Supporters for gun control rally outside the National Shooting Sports Foundation headquarters in Newtown, Conn., last month. | Jessica Hill~AP
Updated: May 6, 2013 6:20AM
Mass school shootings are not a big problem in the United States. In fact, mass shootings, period, are not a big problem in the U.S., at least not in the sense that cancer is a problem or heart disease is a problem or accidents are a problem.
That’s a bold statement, and obviously deserves a caveat: Mass shootings sure are a big problem if your first-grader is killed in Newtown, Conn., or if you survive a massacre at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.
I don’t want to seem glib about the cause of unspeakable lifetime agony.
But as a societal problem, ranked among the woes facing our country, the attention given mass shootings is way out of proportion with the people affected, and causes an after-echo of anxiety that is itself destructive.
If you count up all the mass shootings in 2012, 88 people died, which makes it a bigger problem than death-by-lightning strike or death by bee sting — 28 last year for the former, about 50 for the latter — but less of a concern than drowning in boating accidents, which claims about 500 people a year, according to the Coast Guard.
What mass shootings are is dramatic — deranged gunmen bursting into public places murdering innocents for no reason at all. That catches and holds the public’s attention, certainly more than random individuals falling off ladders or slipping in bathtubs do, and the truth of the situation — 38 percent of the people who die in the United States die from accidents, versus .003 percent who die in mass shootings — does nothing to change the attention the media lavishes on the subject. It couldn’t be otherwise. The media is not the Jedi Council, weighing our public problems and writing stories trying to prevent them — if it were, there would be a lot more written about suicide (36,000 deaths last year) and a lot less about children being kidnapped and murdered by strangers (fewer than 100).
Concern turns into action. We are a society where the slightest public hazard, even if only notional, causes grave outcry, where parents thunder against proven public goods, like vaccines, based on coincidence and imagination. Thus school shootings, particularly Newtown, set off this agonized national debate on doing something about guns — increasing background checks, banning assault rifles, whatever they might be — none of which address the core problem: loons getting guns and killing people. Yet lots of public time and attention from President Obama on down are spent squabbling over symbolic non-solutions to this non-problem — again, on a national and not a personal scale.
It’s a waste of time. Not a Band-Aid but a fig leaf. There are some 300 million guns in this country — the biggest argument that it is not the guns, themselves, that are the problem, because if they were, we’d all be dead. We’d do a lot better, rather than fixate on clip capacity, to address the holes in our national soul that make people seek out so many guns in the first place — the powerlessness, the fear, the anxiety. That make too many seek out guns, that is, the ones building their arsenals, preparing for the zombie apocalypse. I’m not talking about the guns of hobbyists and hunters and skeet shooters and all the other legitimate reasons to own a gun. (Heck, I might own one myself were it not for the certainty that I would start shooting the squirrels trying to get at the bird feeder in my backyard. The neighbors would hear the reports and turn me in.)
The reason it is important to realize that mass shootings are not a big problem, in the scale of national problems, is because the National Rifle Association suggested again this week that we arm all school teachers and adminstrators, a horrifically stupid idea whose result would be a bloodletting far outstripping the problem it was intended to address — instead of students snapping and coming to school with mom’s Bushmaster, we’d have teachers snapping and drawing the pistols on their hips, and I’d hate to find out how those stats stack up. (Actually, we’d still have the student shootings — the armed teacher would get shot first — augmented by the new teacher-initiated shootings.)
People are human, and humans are irrational, and it is asking too much to expect otherwise. The odds of Norman Bates coming at you with a kitchen knife while you showered was 0.0 percent, but lots of women hestitated to take a shower after seeing “Psycho.” Still, we must use what intelligence we have to fight against emotion-driven blunders. The gun industry worsened this problem by sticking a gun in a third of the households in America, and offers up a supposed solution — more guns! — that would push our country toward some nightmare dystopia of armed violence. Newtown was a horrible tragedy. Let’s not compound it by using it as a pretext to unleash even more tragedies. We didn’t reach this sad state overnight; no real improvement will happen quickly either.