Another mass shooting. Another mass shooting at Fort Hood in Killeen, Tex. An unstable Iraq veteran killed three people and wounded 16 before killing himself. Does the madness never cease? Why does it seem to be occurring more frequently? Four blunt points:
1. It’s not occurring more frequently. “Over the past 30 years, there has been an average of nearly 20 mass shootings a year in the U.S., each involving at least four victims killed, but with no upward or downward trajectory.” That’s according to James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology, law, and public policy at Northeastern University and author of Extreme Killing. The statistics are no consolation to grieving relatives or traumatized neighbors, nor are they reason to ignore the carnage at Fort Hood, the same Army base where a deranged officer ranting about jihad killed 13 people in 2009. Context, however, is important for thinking clearly about our mass shooting problem.
2. Cable TV, and now the Internet, lend an impression of frequency. It’s likely that many commentators and ordinary civilians believe that the U.S. has witnessed a surge in mass shootings because of 24/7 coverage on cable-TV news shows and, in recent years, the incessant echo effect of digital communication, including via social networks, where users go to reinforce anxiety and speculation.
3. Media frenzy fuels copycat events. Many mass shootings are actually suicides-by-cop (or military police). Deeply troubled men in their 20s and 30s decide to express their pain, self-hatred, and anger by killing themselves after slaying a group of innocents in a grisly bid for attention and possibly pity. In the 1980s, a series of post office shootings led to the term “going postal.” In the 1990s, school shootings came into perverse vogue. “Mass murder—be it [at] post offices, public schools, shopping malls, or military bases—are exceptionally rare events, which occasionally cluster together within a close time frame but still do not reflect an epidemic,” Professor Fox observes.
Psychiatrists I’ve spoken to in the wake of these atrocities, however, speculate that at least some shooters are inspired by the example of the last suicide-massacre and that incessant media coverage helps spread the template for the carnage. That’s a diagnosis without a cure. We can wish for media self-restraint, but our First Amendment values prohibit dictating how much coverage an obviously newsworthy event deserves—or how much detail should be provided about a killer’s methods. Moreover, in the age of blogging and social networking, the notion of reining in Internet obsession about such incidents as the Fort Hood shooting seems frivolous.
4. Think about the first two amendments together. Our collective dedication to free speech and a free press comes with a price: media excess that may exacerbate a social pathology such as copycat suicide-shooting sprees. Our commitment to the Second Amendment, which the Supreme Court has interpreted to protect widespread gun ownership, has a price as well. The pervasiveness of firearms in American society makes mental illness more lethal. The most thorough background-check system imaginable would not screen out many of our unstable mass shooters, because they often do not have a felony conviction or the sort of documented mental health history that would block them from obtaining a gun.
According to early media reports, the latest Fort Hood killer obtained his .45 Smith & Wesson handgun legally and sometime not long before the massacre. The freedoms protected in the Bill of Rights—uninhibited speech, widespread gun ownership—carry costs.