The irrationality of obsessing about gun violence

Once again, Vox Media gets the importance of gun violence all wrong. Brian Resneck says, “America’s teens are [right to be] extremely stressed out about school shootings”. No, no, no. Schools are extremely safe places and mass shooters are extremely rare even in America. America has many more gun massacres than any other country (except countries that are immolated in war), so gun massacres are an odd problem for a rich country like America to have, but it is still a very minor problem that is far from the top of the long list of American public health problems. And mass shootings in schools are especially rare. It is especially irrational to worry about them. Driving to school is much more dangerous than mass shooters in school. Suicide is more dangerous than murder for young people. Climate change will undoubtedly have a bigger impact on youth than mass shooters. But young people are more worried about mass shootings than about suicide or climate change (and fear of car accidents doesn’t even make the list at all):

Why do young Americans feel more stressed out about mass shootings than all the other bigger risks? It is partly the media’s fault for sensationalizing dramatic mass shooter incidents which burn vivid images of mass shooter events into the minds of our youth.  The visceral stories and images from mass-shooter events are perfect viral content for the social media that youth are immersed in. But is it also the fault of our schools which force all American students to participate in active-shooter theater in which students are compelled to pretend to be victims in a real mass shooter event in their otherwise safe-feeling classrooms. Those annual role-playing practices help bring the otherwise distant media stories home and makes them part of every student’s personal reality. This is counterproductive because there is zero evidence that it reduces school shootings and it only makes >99% of students more afraid. School-shooter practices help inspire and train the <1% of students who are aspiring school shooters too. They are almost always inspired by other school shooters and have studied previous school shooting events. They envisioned themselves as following in that tradition and school-shooter practices are an opportunity to fantasize.  They trigger future mass shooters who get to participate in an annual passion play which previews how a school hopes to react to a future shooter and it helps them imagine how they could defeat the school’s planned defenses and insert themselves into the pantheon of school-shooter social media legends.

America’s annual school-based mass-shooter rituals are shaping our culture like all our rituals that we commit to repeating regularly. Our all-school graduation rituals are designed to highlight the importance of academic success; our all-school athletic rallies are designed to increase the status of athletic competitions; our all-school Christmas programs are designed to promote the values of Christmas (both secular and/or Christian). The national movement to do school-based mass-shooter rituals seems to have been partly promoted by the weapons industry. When Bluffton University started our annual shooter ritual, we watched a slickly produced video with dramatic music that seemed to be designed to evoke the suspense and tension of a horror movie although it left the suggested blood and violence completely to the imagination rather than displaying it graphically on camera. The video was professionally made by a firm in the private security industry that is trying to make money off of fear of school shootings.

The rising fear among youth shows that our school-based shooting rituals are changing America, but they aren’t leading to greater common values. They make mentally unstable students who are vulnerable to extremism think about and plan violence. The rituals increase the fears of everyone else, but instead of bringing us together, the fears split us farther apart. Irrational fears make the majority of students more interested in promoting gun control, but they make gun-loving students want more trained officials with guns in schools and more interested in buying more guns for self-defense. Since it is making gun control more popular with the majority of students, that will likely be the long-run outcome as they get older and start voting, but in the meantime, it exacerbates the worst problem America has with guns which is anxiety and fear of violence.

America does have a bad gun violence problem compared with all other developed nations (with well over double the problem of any other nation), but as you can see in the map below, gun violence is much worse in many other poor countries even though they have gun control.

Because American media broadcasts so many images of guns around the world, many foreigners are irrationally afraid to visit the US. For example, when I spend a semester in Guatemala last year, several times I met educated, well-to-do Guatemalans who had been afraid to visit America because they feared gun violence. The irony is that gun violence is a MUCH worse problem in Guatemala than in the US, but they have what they consider sensible gun control in Guatemala and they know that America lacks the kind of restrictions that they have, so they imagine that all Americans are walking around openly carrying guns. They imagine that mass shootings could always be a hair-trigger away because they know that America has far more guns per capita than any other nation on earth that that statistic frightens them.

They all said that they were relieved after they visited America and didn’t see any gun violence and they were surprised that they didn’t see very many guns. You actually see many more guns in Guatemala because they have a major crime problem and most businesses in Guatemala city (and schools!) have professional armed guards with machine guns or sawed-off shotguns visibly patrolling during business hours.

Similarly, one of the big problems Bluffton University has had in attracting foreign students is their fear of gun violence in America. America is famous for our gun culture which is like no other country on earth. It is so famous that foreigners even make fun of us about it. Here is a Dutch comedy routine. It is in English because the Dutch are almost universally bilingual and Dutch media knows that they get more advertising revenues by working in English which has a much larger potential global audience.

And here is an Australian comedian. If you like his work, he has several videos about US gun culture:

Below is a British Broadcasting Corporation video of comedian Jim Jefferies. Although he is originally from America, he seems to have made his professional career in Europe rather than in the US given that all of the news about him on the first page of a Google search on his name comes from UK media outlets and he has several other European comedy videos poking fun at American gun culture.

I agree that some common-sense gun control measures would make Americans safer, but if you look at the big picture we are already pretty safe from gun murders. Our murder rate is less than half what it was in the 1990s (most likely due to less lead poisoning). Gun control would save a few more lives, but mostly by reducing the suicide rate and that is a good thing, but for me and most people I know, the best thing about gun control would be that it would reduce our irrational fear of gun violence. For example, with greater gun control, I expect we could have more school rituals celebrating our heroes rather than annually herding everyone from kindergartners to college students into silent huddles in darkened classrooms while pretending that heavily-armed mass-murderers are stalking the halls on the other side of the classroom door.

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Posted in Violence & Peace

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