Last week, police in and around Phoenix, Arizona, questioned a teenager and his parents and searched their home and the kid's school after the teen posted to a group chat a jokey message that raised concerns in our see-something-say-something age. In the message, the kid referred to going to school the next day posted alongside a photo of a Nerf gun. Police got involved because one of the other chat participants narced on the exchange and set the wheels of officialdom in motion.
The incident stands as a reminder that some of the bigger dangers we face today lie in fearful friends, relatives, and neighbors who insist that authorities be forever poised to protect them from unlikely threats. As red flag laws and other reporting systems proliferate around the country, we're likely to see even more incidents in which cops—eagerly or reluctantly—are dragged into innocuous situations by people who refuse to ask simple questions or to believe that we're living in a remarkably safe age.
To their credit, in the Phoenix incident, school officials proactively assured parents that the incident was "not a credible threat" and police were clear to me that the photo was very much of a toy Nerf gun. Officials wouldn't speak further because of an "active investigation"—modern shorthand for "this is too embarrassing to put on the record." But participants in the group chat shared the contents of the message with me amidst much eye-rolling on their parts. They were thoroughly ticked that one of their own had turned the conversation into a police incident.
Justine and Nathan Myers were similar victims of a just-in-case—or maybe malicious—report to authorities after 16-year-old Nathan documented a shooting outing with his mother on Snapchat. As Jay Stooksberry reported for Reason earlier this month, somebody contacted Colorado's Safe2Tell, a system that lets people "anonymously report anything that concerns or threatens you, your friends, your family or your community," about the Myers' shooting trip. Police quickly determined that the two were no threat, but Nathan was banned from school until public outrage forced officials to reverse their decision.
Systems like Safe2Tell, but more specifically targeted at firearm owners, now proliferate around the country as "red flag laws." They allow people with various degrees of connection to gun owners—sometimes very little at all—to petition courts to confiscate firearms with little in the way of due process. Such laws render the accused "guilty until proven innocent," argues Sheriff James van Beek of Eagle County, Colorado, one of more than half the sheriffs in his state who oppose Colorado's version of the law.
New Jersey's red flag law is the newest of the bunch. It went into effect on September 1 despite warnings that it could be wielded as a weapon by "vindictive people" and "law enforcement that don't believe you should have a firearm." New as the law is, it has been applied at least once each day since.
Now the FBI is soliciting proposals for a "social media alerting" tool that would comb through people's online posts to "proactively identify and reactively monitor threats" for official intervention. Once implemented, Reason's Andrea O'Sullivan cautions, "the FBI apparently expects these programs to quickly and accurately separate meme from menace."
Honestly, red flag laws and similar due process-free reporting systems look an awful lot like swatting implemented as formal policy. Swatting—maliciously targeting innocent people for emergency services responses—has proven to be lethal in some cases. Unsurprisingly, individuals have also been killed when police went to homes to enforce gun confiscation orders issued under very dubious procedures. In fact, Safe2Tell admits that, of the tips it receives, some 2.4 percent "were believed to be intentionally false reports."
Formalized swatting—red flag laws, Safe2Tell, and other see-something-say-something travesties—come courtesy of public fears of horrendous mass shootings. But those fears are wildly overblown. Even after the recent lethal attacks in El Paso and Dayton committed by murderous extremists, such incidents remain thankfully rare. It's not entirely clear that they're even increasing in frequency—especially with regard to schools.
The numbers we do have are too small to suggest any conclusions, says Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox. "There is no evidence that we are in the midst of an epidemic of mass shootings," Fox told Reason last month.
More specifically, "mass school shootings are incredibly rare events," Fox and other Northeastern University researchers pointed out in 2018 with regard to specific fears about the supposed dangers faced by children in classrooms. "Shooting incidents involving students have been declining since the 1990s."
The roots of confusion over mass-shooting frequency lie in the rarity of such events, the definition of "mass shooting," and the resulting challenges for anybody who wants to extrapolate a trend. But mass murders by any definition and in any frequency are horrific and grab headlines, unlike data indicating the remarkable safety in which our kids live their lives.
This is unfortunate, because crime rates have plummeted since the early 1990s. "The two most commonly cited sources of crime statistics in the U.S. both show a substantial decline in the violent crime rate since it peaked in the early 1990s," Pew Research noted earlier this year. "Using the FBI numbers, the violent crime rate fell 49% between 1993 and 2017. Using the BJS data, the rate fell 74% during that span."
As for schools, "From 1992 to 2017, the total victimization rate and rates of specific crimes—thefts, violent victimizations, and serious violent victimizations—declined for students ages 12–18, both at school and away from school," the National Center for Education Statistics notes in its latest report on the subject. "The serious violent victimization rates reported in 2017 were 4 victimizations per 1,000 students at school and 6 victimizations per 1,000 students away from school."
And how have we responded to this world of remarkable safety? Schools all too often implement "active shooter drills" that have a real potential for inflicting psychological harm by raising children's anxiety levels during simulations of unlikely scenarios. They're just part of a pervasive atmosphere of threat and fear that convinces people that images of toy guns could be omens of crimes to come and should be reported for official intervention—intervention that is always disruptive, and occasionally deadly.
My son has been taught to call the police only in incidents where it's OK if the subjects of the call end up dead. He knows that law enforcement is a blunt instrument subject to few restraints. That means it should be invoked only when there is a real threat. Nerf guns, jokes, innocent shooting expeditions, and other unfounded fears don't make the cut by that standard.
If only that standard were more commonly accepted. All Americans would do well to take a deep breath, remember that they live in a world that has become safer in recent decades, and cut each other some slack accordingly.