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The Myth of the Mass Shooting Epidemic

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The myth of the mass shooting epidemic

by Brad Polumbo. Originally posted on the Washington Examiner.

September 03, 2019 01:11 PM

As Beto O’Rourke put it: “This is f—ked up.”

The Texas Democrat and mediocre presidential candidate offered these wise words in an effort to capitalize on tragedy this weekend to try and once again reboot his failing campaign. O’Rourke was responding to the tragic news of another mass shooting in Odessa, Texas, over the weekend that left at least seven dead and 25 injured. 

But although O’Rourke’s sentiment is completely understandable, it’s also completely unfounded. Despite the liberal media’s profit-motivated mass coverage of these tragic events, and despite frequent exploitation by gun-control activists, actual mass shootings remain a statistical rarity and a much-exaggerated threat.

The liberal media just doesn’t cover car crashes, heart disease, or suicide with the same fervor it does mass shootings — perhaps because these far more common causes of death advance no political agenda and fail to get that gut reaction that makes people tune in. 

By nearly a factor of four, more people in America die from the flu and pneumonia than by homicide (all homicides, including non-gun homicides).

But people aren’t running out to get a flu shot with nearly the same fervor with which they’re clamoring for gun control. Much of the population has been scared into radically over-estimating the prevalence of mass shootings and gun violence in general. 

The CDC estimates that 4.5 people out of 100,000 die each year from various forms of firearm homicide. Mass shootings, in turn, account for less than 1% of homicides. 

Another way of looking at it is to consider rifle homicides specifically, because the topic always turns to "assault weapons." There are only 300 to 400 deaths in a given year from all rifles, including the ones someone might call "assault weapons." You are 50% more likely to be killed by a blunt object. 

Contrast mass shootings with the 12.4 out of 100,000 people who die in car accidents every year, or the 20 out of 100,000 who die from accidental poisoning. If these tragic deaths were covered with the same frequency and fervor as shootings, Americans might start wearing their seat belts and take greater care with potential toxins. Yet notably, there’s still no call to ban cars, or to require people to fly from New York to Boston rather than take the much-more-lethal drive up I-95. 

It’s also unclear, despite what media coverage and some dubiously-generated statistics would suggest, that mass shootings are even getting more frequent. Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox found that “the number of mass shooting victims, perpetrators, and incidents didn’t change much from 1980 to 2014.” 

We need to take a deep breath, and view this violence as the serious but statistically infrequent threat it truly is. Smart policy decisions are rarely made by a population steeped in misinformation and fear.

And that’s exactly where we’re at right now. 

In a 2018 Washington Post op-ed, Harvard instructor David Ropeik explained that according to his calculations, “the statistical likelihood of any given public school student being killed by a gun, in school, on any given day since 1999 was roughly 1 in 614,000,000.” That’s right: one in 614 million. Your odds of winning the lottery are 1 in 300 million

Ropeik aptly points out that the risk of dying in a school shooting is extremely low, and “far lower than many people assume.” As well, this risk is “far lower than almost any other mortality risk a kid faces, including traveling to and from school, catching a potentially deadly disease while in school or suffering a life-threatening injury playing interscholastic sports.”

According to Pew Research, 57% of teenagers fear school shootings, even though there is essentially a 0% chance it will happen to them. And parents share their unfounded anxiety: 63% similarly worry about their child’s safety in school due to mass shootings. It's understandable that something as awful as a mass shooting would inspire fear, but again, consider the odds relative to all those other, much more common dangers.

It’s unhealthy for us as a nation to have such disproportionate fear of a threat that the facts show is actually quite remote. Raw emotion is understandable, but when making policy it’s no substitute for fact. The media, meanwhile, are going out of their way to cause needless fear and stress just to get a few extra views and clicks — if it bleeds, it leads. And that, as O’Rourke might put it, is just f—ked up.