

  18. avatarVigilantis says:

    I have one significant disagreement, namely that you classify the shooting as “terrorism”. I would argue that it was not.

    Dictionary.com defines terrorism as: “the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes.” I agree with this definition, and I think most people would as well. So, if this was terrorism, what was James Holmes trying to coerce people into doing? Not attending Batman movies? Obviously he was a fan of the franchise, or else he wouldn’t have made himself up as the Joker. I can find no indication of a political motive.

    I doubt he was trying to intimidate, as he clearly didn’t plan on escaping from his rampage, and only persistent threats can be intimidating. Nobody is afraid of the Unabomber anymore, because he’s locked up where he can’t terrorize the general populace. Nobody is afraid of Hitler or Bin Laden or Stalin, because they’re all dead.

    The incident was a tragedy, but I don’t think it qualifies as terrorism.

    • avatarDarth Mikey says:

      Actually a better definition of “terrorist” is any individual or group that intentionally directs violence at civilian noncombatants for political or economic impact. This includes the sub-catagory of the lone nutjob (like the Unabomber). All you have to argue is that the shooter specifically intended to have a larger impact than just killing people. (Many of those lone nutjobs have rather complex “manifestos” that they’re trying to promote. In this case, we’ll see as the facts come out.) The only “comfort” is the lone nutjob doesn’t have comrades organized and ready to continue his “mission” (though we may suffer copycat lone nutjobs).

      • avatarVigilantis says:

        The Unabomber was most definitely a terrorist, his agenda was anti-technology. I don’t know that “I’m the Mother-F****** Joker!” actually qualifies as an agenda. While they were both lone, and both nutjobs, I think only the Unabomber was a lone-nutjob-terrorist.

        • avatarSanchanim says:

          I would say read the dark night comic series. The Joker had an ideal and manifesto if your were in that series.

  19. avatarDarth Mikey says:

    Well said, Nick. I especially liked your “scary death” versus “normal death”. Very true.

    And no one with an agenda ever pays attention to the risk analysis.

  20. avatarEdwin Herdman says:

    Joe Public tends to disregard low-risk, rare, or quietly cumulative factors which can eventually get you, and focuses too much on lightning strikes and spontaneous combustion – spectacular things that are very rare and often unpredictable. The gun community isn’t immune to this – take exploding Glocks, accidental fires from those newfangled automatics (maybe a Nambu T-14 with an external sear, sure), or the holster controversies; all these arguments have seen a fair number of comments based not on fear of bad practices or tendencies, but are based on the comment that something bad could happen. “Something bad could happen” does not mean that a design doesn’t have certain other qualities which actually outweigh the risks. From our engineering ethics class: “The only totally safe car is one which won’t move!” (As a sidebar, we also learned about the engineering equation for risk, which is a bit simplified over the terrorism case.) Obviously, we all like being able to use automobiles.

    The numbers here definitely do not support the idea that massacres outweigh the defensive good of firearms (using any utilitarian measure other than perhaps “the harm caused by people frightened by guns shivering in their beds every night,” which apparently is very considerable), especially if you consider that gun control advocates often feature a picture of bad six-shot snubnose revolvers, which might be good for stopping a single bad guy, but aren’t the preferred tool of spree shooters.

    To some degree, everybody could be accused of spending too much time focusing on shooting sprees. Mass media can’t be fully blamed for mass murders (see Bath, MI, in 1926; the bad guy apparently desired some degree of infamy but the rate of killings was relatively very low), but it doesn’t really seem to be helping tamp down the fascination with making a name for yourself in the worst way. Some people spend a lot of time thinking about and preparing for mass shootings which will never happen – but police train for things that don’t (not “won’t”) happen on their watch, too. If the only reason for having defensive guns with 17-round magazines was to protect against massacres like this, then perhaps the gun accidents and other misfortunes might start to pile up as evidence against defensive use. But people forget that the main use of defensive guns is totally invisible to the media, and hence unknown. There can’t be any reliable conclusion drawn against defensive gun uses because a large number (very possibly the vast majority) of incidents consist of a would-be mugger noticing a holster or a bulge in somebody’s pocket, and then walking briskly in the other direction. Not even the potential victim knows what happened, and the would-be offender isn’t going to share his or her experience with professional statisticians. Even so, you can’t shuffle aside peaceful resolutions backed up by a gun as being against or indifferent to the pro side of defensive gun ownership; I thought we were 50 years beyond the days of “if it can’t be (or better yet, “hasn’t been”) measured, it doesn’t exist.” Arguably, gun defensive overreaction would merely be inefficient or a slight increase of dangers (accidental discharges, gun theft, and so on), but doesn’t institutionalize something dangerously new or inefficient.

    Something that has interested me for a long while is the emphasis on absolutes. Everybody relies upon them; in this country we all say that we have an absolute right not to be enslaved (Hobbes points out that it cannot be the meaning of freedom to be free to give up that freedom, a point some have quibbled with and misunderstood), and that democracy must be absolutely respected and protected. Could we get by without these absolutes? Possibly in many cases we would be fine, but you lose the hard stop afforded by what a dictator might scoff at as an arbitrary line in the sand. If “political power grows from the barrel of a gun,” however, the question of who “commands the gun” is central (Mao himself mentioned this). A doctrine of faith in certain kinds or absolutes isn’t interested in asking that question; if “arbitrary” absolutes are questioned naively, you can expect them to be naively trampled. The gun rights argument usually proceeds along similar grounds, as does libertarianism. I generally dislike the popular libertarianism when its advocates don’t respect that there might be multiple factors; their creed is “when values conflict, select freedom.” That obviously doesn’t work if your freedom is i.e. to murder people. The various kinds of freedoms, like firearms, are kinds of tools which support doing what is actually right. Nevertheless, the idea of why things are being promoted like this, and why they might be good ideas, has some obvious merit. This isn’t just a slippery slope argument. It’s an argument for why you want to keep a useful tool at hand when you need it, like keeping a spare in the back of your car. Maybe you don’t need to keep a tire iron and jack in your trunk, or a set of jumper cables, but it sure is convenient to have them close by. The difference between a flat and a shooting is that waiting for a tow truck won’t usually put you in danger of being killed. That’s why military truckers in Afghanistan have escorts – do you have an escort?

  21. avatarSIGCDR says:

    “Mathematically speaking” you need to check your math on fire deaths. Your source lists 2,640 deaths for 2010 up slightly from 2009. That works out to 7.2 per day or 2,640 for the year. I don’t know where you got that 100 deaths per year in home fires.

  22. avatarthe last Marine out says:

    People are reacting because their REAL god did not save them ,, (government) your well being and safety is your duty and yours alone………..

  23. avatarTotenglocke says:

    You worked (do work?) for the Department of Homeland Terrorism? Damn, I was starting to like you Nick..

  24. avatarCharles5 says:

    I think that Nick has hit the nail squarely on the head. People perceive things they cannot control (or understand) as a greater risk (even though our greatest threat is our own ignorance). Sadly, the average person’s understanding of firearms is based off of movies and television. You see actors do impossible things with guns (like shoot continuously for 2 minutes of screen time without reloading or hitting everything they aim at). This gives people a skewed view of reality, further perpetuating their fears. To further illustrate his point, look at the story in the link below. I don’t know if anyone has seen this story from this morning about a car crash that killed 11 people on scene with two more dying at the hospital from their injuries. 10 people remain in the hospital, many in critical condition.

    http://www.kktv.com/home/headlines/At-Least-11-Dead-in-Single-Car-Crash-163374326.html

    While this is not a “violent act of terrorism,” more people died in this incident than the Aurora Colorado shooting (provided everyone in the hospital survives). Even though this is a headline today, it will disappear in a few days and everyone will forget about it. You probably won’t hear any politicians standing up and pontificating about how we need to have more strict driving laws. There will be no calls for more comprehensive training. No demands for thorough driving history checks before being able buy a car. You won’t hear anyone say we need better systems in place to catch people that might be prone to dangerous driving. Nobody will blame the car companies for manufacturing a vehicle large enough to carry 23 passengers, even if it was misused. No leaders will call for a ban on large vehicles to avoid this in the future. Nothing. Despite the fact that thousands and thousands of people die each year in automobile incidents (I don’t like the term “accidents” because that implies that no one was at fault or it was unavoidable…very rarely was there no one at fault). As Nick points out, we all think we are in control of our driving and so we normalize it into everyday activity. The double standard of our politicians would almost be laughable if it didn’t endanger so many lives.

  25. avatarRob says:

    Your source is admittedly flawed. Your wikipedia page states “This section does not include school massacres, workplace killings, hate crimes, or mass murders that took place primarily in a domestic environment, which form their own categories. Cases where the primary motive for the murders was to facilitate or cover up another felony, like robbery, are also not included.”

    This leaves out numbers for incidents like:
    32 killed at Virginia tech in 2007
    9 killed in Red lake, MN in 2009
    13 killed at Ft. Hood in 2009

    Just to name a few and brings your total from 117 to 171. You might want to re-crunch those statistics. I sure as hell hope your poor research didn’t cause a risk to slip through the cracks.

  26. avatarWill McGill says:

    Despite the occasional typo, this article reinforces my belief that you were my favorite student at Penn State. Very observant, and very good points. These echo why I left the risk industry. A challenge, as I emphasize over and over again, centers on risk communication. Risk communication goes beyond just telling people how it is. You must also understand what it is they think, then “design” a communication strategy that brings them from where they are to where they ought to be. It is all about marketing. Unfortunately, many of the effective tactics to “convince” people of what they need to think and believe may be viewed as, say, less than ethical, which thus poses a problem for us ethical communicators.

    As for communicating with the public, though, Dr. Sandman has studied this extensively. See http://www.psandman.com. It is really a challenge to do. I have no practical, ethical solutions.

  27. avatarAmit Kumar Singh says:

    I would say that it’s not the existing probability but the could be probability after the said event has occurred (which in this case is shooting by someone who has access to lethal firearms), a real cause of concern. Though the existing probability (before the happening of the event) of some shooting in public killing them in process is low, but the probability for this event to recur is fairly high enough as there are many persons having legal firearms and the laws in US letting any US citizen possess lethal firearms. And this high probability is the real cause of concern.
    In 9/11 case, the recurring probability is still very low as compared to most of the accidents, but in this case of shooting by someone, the recurring probability is really very high and hence, high risk.

  28. avatarjknelson says:

    huh… I just read that 8,583 people were shot dead in the US last year 2012. But I guess that number isn’t really important, because while people gunned down daily, what we really need to concern ourselves with is mass shootings, which are, in fact, quite isolated occurrences.

  29. avatarMytoiletsclogged says:

    In terms of network security, we measure risk of a network intrusion, or penetration (i.e., being “hacked”), the same way that Nick describes here.

    I found two things missing in his analysis though, and I’m really curious what he thinks about this or what others think. It is this…

    First, the misguided knee-jerk reaction of some in government and many equally ignorant civilians/voters is a gun ban or an “Assault Weapons” Ban (AWB). The idea of such a ban wouldn’t last ten seconds without a false belief or assumption that it would actually work. There is NO historical precedent to point to that would indicate that any kind of ban reduces gun violence. Their minds just calculate if no legal “Assault Weapons”, then no mass murders. To anyone who would argue or disagree with me here, I would point to this note on another truthaboutguns.com article:
    “NOTE: There have been only two murders ever committed with a legally owned fully automatic machine gun, one by a police officer in 1988 and the other in 1994. No murders have been committed since then.”
    (Source here: http://www.thetruthaboutguns.com/2012/10/foghorn/the-truth-about-assault-weapons-and-assault-weapons-bans)

    The second is the political capital gained by those like the President and Senator Feinstein who posture and position themselves as gun banners DESPITE their galactic ignorance, because in times following a massacre, this is a hot button issue with many voters and campaign contributors. Remember the Alinsky motto unbelievably actually said out loud by the current mayor of a city with the most restrictive or some of the most restrictive gun control laws in the nation, but has among the highest rates of gun violence, Rahm Emanuel:
    “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

    Things like getting a new and more expansive gun ban passed into law…

    I hope there is a hotter corner of hell for those who would exploit the grief and fear of WE THE PEOPLE in the aftermath of a massacre in order to further their own totalitarian anti-gun political agenda.

  30. avatarWill says:

    I just want to thank you for actually caring about FACTS and LOGIC and trying to fight against the irrational emotionality so ever-present in the gun debate. You dont know how good it feels to see someone so consistently approaching this from a scientific standpoint for a change. I guess that comes with the territory of professional risk assessment, which leads me to believe that it and formal logic needs to be mandatory teaching in our schools.

    Im much more worried about the millions of deaths that occur every year from the irrational inefficiencies built into our system than the small handful that dies from isolated and statistically insignificant shootings. But like you said, novelty magnifies the perception of threat. To reference the Batman series at the heart of this situation, no one panics if things go “according to plan”, even if the plan is horrifying.

  31. avatarzach says:

    From a straight analytic standpoint, there’s no reason to be concerned about mass shootings. None whatsoever. The probability that you will be involved is so small that my calculator switches to scientific notation when I try to compute it.

    No one is trying to say that we’re in danger. They are saying that mass shootings are horrific and it is our duty to do whatever we can to try to prevent them. I love guns, but no one outside of law enforcement or the military has any reason to have an assault rifle. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t be able to, but the point stands that there is no practical reason to have them. A shotgun is more effective for home defense. The only intended purpose of an AR-15 is to kill people. A lot of people, as quickly as possible. It seems like to be so dead set against any kind of firearm regulation, you’d have to really question your morals. “Am I willing to fill out a few more forms when I buy a gun if it could save even just one innocent person’s life?”

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