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An Epidemic Model of Mass Shootings

Culture Featured Policy Rantish Security

Every mass shooting in the United States prompts a familiar dance across the political spectrum. If only we had no guns. If only we registered them. If only we put all the crazy people on a list. If only everyone had guns.  Cynical politicians and journalists rearrange their faces and deliver somber pronouncements on the need to do “something”.  All semblance of critical reflection is dismissed because this is an opportunity to score points against the opposing team.  If the President suggests that journalists graph two variables, they will jump to comply without thinking about whether or not the comparison actually makes sense (looking at you, Vox).

All semblance of critical reflection is dismissed because this is an opportunity to score points against the opposing team.

Reality is murkier.  There’s little to suggest that gun control policies would actually work, especially as America crossed the proliferation Rubicon centuries ago.  There’s also little to suggest that widespread conceal-carry helps as much as proponents say it does.  Banning and confiscating guns outright, though a perennial desire brought out each time a mass shooting happens, is totally and unambiguously unworkable.  Cynical politicization of tragedy is nothing new, but in the case of firearms it has become so pronounced that the solutions proposed by either camp show barely any promise of effectiveness.  We do not stop to think that the reasons for these mass shootings – and the unique circumstances of their concentration in the United States – may be something independent of gun policy: a shadow on America’s collective psyche.

Stephen J. Dubner of Freakonomics fame ran a podcast that discussed the concept of copycat suicide.  The idea of copycat suicides is based on the idea that suicide can be modeled as an epidemic (i.e. with a contagion that spreads through networks).  There’s academic support for this idea and even an eponymous effect: the Werther Effect (named after the spike in suicides following the publication of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther).  Part of this is “Social Proof”, where people model their own behaviours after those they see as similar or those whom they admire.  A prominent suicide can be the spark on kindling which leads to a suicide epidemic that elevated the suicide rate of young Micronesian males for decades.  As more and more people follow suit, it becomes the “thing that one does” in a certain situation.

As more and more people follow suit, it becomes the “thing that one does” in a certain situation.

This is my argument: that mass shootings have become an epidemic in the same sense as copycat suicides. The demographics for the perpetrators are surprisingly similar, as are many of the circumstances.  Mental health explanations haven’t held up as well as they should, but the epidemic model doesn’t need an underlying mental health issue to show results.  I don’t even know where to start on confirming this with real data, but I think that someone smarter than I could achieve results with this framework.

This is more frightening than the narrative put forward by either camp in the gun control debate.  Everyone likes to believe that only the sick do things like this, or only the crazy.  We like to believe that this is something we can fix through policy.  We can legislate guns away, or we can legislate them to everyone, and the problem will resolve and we will have won.  We believe in Hobbes’ Leviathan who promises us peace and safety for just enough power.  We’ve been taught that deterrence is effective.  Three strikes, you’re out.  Mandatory minimums.  Stop and frisk.  Increased security budgets.  Background checks and licenses and registries.  All of these are built around the logic of deterrence: if people are guaranteed a punishment that exceeds whatever bad thing people are doing, people won’t do that bad thing.  We do not contemplate that there are those who are beyond considerations of consequences and thus are beyond our power to cow through policy.

In reflecting on this, I’m reminded of Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil”.  Evil becomes normalized because we see it all around us.  Otherwise decent people are able to not only tolerate, nor contribute passively, but actively contribute to slavery, genocide, racism, and all manner of horrible things simply because it is the default behaviour.  This concept is related to social proof, but these mass shootings aren’t banal evil.  Banal evil is wickedness in conformity and submission, while this is the opposite: a desire to be, for a fleeting moment, Great.  To do something totally aberrant and as similar others look at your consequences for them to think that you were just like them.

Evil becomes normalized because we see it all around us.  Otherwise decent people are able to not only tolerate, nor contribute passively, but actively contribute to slavery, genocide, racism, and all manner of horrible things simply because it is the default behaviour.

It’s more comfortable to think of mass shootings as something that can be solved through policy.  We can define enemies – those across the aisle – who impede our policies which would bring salvation.  It is something altogether different to realize that there is no identifiable enemy at which to focus our blame.  Instead, society must engage its collective demons.  It must think about what drives people to see these monsters as similar to themselves.  Most importantly, society must deprive it of fuel.  Many countries have voluntary codes on how they report suicide exactly for this reason.  Broadcasters in the United States should consider a similar code that would limit the amount of coverage an attack would receive so that people are informed but the reporting does not fuel identification with the shooter or his motivations.  This would not solve anything directly, but it could lead to badly needed deescalation.  As a secondary side-effect, deescalation could perhaps serve to reduce tensions between pro and anti-gun control camps so they could have the  political capital needed to work through changes which they can agree on instead of not trusting their counterpart to touch gun law whatsoever.

society must engage its collective demons.  It must think about what drives people to see these monsters as similar to themselves.

Will any of this happen?  I doubt it.  Too many people are invested in the status quo.  Political parties use the tension to get their voters to the polls and differentiate themselves from their opponents.  Broadcasters face a collective action problem where one broadcaster defecting from a voluntary code would reap significant short-term rewards, creating a tendency towards noncompliance.  Perhaps this would be an effective use of President Obama’s bully pulpit – to encourage the uptake of and adherence to a voluntary broadcasting code on shootings.  While hope would be a nice outlook to have on such a miserable issue, I’m sad to say that it would be misplaced hope.

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