Is it counterproductive to prepare Bluffton University students for a mass shooter on campus?

Bluffton University is located in a ridiculously low-crime town compared to the average American town.  My wife lost her wallet twice and both times it was returned by a stranger with all the cash.  A lot of Bluffton residents like to bike around town for work, school, and shopping and most of us never lock our bikes during the day.  In 11 years, my family has only had a problem three times and each time it happened during the night because one of the boys left his bike outside overnight.  The first two times someone just rode it to the Bren-Del dormitory at Bluffton University.  I always report the thefts to the police who are happy to work on this sort of thing here because they usually don’t have anything more serious going on.

Bluffton is the kind of place where the police have immediately texted everyone in town when they discovered that someone vandalized a couple of car tires on the way to school in the morning.  In contrast, when I lived in Chicago, I didn’t even discover that there was a murder one block away from my home until I was talking with some neighbors several days after the fact becuase the murder wasn’t dramatic enough to generate much media attention.  Nobody in my old neighborhood even bothered to file police reports on the kind of theft and petty vandalism that generates all-town police alerts in Bluffton.

Even though Bluffton is extremely safe, Bluffton University students (and their parents) have been worried about college shooters due to media hype and a cultural shift in America.  They have been putting pressure on the administration to address the issue with our students.  Unfortunately, the available evidence shows that it is a waste of time at best and may even be counterproductive at worst.

It is important to put the risks of a mass shooter in context with all the bigger risks that students face.  For example, according to the NIH, about 1,825 college students die from alcohol-related injuries every year so we should be much more worried about alcohol than mass shooters.  Plus, the Suicide Prevention Resource Center  estimates that “1,100 [college] students die by suicide each year” and many of those suicides are linked to alcohol & drugs: “between 1.2 and 1.5 percent of [all college] students indicate that they tried to commit suicide within the past year due to drinking or drug use.”

If Bluffton students are representative of students nationally, we should be seeing several suicide attempts every year although fortunately most of those do not result in deaths.  In contrast, school shootings are really, really rare.  I don’t know of official statistics, but the Huffington Post reported that in 2013, there were 18 deaths from shootings “on a college campus or close enough to campus for a school to believe the incident posed a threat to students” and that was in a year with enough high-profile shootings to warrant a news article about the issue.  Most years seem to have less than that.  The very worst year according to Wikipedia was 2007 when the Virginia Tech tragedy boosted the national total to 34 college deaths.  There are fewer campus shootings in America even in the worst year than the average number of lightning deaths in America (about 48/year).


The US has had school shootings for about as long as the US has had schools, but kids have always been safer in school than away from school. The hysteria over school shootings is making students feel anxiety in one of the very safest places that they ever go.

Plus, students should be told that the US murder rate has been dropping for two decades and is now approximately as low as it has ever been in all of American history. As German Lopez reported, Americans fear violent crime much more than is justified by reality. The violent crime rate was over three times higher back in the early 1990s than its level in recent years.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans think violent crime increased over the past year, even though violent crime has been on a general decline for two decades, according to a recent Gallup surveycrime rate vs perception

This is one reason the US still leads the world in imprisoning people. Politicians can still take some tough-on-crime stances simply because most Americans have no idea what the reality is on this issue.

A couple years ago the Bluffton faculty and staff saw a professionally-produced video that showed a bunch of scary situations on a college campus.  It was the product of industry efforts to militarize America’s police and schools and that Mother Jones magazine has been documenting for years. The militarization of US policing is counterproductive for dealing with 99% of crimes.  It was caused by historical accidents unrelated to our actual needs.

First we really did have a crime wave in the 1970s and 1980s that most people thought would continue, but it didn’t and police started arming themselves for a crime war just when it was ending.  Secondly, as video cameras have gotten cheaper, there are more and scarier videos of shootings that are now always available on TV news and social media which increased the perception of crime.  Then in 2001, 9/11 happened and Americans demanded more police protection because they thought that 9/11 was the beginning of a new era of dramatically increased domestic terrorism, but it turned out to be a one-off event and we are back to a similar world that we lived in before 9/11.

The final reason was the end of the cold war in the 1990s which increased the supply of funding to militarize our police forces because defense spending slowed and that caused defense contractors and the congressmen they had been paying to look for other outlets.  They turned to supplying the police and then homeland security and now some are even targeting schools.  One federal program to help defense contractors transition into supplying the domestic police market was called Program 1033.

Militarizing our police is counterproductive, particularly in an age of declining violent crime.  For example, the Ferguson crisis was at least partly due to Ferguson’s overly-militarized police department which escalated the situation rather than defusing it.  The defense contractors who supply our police now have an incentive to increase the public worry about mass shootings and terrorism in order to justify selling military-grade SWAT equipment to local police departments and the result is that they have produced nearly Hollywood-quality scary videos to distribute to schools about the dangers of school shootings.  This is the kind of video that made it to the Bluffton faculty meeting a couple of years ago.

The Washington Post reports that, “school security has grown into a $2.7 billion market — an estimate that does not account for the billions more spent on armed campus police officers.”

Fear of other forms of terrorism are similarly counterproductive.  The risks to Americans are minuscule and according to Stephen Pinker (interviewed by Julia Belluz), overreaction to 9/11 killed more Americans than the attacks did.

The greatest damage the resulted from the attacks was self-inflicted, in our individual and national overreactions to them. The psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer has shown that after 9/11, 1,500 Americans died in car accidents because they chose to drive rather than fly, unaware that a car trip of twelve miles has the same risk of death as a plane trip of three thousand miles.  And of course the attacks sent the United States into two wars that have taken far more American and British lives than the hijackers did, to say nothing of the lives of Afghans and Iraqis.


The Washington Post sent surveys to all the schools that had shooting deaths between 2012 and 2018 to ask if additional training or security equipment would have prevented the deaths.  The result:

Only one school suggested that any kind of safety technology might have made a difference. Many had robust security plans already in place but still couldn’t stop the incidents…

The survey responses are consistent with a federally funded 2016 study by Johns Hopkins University that concluded there was “limited and conflicting evidence in the literature on the short- and long-term effectiveness of school safety technology.”

Nobody knows how to best respond in an active shooter situation partly because shooters will adjust their tactics in response to what they experience in drills. Even the professionals have no idea what works and different security training vendors give the opposite advice from one another.

America’s excessive obsession with rare dramatic violence isn’t just encouraging police overreaction.  It also actively leads to copycat killings.  For example, the media coverage of the 1999 Columbine shooting directly inspired at least 74 violent plots by copycats.


And in the weeks right after a mass shooting, another mass shooting is more likely than at other times when mass shootings are not being reported by the media.

Fortunately, there has been a little movement towards reducing the excessive hysteria that the media generates about mass shootings.  Mother Jones documented several media efforts to reduce reporting that leads to copycat shootings and the FBI is also working on it. Schools should also do their part to get students and faculty to worry more about huge threats like suicide, alcohol, and car accidents and less about the miniscule threat of campus shooters.  In fact, getting everyone on campus to watch dramatic videos of fictional mass shooter situations could make risks worse by making the idea salient to someone unstable.  Past videos of mass shooters have inspired perpetrators to plan attacks and active-shooter preparedness videos could help unstable plotters think about how to defeat the countermeasures presented in the videos.

Besides, the kind of countermeasures the videos recommend for unarmed faculty and student are pathetically weak in response to an active shooter and because the businesses who make the videos really want to sell defense equipment and services, they don’t have much incentive to make you feel safe.  There just isn’t much the average person can do to in defense against a determined killer with guns.  It takes a lot of training to be able to use a weapon effectively (as the Daily Show humorously illustrated), so even if we gave guns to all our students, most wouldn’t be able to do much to stop a suicidal killer.  The kind of suicidal person that becomes a mass shooter cannot be deterred like a normal person.  But we don’t live in fear of lightning strikes, and there isn’t any more reason to fear mass shootings in schools.  We should be much more afraid of getting in a car or the drinking in the bar.

We must be doing something wrong because the number of school shootings keeps going up even though America keeps spending vastly more resources on the issue:

US Naval Postgraduate School

Nowadays, we are adding the word “barricade” to Kindergarten vocabulary lists to help them understand how to work together during active-shooter practices to block possible bad guys and putting up posters with:

lockdown instructions that can be sung to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”: Lockdown, Lockdown, Lock the door / Shut the lights off, Say no more… In the 2015–16 school year, 95 percent of public schools ran lockdown drills.

To make active shooter drills ever more realistic, police have been firing at teachers by surprise, execution style, with rubber bullets from real guns that are so powerful that they draw blood.

The result of this kind of theater is predictable:

students are increasingly reporting feeling traumatized by the prospect of terror and violence in their classrooms. The National Association of School Psychologists found that “depending on circumstances, some lockdowns may produce anxiety, stress, and traumatic symptoms in some students or staff, as well as loss of instructional time.”

Lockdown drills have other limitations, too. As Campbell reported last year, the annual lockdown drills Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School had been holding for more than a decade weren’t enough to stop a shooter. In fact, the shooter was an expelled student who had likely been through those lockdown drills himself.

All the focus on mass shooters is creating a mass hysteria that is completely out of proportion with the real risks:

poll last month from the American Psychological Association found that a third of adults say they feel they “cannot go anywhere without worrying about being a victim of a mass shooting,” and the same share say they avoid certain places for this reason. A quarter of respondents report changing their behavior in an attempt to avoid shootings. A USA Today/Ipsos poll released around the same time found 21 percent of respondents say they’ve skipped events to avoid mass shootings. Older polls from Gallup find about 40 percent of Americans report being scared of being the victim of a mass shooting…

A number of researchers think active shooter drills could actually be harmful. I spoke to Jillian Peterson, a professor of criminology at Hamline University who has extensively studied mass shootings and has conducted one of the only rigorous studies on active shooter trainings to date. That study found that… it …increased fear and anxiety (particularly among female students) and led them to increase their estimate of how common mass shootings are.

Instead of fearing mass shootings we should be fearing some of the much bigger problems that are rapidly rising among students.  For example, suicides have been rising rapidly:

Between 2009 and 2017, the number of high schoolers who contemplated suicide reportedly increased by 25 percent. Deaths by suicide among teens increased by 33 percent in that time period

Although small towns like Bluffton are really safe overall, they are exactly the kind of place where mass shootings tend to happen, and school shootings in particular.  According to CityLab, 60% of mass shootings have happened in small towns and rural areas even though less than 29% of Americans live in them.

And that shows all mass shootings.  School shootings are a much rarer subset of mass shooting and they are even more predominate in small towns.

This is a scourge that exists nowhere else in the world but in America and although it is a very minor cause of mortality even in America, it is only getting worse, so maybe we need to rethink our approach and study how every other country in the world has done so much better than the US at minimizing this kind of problem.

Posted in Violence & Peace

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