I try to avoid arguments on the internet, but I recently got into a small one on Twitter. I was responding to the claim that there were 18 shootings at schools in America from Jan. 1 through Feb. 14, the day of the attack in Parkland, Florida.
I tweeted because that number isn’t entirely wrong, but it is extremely misleading. It comes from a list which labels every incident of gunfire at a school a “school shooting.” That definition is technically fair, but when most Americans heard this statistic, they pictured 18 Columbine-style tragedies. That’s not what happened. In some cases, no one was injured. One involved no students at all. Another was a third grader firing a police officer’s holstered gun. All scary, absolutely, but not the same as 18 premeditated mass attacks like the horror in Parkland.
Someone soon replied to my Twitter post to say it’s a mistake to get bogged down in these details. To focus on the numbers distracts from keeping children safe, they argued, and anyway, that this third grader could access a gun at school is itself evidence of a major need for change.
At the risk of sounding like a pedant, I think those details do matter. For a start, they matter because it means real lives have not been lost to violence. That all but two of those 18 shootings were not large-scale attacks — with all the grief and terror those entail — is a good thing! I was so relieved when I learned many of those 18 incidents left no one harmed.
These details also matter because they’ll shape policy, and regardless of political orientation, we should be able to agree that legislation should respond to reality.
Passing ill-informed laws in the terror, anger and despair we feel after a crisis is a dangerous endeavor. It leads us to embrace quick fixes without adequately thinking through their implications — whom they’d help and whom they’d hurt. It pushes us to disproportionately rely on the proposals of opportunistic politicians and lobbyists, who rush to present themselves as “experts” ready to answer our demand that government do something to prevent future pain.
In this case, the reality is that gun violence, like all violent crime, is trending dramatically downward in America and has been for decades. However, public mass shootings (i.e. not murders in which the victims are all known to the killer) are something of an exception. They have only slightly increased in frequency in the past 30 years, but have become significantly deadlier per incident.
Nevertheless, schools specifically are safer than they were in the 1990s. In recent decades, reports a new study from Northeastern University, “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.” (The study didn’t include colleges and universities in its school category, only primary and secondary schools.) From 1996 to 2015, the latest year for which the researchers had data, there were seven mass school shootings, defined as “incidents involving four or more deaths, excluding the assailant” in the United States. Adding the Stoneman Douglas shooting to that number brings the total to eight.
That’s absolutely awful, but as the researchers concluded, it’s not evidence of an escalating epidemic on campus. In fact, they found “shooting incidents involving students have been declining since the 1990s.” There were more than 30 shootings at schools with at least one death in the 1993-1994 school year. In 2014-2015, there were fewer than 10.
Now, none of this information may change your mind about the appropriate political remedies for gun violence in schools. You may come away just as committed to banning semi-automatic weapons or to defending Second Amendment absolutism. You might be equally wary of having armed police officers in schools or still eager to see even more armed cops on campus.
Whatever the case may be, my goal here isn’t to change your mind about gun policy or school security. It’s to insist we start the conversation with the same true information.
Absent that basic commitment to finding and using facts as accurately as we can, any policy approach risks terrible unintended legal consequences that will be very difficult to undo. The PATRIOT Act didn’t end when we realized it’s a huge expansion of the federal surveillance state that isn’t even an effective counter-terrorism measure. The TSA didn’t disappear when we noticed it had turned airport checkpoints into wasteful and invasive security theater.
Laws made in moments of panic don’t go away when the panic subsides, and demanding our laws reflect reality is among our greatest safeguards against legislative regret.