Some very visible bad things have happened. Dozens of people have been shot. Some people are very afraid. They don’t need to be.
Let us note up front that there are two competing dynamics here: first, the widespread idea in the public imagination that something very unlikely could happen; and second, the media’s exaggeration of this dynamic for the purpose of producing trend stories. If you want to know “How have the most recent mass shootings changed the fears of Americans in their day to day lives?” you’ll need to wait for a detailed national poll or three, and we don’t have those yet, what with the latest mass shooting being so recent. Therefore it must be understood that any narrative along the lines of “Americans are now terrified of being killed in mass shootings” is, at its core, more of a story that any competent journalist can weave with a handful of interviews than it is a statistically proven fact (yet).
That said, Americans are nothing if not susceptible to wild miscalculations based on what they see passingly in the news. “Fear in the Air, Americans Look Over Their Shoulders,” proclaims the New York Times today, in a story that is essentially a written-through roundup of the 5,000 voluntary responses the paper received when it asked people if they are now, you know, fearful of mass shootings. The surprising answer: people who decided to write in to the New York Times about their fear of mass shootings are, in fact, very scared of mass shootings.
A mother in Tampa has a “constant, grinding anxiety” of being killed in a mass shooting. A childless woman in Massachusetts says that when she has children she will home school them in order to save them from mass shootings. A man in Virginia “now [watches] movies exclusively at home,” so as not to be killed in a movie theater shooting. A woman in Texas makes note of the location of all exits every time she goes to a shopping mall, so that she can flee an imagined mass shooter.
What the New York Times is too polite to say is: this fear is delusional. Mass shootings are very scary. And very visible. But in all likelihood they are not going to happen to you. You are more likely to die in a mass shooting than to win the Powerball drawing, but the truth is that you are not going to do either. That does not stop people from buying lottery tickets, and it does not stop people from fearing being killed in spectacular acts of terrorism.
It is true that guns kill tens of thousands of Americans every year—the majority of them from suicide. Of the fraction that are homicides, only a vanishingly small fraction of those are high profile mass shootings of the type that make people fear to go to office parties, or to movie theaters. If gun violence itself is what you fear, the most prudent action you can take is to not have a gun in your home.
- Heart disease: 611,105
- Cancer: 584,881
- Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 149,205
- Accidents (unintentional injuries): 130,557
- Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 128,978
They are followed by Alzheimer’s, diabetes, pneumonia and flu, and kidney disease. Next is suicide, the only leading cause of death that might be considered violent.
You are far more likely to die driving to the movie theater than you are to die by being killed by a mass shooter at the movie theater.
Life, in truth, is mundane. Things become big news stories because they are extraordinary. It is a mistake to imagine that your death will make national news. It probably will not. If you fear guns, don’t kill yourself. If you fear dying, eat healthier and exercise and don’t smoke.