Media coverage following the school shooting at a Florida high school earlier this month appears to imply that these types of massacres are pervasive. As one New York Times headline put it, “A ‘Mass Shooting Generation’ Cries Out for Change.”
“This is life for the children of the mass shooting generation,” the Times wrote. “They were born into a world reshaped by the 1999 attack at Columbine High School in Colorado that killed 13 people, and grew up practicing active shooter drills and huddling through lockdowns. They talked about threats and safety steps with their parents and teachers. With friends, they wondered whether it could happen at their own school, and who might do it.”
But according to a recent report from News@Northeastern University, which spoke with James Alan Fox, a Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern, and doctoral student Emma Fridel, the perception that school shootings are simply a part of daily American life is misleading (take, for example, the widely-shared statistic that there had already been 18 school shootings in 2018, a figure that was then just as widely debunked).
Fox is a leading American criminologist who often works as a contributor for news outlets and offers pointed criticism of heavy-handed policies like immigration crackdown, cannabis prohibition, and private prisons.
Fox and Fridel’s research, which will be published later this year, found that “on average, mass murders occur between 20 and 30 times per year, and about one of those incidents on average takes place at a school,” Northeastern reported. (Mass murder is defined as four or more individuals killed in a 24-hour period, excluding the shooter.)
They compiled data from USA Today, the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Report, Congressional Research Service, Gun Violence Archive, Stanford Geospatial Center and Stanford Libraries, Mother Jones, Everytown for Gun Safety, and a NYPD report on active shooters, ultimately finding that “shooting incidents involving students have been declining since the 1990s.”
“There is not an epidemic of school shootings,” he told Northeastern, noting that four times the number of children were killed in schools in the early 1990s than are killed today. He added that, as Northwestern summarized, “more kids are killed each year from pool drownings or bicycle accidents.”
News@Northeastern further summed up the pair’s findings, noting that “There are around 55 million school children in the United States, and on average over the past 25 years, about 10 students per year were killed by gunfire at school.”
Despite their objections to the perception that school shootings are common, Fox and Fridel still advocate government measures aimed at preventing such violence. Fox advocates age requirements on purchasing assault rifles, as well as banning bump stocks.
Nevertheless, he cautioned:
“The thing to remember is that these are extremely rare events, and no matter what you can come up with to prevent it, the shooter will have a workaround.”
Meanwhile, Fridel discussed the need for increased mental health resources. “You might have students in a very large school who are troubled but who are basically flying under the radar because you have one guidance counselor for 400 students,” she said.
Further, Fox questioned the widespread imposition of active shooter drills in schools, which have exploded in recent years. “These measures just serve to alarm students and make them think it’s something that’s common,” he said.
He also questioned the effectiveness of heightened security measures in schools and outright rejected some proposals to arm teachers. “I’m not a big fan of making schools look like fortresses because they send a message to kids that the bad guy is coming for you—if we’re surrounding you with security, you must have a bulls-eye on your back,” he said. “That can actually instill fear, not relieve it.”
These fears are no doubt inflamed by widespread coverage of these events as they unfold. Despite data published both in 2013 and 2015 suggesting gun homicides had declined dramatically since the 1990s, the public continues to react dramatically and fearfully to incidents when they do occur, spurred on by round-the-clock media coverage highlighting the carnage, which could even inspire others to commit similar crimes.
As Fox said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe following the Las Vegas shooting last year:
“It’s…important that we be careful not to paint a picture of this guy to the extent that he becomes larger than life, that he becomes humanized… Often times when we assemble the psychological autopsy, we create someone who could be a role model for others. I think we have to be careful. It’s okay to shed light on the crime but not a spotlight of the criminal…”
Acknowledging that the death toll in Las Vegas was “staggering,” he encouraged commentator “not to keep talking about it being the largest, the biggest, the record because records are made to be broken and that can actually challenge people to try to become a record-setter.”
When Joe Scarborough asked about media coverage of terror attacks, suggesting the perpetrators should not receive widespread attention or even have their names mentioned, asking if the same should apply to domestic killings, Fox said:
“I understand the logic of not wanting to identify the killer’s name, but actually, the name is not the biggest issue here. It’s the way that we accentuate the horror and we play right into the very small group of people who would love to create this kind of drama, who would love to become the next record-setter…It’s when we go overboard and we paint a profile of this guy to the extent that it becomes larger than life, and it becomes, again, a role model for other people. It’s when we put their pictures on the cover of magazines, when other people see them as heroes. Not only did they get even with society, hey, but they’re famous for it.”
He also cited the Sandy Hook shooter, Adam Lanza, who sought to emulate Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011. Fox continued to criticize the media’ tendency to highlight “records” set by shooters.
“We have to be very careful about toning down the drama, the embellishment, and the hyperbole.”