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Yet there were competing interpretations. Coverage of several recent violent events—including the shootings at Virginia Tech, the Giffords rally, the Colorado movie theater, and Newtown—emphasized that the shooters had been treated for mental illness. Therefore, there were calls for more thorough background checks for gun purchases, checks that would make it harder for mentally disturbed individuals to gain access to firearms.
In the aftermath of the Newtown killings, there were interesting parallels between the comments of those advocating on behalf of gun owners and those advocating on behalf of the mentally ill. Gun advocates argued that there are hundreds of millions of guns, but that very few of those guns (or gun owners) are involved in mass shootings. Similarly, mental health advocates pointed out that tens of millions of individuals have mental problems, but very few of them turn to violence, let alone mass murder. Both arguments are, of course, true, because mass shootings are rare.
According to The New Republic, there were 70 mass shootings between 1982 and 2012, leaving 543 people dead. The magazine does not say whether this death toll includes the shooters, who often—but not always—also die. But let us assume that only the shooters’ victims were counted. (Amy Sullivan, the New Republic article’s author, says she believes that is the case.) That works out to about 2.3 incidents and 18 victims’ deaths per year. Last year was an unusually bad year, with 68 people killed in seven mass shootings—a terrible toll, to be sure. But in the context of some 2.5 million deaths from all causes last year, mass shootings, while dramatic, are simply not a major cause of death. And because these events are quite rare, and their number fluctuates from year to year, it is difficult to determine a clear trend. The horrors of 2012 made it easy from some commentators to claim that mass shootings were on the rise, but should there be fewer cases in 2013, it is unlikely that people will note that the problem is growing smaller.
My point is that it is possible to characterize Newtown as an instance of a lot of different social problems: as a mass shooting; as a school shooting; as mass murder; as workplace violence (remember the staff members who were killed were at work); as a crime involving an assault rifle; as a case of a mentally ill person committing acts of violence; and so on. We expect journalists to have a sort of sociological imagination, to help us understand incidents as instances. And we can understand why advocates for gun control, mental health, or other causes might favor particular labels, but we need to appreciate there is no One True Classification, that the categories we use are merely tools that may help us better understand what happening in our society.