America Is Safer than It Has Been in Decades

By Ryan Lau | @agorisms

Nearly two weeks ago now, a gunman opened fire on innocent people at The Borderline Bar in Thousand Oaks, California. 12 people died in the attack. Not long before, another crazed individual slaughtered 11 and injured 7 at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. The year’s mass shooting count continues to rise. At the same time, so does the number of people crying for gun control. Quite possibly, the copycat effect is in play. Surely, there is a direct connection between these two figures, as many gun control advocates cite incidents such as these, as well as the Parkland school shooting, as evidence to support tighter gun regulations.

The Olden Days of Unlocked Doors

One particular argument, however, takes this sentiment in a quite irrational direction. Through the fear and mass hysteria come cries that we are not a safe country anymore; in the olden days, you could leave your doors unlocked, but now, kids can’t even go to school or a movie anymore without the fear of a shooting. I do not, in any way, seek to belittle the emotions of these children, who have every right to hold fear deeply. But, their fears often come from excessive media coverage, rather than an increased state of danger in America.

First, allow me to preface with the notion that one mass shooting is too many. Similarly, one shooting of any kind is too many; shootings at the hands of police, criminals, terrorists, and deranged school shooters alike are horrific and worth considerable attention. Likewise, so are deaths by the knife, or car, or sword, or bomb, or gas.

We do not, unfortunately, live in a society of daisies and rainbows, where suffering is little more than a myth. Death exists, and without a doubt, is a regrettable part of everyday life. Once again, this is in no way stating that we should show tolerance towards bringers of death: such a suggestion is intolerable. Nonetheless, we must take this into consideration when looking at the following statistics regarding violent crime.

Are We Facing an Epidemic?

First and foremost, the odds of dying in a mass shooting in a given year are far lower than one in a million. In fact, in 2016, there were only 71 deaths from mass shootings (excluding war casualties). Once again, this figure is 71 people too many, but it is clear that we are not living in a culture of mass shootings, where deaths from them are normal and expected. In 2018, though the year is not over, the figure has not changed dramatically, sitting at 68, even after the 23 in recent weeks. With a population of over 325 million and rising, the odds thus lie below 1 in four million of being a victim of a mass shooting.

This definition of mass shooting, though, is relatively narrow. It involves an incident with four or more casualties at the hands of one shooter (or two, acting in tandem). It also excludes domestic violence and gang assaults, as well as awry robberies. Essentially, this is a figure that gives the odds of being the victim of a random act of violence.

Violent Crime’s Steady Decline

What would happen, then, if I was to expand the lens to all acts of violent crime? Perhaps, then, it would become clear that today’s America is far more dangerous than that of the past. Yet, it appears that, compared with 30 years ago, America is actually considerably safer.

Since 1991, the violent crime rate in America has dramatically fallen. Then at 758.2 incidents per 100,000 people, it has nearly halved, now sitting at 382.9 incidents per 100,000. The same pattern occurs when looking at violent crimes committed by youth. In fact, the decline is even more dramatic. In 1993, Americans aged 12-17 committed 1.1 million violent crimes. Since then, however, the figure has fallen to a mere 182,000. Murder and robbery follow a similar pattern, decreasing by about half since the early 1990s.

A Public Misconception: America is Safer

On the contrary, though, public perception of crime has actually taken a turn for the worse. A Pew Research study from the 2016 election polled voters about their perception of crime since 2008. Shockingly, the voters were not capable of determining the truth about crime rates. 59% of those surveyed, including 78% of those who voted for Donald Trump, believed that crime has worsened in the 8 years under President Obama. A plurality of Hillary Clinton voters agreed, despite the fact that both violent crime and property crime has drastically dropped over this span.

Without a doubt, America is safer than it has been in decades. Media, however, often sensationalizes the instances of crime that do occur more than they did previously. Gang violence in Chicago, for example, does not receive the attention that mass shootings in schools do, simply because there are more instances of violence. A media outlet could not possibly report in any detail on the inner happenings of gangs in cities.

The Copycat Effect

What is particularly interesting here, though, is the possibility of the copycat effect. Essentially, this states that when the media focuses so heavily on the name, story, information, and actions of the killer in a mass shooting, it inspires others to copy the action. These copycats may try to outdo the original killer or become more (in)famous.

A 2015 report states that as many as 20 to 30% of mass shootings are the result of the copycat effect. The effect, according to the report, lasts around two weeks. Moreover, it is worth noting that gang violence mass shootings receive less media attention and are less likely to cause a copycat effect. By the law of averages, the percentage must go up for acts such as theater and school shootings. If media did less to focus on and almost memorialize shooters, they could save lives.

Instead, media should place greater emphasis on the stories and legacies of victims. Though America is safer than it has been in decades, we are deeply flawed, with much room to improve. Clearly, the media has a role to play in this path. By reducing the copycat effect, they may save numerous lives. Uncomfortable though it may be, it’s time for the media to have that discussion and begin action.

Perhaps the names and stories of killers are profitable. Perhaps they bring about a larger viewer base over the opposing network. But we at 71 Republic declare that profit is second to human life. Media, upon recognizing the copycat effect, should immediately cease glorifying, or even naming, school shooters in the wake of attacks.

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