Don’t Play the Shooters’ Game

A memorial along the road to Umpqua Community College (Scott Olson/Getty)
Theatrical shootings aren’t the problem, hysterical reactions aren’t the solution.

We’ve been here before. The worst massacre at an American school wasn’t at Columbine or Newtown, it wasn’t recent, and it didn’t involve an angry young misfit with a duffel bag full of guns. It happened in Bath, Mich., in 1927, when the local school-district treasurer, upset at having lost a township election and facing foreclosure on his house, murdered his wife and then bombed the school. Nearly 100 were injured, and 44 people died, including 38 children. The collective response of the nation was to do nothing: There was nothing to do.

As a quondam theater critic, I appreciate our weakness for the dramatic, though of course the quality of the show varies, from high tragedy to mere spectacle. (Consider that the two American cities in which visitors most commonly put “go to a show” on their agendas are New York and Las Vegas.) One theory of drama holds that by exaggerating events and compressing them into a defined period of time and space — two hours on a Broadway stage, say — we isolate an aspect of human experience for study the way a scientist might isolate an unusual cell under a microscope. But in spite of the best efforts of 22-year-olds everywhere, life isn’t drama. It isn’t even very much like it.

Killings like the one at Umpqua Community College are extraordinary acts of immaturity, manifestations of the desire to transform real life into a work of drama, a category of which we can take a view large enough to encompass television, cinema, computer games, etc. From what we have seen of the Umpqua shooter’s communications before the crime, and those of others like him, the entire episode was one big homicidal “Pay attention to meeeeeeeeeee!”

#related#Attention must be paid, as somebody once said.

But we shouldn’t play the shooters’ game. These acts are dramatic because they are unusual (not as unusual as we’d prefer), extraordinary because they are unrepresentative of the contemporary experience rather than representative of it. Those of us who were around for the Clinton years do not recall them as a time of bloodthirsty savagery, but in terms of being shot to death, Americans are about twice as safe today as they were in the early 1990s. We are not, in fact, a polity dissolving into chaos. Our streets aren’t filled with blood — they’re filled with mediocrity. Politicians sell you emergency when they want to take something away from you. Terrorists are not the only people who know that a scared population is a compliant population.

We insulated moderns are not very good at ranking risks. We are fascinated and terrified by predator attacks, but in reality you are a hell of a lot more likely to be killed by a cow, a deer, a bee, or a moose than by a shark, a wolf, a bear, or a crocodile. But we love stories. We love them more than we love reality: The Republican party is not run by a secret cabal of warmongering billionaires; Barack Obama is a cookie-cutter Ivy League lefty, not a Kenya-born al-Qaeda plant; you’re going to die from emphysema or from being fat rather than from Ebola or a resurgent Islamic caliphate; the people who commit the murders are for the most part going to be ordinary criminals going about ordinary criminal business, and a fair number of the people they kill are the same thing.

If you are going to be worried about something, ordinary crime — not the bloody pageantry of mass shootings — is the place to look.

Violent crime in the United States is a concentrated phenomenon. Chicago had 407 murders last year, New York had 328, Los Angeles 259, Philadelphia 248. All too high, to be sure, but in 1990 New York had 2,245 murders. In any of those cities — and in practically every big U.S. city excluding Detroit and, possibly, Baltimore — you could spend six months visiting and never see anything that looked like violent crime unless you went looking for it. That’s cold comfort to the poor people in North Philly or South Chicago, but the fact is that even in our cities most Americans are literally miles away from real crime.

But if you are going to be worried about something, that ordinary crime — not the bloody pageantry of mass shootings — is the place to look. There are some indicators that violent crime may be on the way back up in New York and other cities. It is a fraction of what it was, but the best time to act is before uptick turns into epidemic.

Just as the wasp is more likely to do you in than the great white, the scary-looking guns that command the attention of the would-be gun-grabbers — the so-called assault rifles — are hardly ever used in crimes, in no small part because they are large (long guns — rifles and shotguns — are rarely used in murders at all, about 3 percent in a typical year) and because they are relatively expensive. A fully automatic weapon legally owned by a civilian has not been used in a murder in modern history. Those .50-caliber rifles that California was so obsessed about a few years back have, so far as the statistics show, never been used in a murder in that state, though one — one — was among the weapons used in a 1995 murder in Colorado. Ordinary criminals use ordinary guns.

#share#Our ordinary crime is largely the result of ordinary failures: failed families, failed schools, failed communities, failed police departments, failed penal institutions, failed parole systems. Even our dramatic crimes are mostly rooted in ordinary failures: those failed families, again, failed mental-health practices, etc. A scary-looking rifle is visually arresting, a fact that tells us something about the weapon, and maybe something about us. It doesn’t tell us anything useful about the actual challenges facing the United States in 2015.

Thinking about Calvin Coolidge some years ago, I wrote a column, “The Case for a Boring Man.” On crime, mental health, education, the economy — there’s a case to be made for a boring agenda, too. I love great theater, but drama is no way to run a country.


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