Mass Shootings and Missing White Woman Syndrome

Girls' rifle team at Central High, Washington, DC. November 1922. (Wikimedia Commons)
Girls’ rifle team at Central High, Washington, DC. November 1922. (Wikimedia Commons)

I haven’t posted anything about gun control in the middle of this most recent medley of outrage. This is primarily because I haven’t seen anything that looks remotely like a rational debate in which I could participate. It’s also because I’ve written on this topic at great length already1, and there is not a whole lot new to add.

It’s not that I’m opposed to considering new policies to solve the problems of widespread gun ownership.2 Nope, the problem is that I find most of the folks who are calling for greater gun control are suggesting the wrong solutions to the wrong problems.

The degree of irresponsibility this time around has been particularly shocking. The most prominent example of this is the way that the media has adopted a completely baseless definition of “mass shooting” to sensationalize the issue. You’ve probably heard that there have been “more mass shootings than days this year” or something similar. All those articles are using data assembled by the Mass Shooting Tracker website. Their definition is, shall we say, non-standard: it includes any shooting in which at least four people are injured. The FBI definition is more stringent: a shooting in which there are at least 4 fatalities. The database maintained by Mark Follman and Mother Jones3 is even more narrow: it excludes attacks related to gang violence or domestic violence. Follman explains this logic in a piece for the New York Times4:

While all the victims are important, conflating those many other crimes with indiscriminate slaughter in public venues obscures our understanding of this complicated and growing problem. Everyone is desperate to know why these attacks happen and how we might stop them—and we can’t know, unless we collect and focus on useful data that filter out the noise.

German Lopez of Vox (which uses the Mass Shooting Tracker data) thinks Follman is being silly for caring so much about specific definitions: “this entire debate is ridiculous. A shooting is a shooting.” But of course, if that were true, Lopez would have to deal with the fact that gun deaths in America are in a steep decline. According to the Pew Research Center5, “Compared with 1993, the peak of U.S. gun homicides, the firearm homicide rate was 49% lower in 2010, and there were fewer deaths, even though the nation’s population grew.” I’m not saying the current level is acceptable, I’m just saying that  there is no possible way for a person to simultaneously believe “a shooting is a shooting” and also believe that we’re in some kind of unprecedented crisis. Follman has a point: mass shootings (narrowly defined) are on the rise. Lopez—and anyone else jumping on the Mass Shooting Tracker bandwagon—has nothing but hand-waving and posturing.

752 - Gun Homicide Decline

So, if gun violence is actually at historical lows and on the decline, why are gun control advocates convinced that we’re facing some kind of massive epidemic? After all, the New York Times ran a front-page editorial for the first time in almost 100 years to support gun-control. What explains such an extreme reaction?

One theory: missing white woman syndrome:

Missing white woman syndrome is a phrase used by social scientists and media commentators to describe the extensive media coverage, especially in television, of missing person cases involving young, white, upper-middle-class women or girls. The phenomenon is defined as the media’s undue focus on upper-middle-class white women who disappear, with the disproportionate degree of coverage they receive being compared to cases of missing women of other ethnicities and social classes, or with missing males of all social classes and ethnicities.

Although missing white woman syndrome is primarily about kidnapping cases, “it is sometimes used to describe the disparity in news coverage of other violent crimes.”

So, to be perfectly plain about it, mass shootings are sensational because the victims are often white, often middle or upper-class, suburban and–relative to homicide rates in general–female.6 Crime might be down overall, but who cares? If college students and suburban white kids can be killed, then we have a crisis.

It’s not just the perception of the problem that is skewed by race and class, but also the proposed solutions. You see, there are policies that have been tried and found to be effective in combating urban violence. But no one seems to know or care about such initiatives, leading The New Republic to run an article to explain “why no one in Washington—not even President Obama—will embrace a program that could actually reduce gun violence.” Lois Beckett points out that “America’s high rate of gun murders isn’t caused by events like Sandy Hook or the shootings this fall at a community college in Oregon. It’s fueled by a relentless drumbeat of deaths of black men.” He then went on to talk about a program called Ceasefire. It isn’t new and it isn’t sexy, but “in Boston, the city that developed Ceasefire, the average monthly number of youth homicides dropped by 63 percent in the two years after it was launched.” The US Department of Justice has officially labeled it “effective.”

If “a shooting is a shooting”, and if the highest rates of crime are in inner cities, and if the disproportionate rate of murder victims are black Americans, and if we have a proven program to reduce those crimes… why isn’t anyone talking about them?

751 - Gun Homicide by Ethnicity

Timothy Heaphy, a former U.S. attorney quoted in Beckett’s article, has a pretty simple hypothesis:

I think that people in those communities are perceived as not sufficiently important because they don’t vote, they don’t have economic power. I think there’s some racism involved. I don’t think we care about African-American lives as much as we care about white lives.

So the problem is misdiagnosed, and the most promising solutions are ignored. But it gets worse than that. The reality is that the proposed “common sense” gun regulations will have basically no impact on mass shootings whatsoever. For example, Marco Rubio recently stated that “None of the major shootings that have occurred in this country over the last few months or years that have outraged us, would gun laws have prevented them.” The Washington Post fact-checked his claim7 and ended up giving out “a rare Geppetto Checkmark.”8

The idea of “common sense” gun regulation coming to the rescue is a politically convenient fiction. It is designed to appeal to moderate voters, but it’s just an empty slogan. The only kinds of gun laws that would have any kind of impact would have to involve a massive reduction in the number of firearms currently in circulation with a forced buyback and stric enforcement. But those laws are guaranteed to be enforced in unequal ways, a point that Ross Douthat made on Sunday:

I suspect liberals imagine, at some level, that a Prohibition-style campaign against guns would mostly involve busting up gun shows and disarming Robert Dear-like trailer-park loners. But in practice it would probably look more like Michael Bloomberg’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy, with a counterterrorism component that ended up heavily targeting Muslim Americans. In areas where gun ownership is high but crime rates low, like Bernie Sanders’ Vermont, authorities would mostly turn a blind eye to illegal guns, while poor and minority communities bore the brunt of raids and fines and jail terms.

If that sounds at all farfetched you simply need to ask yourself this question: has the War on Drugs had a disproportionate impact on poor and minority communities? Then what makes you think a War on Guns would be any different?

Nor is this hypothetical. The history of gun control is a primarily racist history in which gun control was used as a pretext to disarm African Americans to make them easier targets. The Atlantic covered this thoroughly in an article called The Secret History of Guns, noting that “no group has more fiercely advocated the right to bear loaded weapons in public than the Black Panthers—the true pioneers of the modern pro-gun movement.”

And let me just end with a note about how spectacularly bad some of the proposed new “common sense” regulations are. In his address to the nation, President Obama doubled down on the idea of using the terrorist watch list to screen gun purchases. This sounds entirely reasonable for about a second or two. After that, however, you might remember that—before it was brought up in this context—the terrorist watch list showed up in the news only in story after story of how horrifically mismanaged and unfair it was. This is the same terrorist watchlist that contained 72 Department of Homeland Security employees, a finding that led the DHS director to resign. Even ThinkProgress9 thinks it’s a terrible idea. Aviva Shen quoted Marco Rubio in The Problem With Banning Guns From People On The Terrorist Watch List:

The majority of the people on the no-fly list are oftentimes people that just basically have the same name as somebody else, who doesn’t belong on the no-fly list. Former Senator Ted Kennedy once said he was on a no-fly list. There are journalists on the no-fly list.

It’s not just a matter of plain bureaucratic incompetence, however. Ken White pointed out the philosophical problems with the idea for Popehat:

Last night the President of the United States — the President of the United States — suggested that people should be deprived of Second Amendment rights if the government, using secret criteria, in a secret process using secret facts, puts them onto a list that is almost entirely free of due process or judicial review. Because we’re afraid, because they could be dangerous was his only justification; he didn’t engage the due process issue at all.

Do I even need to point out that this list is also guaranteed to skew along ethnic and religious lines? The exact same folks who are horrified by Donald Trump’s bigotry10 don’t seem to realize that a proposal like adding the terrorist watchlist to the background check is basically a backdoor method of accomplishing the same kind of religiously-based stripping of civil liberties from American citizens.

This is what passes for “common sense” regulation? Clearly some people are using the phrase “common sense” in novel and fascinating ways.

To recap: gun violence is ignored when it effects primarily young black men, but when it happens in suburban schools or movie theaters it is a crisis that demands swift and thorough response. Anti-violence programs with a proven record of lowering gun crime where it is worst—in inner cities—and thereby saving the lives of young black men are also ignored. Instead, we hear about “common sense” gun regulations that sound reassuring but would help no one and end up (you guessed it) further compounding the systematic inequalities in our society that target the poor and minorities.

The left is very, very good at sniffing out the faintest whiff of white privilege from the right, but—when it comes to handling the gun issue—it’s time to say: physician, heal thyself.

14 thoughts on “Mass Shootings and Missing White Woman Syndrome”

  1. I realize I’m being the Class Guy again, but the graph for black deaths is obscuring the class element—without breaking down gun deaths for poor white Hispanic and non-Hispanic folks, we just can’t know what’s race and what’s class.

  2. I actually agree with you on class, Will, which is why I thought you might find it interesting.

    I tried to write in a way that would appeal broadly, but I included the class elements (e.g. “suburban,” “college-educated,” etc.) because you’re not seeing the whole picture if you just look at race.

  3. Oh, the hints are in your article. I meant my quibble as a general observation about the data available—it’s so easy to find breakdowns by race and so hard to find breakdowns by class. I agree that any attempt at a “war on guns” will hit the poor hardest.

    The chart of deaths by race could be used for an interesting argument: the problem is seen as worse even though the rate for black deaths has plummeted because the rate for white deaths has only gone down slightly. (But being the Class Guy, I think it’s just more evidence that the middle class doesn’t notice what happens to poorer folks and is completely obsessed with itself.)

  4. This was actually a letter I typed up (and now have to redo because 2014 data is out) and was going to send to my state Senator. So, here’s a data dump for you with some ideas.

    With the renewed discussion over fire arms raging, I decided to do some research into what has been happening with fire arms and how they are used. On one side you have the desire to restrict fire arms availability, or even the extreme to remove fire arms from the population. On the other side you have the resistance to further restrictions, or even the extreme to remove all restrictions from weapon ownership. These two stances create a bit of an impasse when it comes to options for legislation. What I do know however, is that we must do something rather than repeat the same dance we have over the last several years.

    To this end, I have a few suggestions.

    1. Decriminalization of most drugs, and legalization of others.
    2. Boost funding for mental health capabilities using the tax revenue from legalization of drugs.
    While I am fundamentally against drug use myself, history has shown us that since the ‘war on drugs’ began we have made little progress in stopping them from prevalent use. Doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting the results to change, well, it is not only inept it is negligent. We need to change something, and more of the same isn’t working.

    First the reasoning of decriminalization of most illicit drugs: Portugal has shown that it can reduce drug use significantly among users. (5 years after decriminalization) (12 years after decriminalization) (14 years after decriminalization)
    Decriminalization removes the arresting offense of small amounts of a drug, while still allowing for the large possession (intent to distribute) to be an offense allowing for arrest. This would focus the ‘war’ on distributors, not on those targeted by drug sellers, gangs and cartels. It treats drug use as a health issue (which I believe it is) instead of a moral or criminal issue.

    My next idea is inter related, drugs and gang violence. Where there are drugs there are gangs, where there are gangs there is violent crime. While violent crime is not exclusive to gangs or drugs, a large portion of violent crime can be attributed to the prevalence of both.

    While this idea is merely a theory and at that a somewhat drastic one I believe it could help tremendously in the area of violent crime. That is to legalize (and allow regulation) of drugs. The reasoning is that instead of fighting the cartels and gangs directly, legalizing and regulating drugs would dry up their ability to commit violence, or their need to resort to violent crime.

    When regulated and taxed, the flow of drugs can be more readily and easily controlled. The taxes can be used to provide health care clinics with not just the drugs some are hooked on, but treatment versions that can assist them in overcoming their addictions to those drugs. Additional benefits of those health clinics would allow for the providing of free or reduced cost health care in those areas as well. It wouldn’t just benefit addicts, but the entire community.

    This removes entirely the criminals from the sphere of capability to inflict violence upon the population. If clinics offer what addicts need in a healthy controlled environment, paid for with the taxes of legalized marijuana and perhaps other drugs why would they go find a dealer? When the dealers can’t make money, there’s no reason for them to continue dealing. Gangs can’t fund their crime sprees off of drug money, the cartels will either have to follow regulation (and taxes) or face the monetary losses associated with a dwindling illicit drug trade.

    The additional focus of those health clinics could also easily be used in addressing the mental health issues we face as a nation. While outrage at the mass shootings is obviously significant, the numbers show an entirely different story.

    According to the CDC there were 41,149 suicides in the US in 2013. Of those 21,175 were inflicted using guns. 51% of the total. If that doesn’t shout health care crisis I don’t know what does. Of all the deaths by fire arm in the US (excluding those ruled justifiable homicide) the total for 2013 is 29,629. The total homicides for 2013 using guns of any kind was 8,454. There are 2.5 times the number of suicides by gun, as homicides by gun. Even including all forms of homicide for 2013 at 12,253 there are 1.73 times the number of suicides BY GUN as all homicides. When comparing all homicides (12,253) to all suicides (41,149) that number increases to 3.36.

    The good news is that over the last decade both violent crime and murders have declined significantly. It is my sincere hope that these measure will help serve to reduce both even more.

  5. Suppose we tried to reduce gun violence by reducing the number of guns.

    And suppose that the result was that there was a big effort to disarm poor people — the people who are most likely to shoot each other — and not middle class people — who are unlikely to shoot each other.

    Is there something wrong with that?

  6. Why give middle class folks a pass? If a thing is a problem, it’s a problem, whether it’s disproportionate or not.

    And what approach would you use? Throwing even more poor people into prison would reduce gun deaths, but creating new problems is not the same as creating solutions.

  7. Here’s the problem I have with removing guns from poor people. First guns will then be targeted by the criminal element in the poor areas, robbing them from the middle class and continue to use them. Second, you’re creating a precedence for treating people with less money, as if they have less rights, what’s to then stop them from treating the middle class the same way? Lastly, gun control has since it’s inception created a barrier for the poorest from being able to defend themselves from any criminal element by requiring funds they don’t have to be able to have a defensive weapon in the very neighborhoods where they have to travel.

    No due process, unequal under the law, removal of rights because of economic standing, and precedence to continue that until only the rich have rights. Sounds like just about everything I’m not for, and all the wrong things we should be applying to any situation in America.

  8. Do not necessarily equate a decrease in gun homicides with a decrease in gun violence. Much of the change is due to improvement of medical care, and therefore fewer deaths. The same wounds would’ve been fatal years ago.

  9. If we consider guns a public health issue, then we need to fix the problem, and not the non-problem. Most shootings are among poor people. Probably they are disproportionately black because blacks are disproportionately poor.

    I believe (don’t ask me for evidence, I don’t have it) that a big part of the reason for violence among poor people is that our legal system does nothing for them. Justice in the USA is expensive — if you can’t afford it you will get injustice. Poor people who have disputes have no choice but to go outside the law, they can appeal to churches or communities or street gangs or take enforcement into their own hands. They are mostly untrained, is it any wonder that they would kill 10 times as many poor people as the police do?

    In an epidemic you might quarantine people who are infected. To be fair you would treat them exactly the same as uninfected people, but the point is to stop the epidemic more than to be fair.

    So for example if we were to require that gun owners must keep their guns in gun safes that cannot be broken into with chainsaws or bolt cutters or jackhammers, almost all guns owned by poor people would be illegal. “Show me your gun safe.” That wouldn’t be fair to poor people, but it also isn’t fair to poor people to require emissions controls for automobiles. Many poor people can’t afford automobiles because they are too expensive, and emissions controls make them more expensive.

    More important would be a high tax on ammunition. We already know how to make almost all the parts for a gun using a 3D printer. A plastic gun barrel can be used only once, and it does not allow aiming with tremendous precision. You wind up with a disposable gun with only a few shots, one per barrel, which could be melted down or burned after one use. If actual handguns get expensive there will be a market for these.

    I like your ideas. If we decriminalize most drugs, that removes the most obvious way for poor people to make money. Since the legal system provides no legal way for them to limit competition, drug dealers currently find themselves using other ways, like shooting each other and turning each other in to the police. With legal drugs they would have no incentive to do that.

    Improved mental health would obviously be a good thing. Current approaches are somewhat expensive. More psychotropic drugs are probably not the solution — drugs people take to affect their thinking tend to subtly make them less rational.

    If we were to decriminalize suicide, and make it easy for people to do it painlessly, that might make a difference. It would surely reduce the number of suicides using guns. Mass shootings of random targets are almost always suicide, right? A few people like the DC snipers expect to get away with it indefinitely, but probably most of them expect to die pretty quickly. They just want to make a difference. If it was legal, easy, painless, and not particularly disapproved to suicide without that, maybe even fewer people would choose to die while killing others.

    It might also help for police to make a determined effort to capture mass shooters using tasers or tranquilizer darts etc, so they can stand trial and endure long prison sentences. Some people thinking about doing it might like the idea of the risk they wouldn’t die, but probably some would be deterred at the thought they might survive, captured before they could kill themselves. Though that would encourage them to wear suicide vests.

    It’s a complicated problem.

  10. Nathaniel, thanks for the post. You are getting at the heart of the problem. I take exception with one phrase you have in your second paragraph: “…gun deaths in America are in a steep decline.” The CDC chart you have shows a steep decline in the 90s, but a gradual decline now. Suicides have been gradually increasing over the last decade. Gun deaths, (both homicides and suicides) are about even if not increasing a little.

Comments are closed.