Perception vs. Reality: Being a Mass Shooting Victim as Common as Getting Struck by Lightning

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Many Americans worry about when – not if – another mass shooting will occur, and a Gallup poll from September found that nearly half of Americans fear being a victim of one of these attacks.

After the film “Joker” was released, you could see these fears play out.

Many announced they wouldn’t see it in theaters. The film’s deranged main character, they said, would inspire people like the Aurora shooter, who, in 2012, killed 12 people and wounded 70 others during a screening of “Dark Knight Rises.”

“I’m going to miss two minutes of the movie looking for emergency exits in a panic every time anyone gets up to go to the bathroom,” a film critic for The Cut wrote. Many theaters hired extra security to allay the fears of moviegoers.

Then there have been the false alarms in Times Square, New York, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Cambridge, Massachusetts and, most recently, in Boca Raton, Florida, which is less than 30 minutes from the site of the Parkland shooting. The Times Square panic was caused by a motorcycle backfiring, while the Boca Raton false alarm was set off by a popped balloon.

Everyone, it seems, is on edge.

Should we be?

My research has shown a big discrepancy between the actual threat of mass shootings and the way the public perceives that threat. In other words, people think mass shootings are far more common than they are.

Why does this discrepancy exist? And what sort of ramifications does it have?

Zooming out

Sometimes it’s worth putting mass shootings in context.

Homicides account for just 0.1% of all offenses known to law enforcement, and mass shootings represent just a fraction of all homicides.

In a recent analysis, my colleagues and I determined that the average annual victimization rate of mass shootings – meaning the rate of being injured or killed in one – is less than 0.04 per 100,000 people.

Put another way, being the victim of a mass shooting is just about as unlikely as being struck by lightning, which occurred at a rate of 0.035 per 100,000 people in 2016.

Over the course of your life, you’re far more likely to die in a car crash, in a fire or by choking on food.

A misleading definition

And yet, you don’t feel a twinge of anxiety every time you get into a car. You don’t scan the emergency exits every time you’re in a building in case there’s a fire.

So why do they evoke so much fear?

There are several reasons.

For one, people tend to think mass shootings are more common than they are. This could be partially due to the fact that there’s no precise definition – or generally accepted national data source – on what constitutes a mass shooting.

One of the sources that gets included in a lot of media reports is the Gun Violence Archive, which defines a mass shooting as an incident with four or more people, excluding the perpetrator, being shot. By their own admission, the Gun Violence Archive doesn’t consider the circumstances surrounding the shooting.

So after an event like the El Paso shooting, you’ll see the Gun Violence Archive cited in some media reports, which will show a “mass shooting” happening nearly every day.

But there are significant and qualitative differences between mass shootings like Columbine, Las Vegas, Parkland and El Paso, and other types of gun violence, like familicides – when a person murders their family members – or gang shootings. By lumping all events together in one database, it makes the problem of mass shootings, typically thought of in the context of events like Columbine, appear endemic.

Mass shootings – the public kind – have happened, on average, around 20 times per year in the United States. This is more in line with the FBI’s database of “active shooting incidents,” of which there were 27 in 2018.

That’s still too many, but it’s a lot less than the 337 recorded in 2018 by the Gun Violence Archive. The frequency of these public mass shootings is slightly increasing, but the 20 per year average has remained largely consistent since 2006. They continue to be statistically rare events.

Fueling the fear

Second, media coverage seems to be a key driver of fear.

The vast majority of people will never directly be impacted by a mass shooting, so media coverage serves as their main source of information about these events.

When it comes to covering social issues, media outlets can choose from hundreds, but tend to only select a handful – what’s called “setting the agenda.”

So when media outlets decide to emphasize some issues – say, guns, mental health and violent media – over others, they’re telling news consumers that these issues should be on their minds, and should predominate over others, even if they’re exceedingly rare.

In the 1980s, sociologist Joel Best created a three-step model to show how rare events are turned into widespread social threats. Best used missing children to illustrate this phenomenon, but he later applied it to understanding how society and the media have responded to school shootings.

First, the problem is given a name, which allows it to be defined. That name – in this case, mass shootings – is splashed across newspaper headlines and television screens.

Next, examples, particularly the most extreme ones, are used to highlight the seriousness of the problem. For mass shootings, Columbine is the lodestone. Even 20 years later, it serves as the point of comparison for all mass shootings.

Finally, statistics are used to underscore the severity or breadth of the issue. In the coverage of mass shootings, the media often highlight the casualty count, allowing them to rank events as the “worst.” Other statistics, like where mass shootings are situated within the national crime picture, are typically omitted.

Of course, there’s also a public appetite for coverage of mass shootings. They’re dramatic and they’re terrifying, so they attract clicks and viewers. But the airtime mass shootings receive is far removed from their statistical likelihood. It has cemented the phenomenon as a social issue – and perhaps that’s why 48% of Americans fear being victimized by a mass shooter.

Unintended consequences

The disparity between public perceptions of the threat and the reality of their occurrence have some pretty significant consequences.

Accompanying the heightened panic about mass shootings is a demand for something to be done – and to be done immediately – to prevent future attacks.

But do these proposed fixes make sense? Are they even viable?

Take schools. Even in the aftermath of shootings like Sandy Hook and Parkland, schools remain among the safest places for children.

Nonetheless, in the wake of these tragedies, a school security market has emerged that now takes in US$3 billion annually. Many of the solutions these firms tout – bulletproof backpacks, security cameras and metal detectors – might give people the impression that their kids are safer. But in many cases, there’s little actual evidence that they’ll prevent a school shooting or minimize the loss of life if one does occur. And again, that’s if one occurs.

Fear is a powerful emotion. It’s easily exploitable, comes with a high price tag, and dictates decisions we make.

Let’s not allow this fear to prevent us from living our lives and addressing the problem in a smart and realistic way.

 

Jaclyn Schildkraut is Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, State University of New York Oswego. 

This article originally appeared at The Conversation and is reprinted here with permission. 

comments

  1. avatar former water walker says:

    Dunno about “on edge” but crime has risen exponentially in my southern Cook county burb. Crimes that require a judicious load of LEAD. The local 5-O seems powerless & pathetic to “do sonething”…or:Why do we have & carry gunz?!?

    1. avatar Hasty Burford says:

      I live in the belly of the beast-shitcago. The police here have been neutered by law suits against them, the city leaders not supporting them and the states attorneys office not prosecuting cases.

    2. avatar Madcapp says:

      I was struck by lightning 7 times. Once when I was in the field just tending to my cows.

  2. avatar Hasty Burford says:

    I fear bedbugs and a rat or a snake coming up my toilet when I’m taking a dump. The two times you’re the most vulnerable, dumping and sleeping.

    1. avatar Jack says:

      What if that snake has an “assault style” rifle?

      1. avatar Ragnar says:

        “What if that snake has an “assault style” rifle?”

        Than I would advise against treading on the snake.

  3. avatar tdiinva says:

    The farther someone is from an event the more likely you are to have a strong emotional reaction to it. Essential personnel were back in the Pentagon on September 12. A week later the workforce was back or in an alternative worksite. It was the people out in the heartland who feared another attack the most even though had it happened they would be a target.

    1. avatar tdiinva says:

      …would not be the target…

  4. avatar NORDNEG says:

    That’s why I personally carry a weapon, unless I’m shot right off the bat , I’ll at least have a fighting chance… + the media always, always, over does the coverage, which is exactly what the perp is looking for.
    Nothing you can do about the worry worts spacing out all the time.

  5. avatar Prndll says:

    There is so very little in this life we actually have any real control over. The whole point in having possession of a defensive weapon is understanding stakes if the bad guy wins. You can let fear rule your life or stand and fight for the special gift that is the miracle of life itself.

    Live on your feet
    Or die on your knees

  6. avatar Gov. William J Le Petomane says:

    ‘The Times Square panic was caused by a motorcycle backfiring…’

    Fv#@in’ Harleys.

  7. avatar uncommon_sense says:

    By lumping all events together in one database, it makes the problem of mass shootings, typically thought of in the context of events like Columbine, appear endemic.

    That’s a FEATURE, not a bug!

    The forces of civilian disarmament are not stupid. They do that sort of thing on purpose.

    1. avatar DesertDave says:

      All of this Bravo Sierra is by design. The lies add up and the sheeple general public, edumacated in the public school system gobble up the lies and line up to give away their FREEDOM for few not so magic beans of supposed safety. The gun grabbing libs and the media all want to “fundamentally change America” by transforming it into a socialist/fascistic hell. The only thing between that dream (nightmare) and FREEDOM is the 2A and those that will defend Lady Liberty with their lives.

      1. avatar Cheryl says:

        YOU CAN SAY A L L THAT A G A I N !! AND REPEAT, TRUTH AND NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH! Btw..i think for the author and his “colleagues” to Un Sympatheticly state that is a 0.04 percent Chance in 100,000 lk being KILLED OR Injured..is pretty stinking CALLOUS!! Lets Ask the FAMILIES OF PRIOR VICTIMS OF MASS SHOOTINGS HOW THEY FEEL ABOUT YOUR ” STATISTICS” ! And, Lets Not Forget to Include The HORRIFIC LAS VEGAS CONCERT MASS SHOOTING..in the “analysis “

        1. avatar VicRattlehead says:

          Would you like a bandage for that bleeding heart?
          EVERY statisic pertaining to death or loss has unfortunate people on the losing end of it. It doesn’t mean their loss is unimportant but allowing your empathy to override fact doesn’t comfort those who lost and really only serves to hurt those who didn’t, especially when it pertains to guns and gun control.

        2. avatar The Crimson Pirate says:

          Let’s ask the victims of law enforcement raids over guns, such as the Weaver family and the Branch Davidians how they feel about your statist emotionalism.

        3. avatar Cheryl says:

          VIC> Thing Without a Soul…Some day You will Remember..”need a bandaid for the bleeding heart”..When Your Family or Friends, If you have any, Is On The “Unfortunate” side of mass shooting..Despicable you are

        4. avatar Dani in WA says:

          Are you implying that your hystrionics should be considered when forming policy?
          What legislative recommendations do you have?
          By what mechanism will they achieve intended purpose?

        5. avatar James Campbell says:

          Hey Cheryl, GAFC!
          Having been in two situations in my lifetime (1; at knifepoint, an attempted robbery at an ATM in the Gallera mall in White Planes NY. 2; approached by a carjacker with a bat in Ft Lee NJ) where presenting my firearm ended the confontation.
          With your retarded logic, my 2 sons and wife should be without a father/husband because deranged criminals use the same tool that I (and MANY others) use to PROTECT our lives and families.
          Best of luck with your pinheaded/myopic view of the world.

  8. avatar uncommon_sense says:

    Sure, the probability of a spree-killer attacking you is essentially the same as the probability of lightning striking you. So, what does that mean?

    With respect to lightning, I minimize my time outside when there is lightning. And I certainly don’t go outside and hold long metal objects up in the air when there is lightning nearby. Why? Because I know that lightning occasionally strikes people. And I have had lightning strike the ground within 60 yards of me twice in my lifetime. And lightning has struck within 100 yards of my home at least a dozen times in my lifetime. Thus, in spite of the low probability of lightning striking me, I don’t fool around because it does happen and near-misses have occurred multiple times in my life.

    Therefore, I am going to be similarly cautious with respect to spree-killers. Once or twice a year, I will limit my activity (such as NOT going to the premier of the movie Joker) to ensure that a spree-killer cannot harm me. And the rest of the time, I will at least carry a handgun on my person. Thus my strategy is akin to staying indoors when lightning looks very possible and wearing thick rubber boots the rest of the time that I am outside.

    (Fortunately, wearing a handgun on your hip is nowhere near as uncomfortable, limiting, and annoying as wearing thick rubber boots outside all the time!)

    1. avatar DesertDave says:

      My wife was struck by lightening sitting in the living room watching TV. It hit the antenna on the roof, came down the wire, out the front of the TV and hit her in the chest! Knocked her a$$ into the kitchen. Took her some time to recover.

      The dog and I keep our distance when there is charge in the air. Once one is struck you are many times more likely to get hit again, so I have heard.

      1. avatar uncommon_sense says:

        DesertDave,

        Wow, was your wife cursing God a split second before that lightning nailed her?

        I know the physics of electricity pretty well and I know the basics of meterology and lightning pretty well. It is darn near impossible for lightning to do what you described. I am not saying that I don’t believe you, just that such an event is extremely difficult to explain without supernatural influences.

      2. avatar What about...? says:

        It wasn’t lightening or God that nailed his wife. It was most likely Iron Man, and I bet he enjoyed it.

  9. avatar sheeple says:

    Statistics are easy to understand. The problem is all the sheeple.

  10. avatar Ralph says:

    According to NOAA, the US averages 51 lightning strike fatalities per year. Not many, but still, I don’t stand under a tall tree during a thunder storm.

    Workplace shooting are even more rare, but nevertheless I have a just-in-case game plan which I have shared with my coworkers. We know the escape routes, the protocols, who is armed and where the guns and ammo are stored.

    In the extraordinarily unlikely event of an attempted mass shooting at my workplace, you can bet that most of the gunfire will be outgoing and not incoming. The poor unhinged basterd(s) are gonna get lit up like a Christmas tree.

    1. avatar Leighton Cavendish says:

      What if one of those co-workers is the shooter? just sayin’…

  11. avatar Southern Cross says:

    With wall-to-wall media coverage, everyone can be a victim and a survivor. Just ask David Hogg.

  12. avatar RGP says:

    To people who want weapons banned, that is 100% irrelevant. Even if nobody was ever killed or injured, they’d still want them banned.

  13. avatar Timothy Toroian says:

    Or catching falling stars? Literally, tiny meteorites?

  14. avatar Shiffrod says:

    Since when is the FBI not a generally accepted national data source? Hoover figuratively wrote the book on national crime data collection.

  15. avatar Stuck in the People's Republic of New Jersey says:

    “This comment cannot be edited because it is marked as spam.”
    WTF?
    I was just commenting on the fact that nationwide, you’re 200 times more likely to die in a car accident than in a mass shooting, but here in New Jersey, the death rate from car accidents is even higher than the national average.

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