Why the Focus on School Shootings?

October 9th, 2015

In The Shooting Cycle, Shelby Baird and I explore some explanations of why schools shootings–a tiny fraction of all gun deaths–attract so public attention. As this topic is in the news again, I repost the section we wrote about the role the “in-group”  heuristics play in driving public debate.

Another way to explain this duality in perception is through “in-group” bias. Under this heuristic, people tend to favor members of their own group over outsiders.85 Because “people tend to be more helpful, more willing to allocate resources, and more supportive of policies advocated by members of their own group,”86 it is not surprising that these relatable tragedies warrant more attention than the overwhelming majority of homicides—many of which are gang-, drug-, or street violence-related. Or, stated differently, people are more likely to fear tragedies that could happen to them (anyone can be in a school or a movie theater), but less likely to fear tragedies that they are less likely to experience. Many may have trouble fathoming being involved in drug- or gang-related violence.

Think about the locales of shootings that rise to the national level of consciousness: schools, college campuses, movie theaters, supermarkets, and elsewhere. These are places that can be related to, where people can picture themselves. Satirist Andy Borowitz spun some dark humor on the loci of mass shootings with his article headline in The New Yorker, “Study: Americans Safe from Gun Violence Except in Schools, Malls, Airports, Movie Theatres, Workplaces, Streets, Own Homes.”87

But in contrast, places that many people never visit, on the proverbial wrong side of town, do not warrant as much notice. For example, forty-six people were shot in Chicago during a seventy-two-hour period around the six-month anniversary of Sandy Hook.88 Yet these deaths garnered very little attention. Or, in the month preceding an October 2013 shooting at Los Angeles International Airport (“LAX”) that killed one TSA agent and wounded six, the Los Angeles Police Department reported eleven homicides in the area.89 As of December 21, in 2013, there were 246 murders committed in Los Angeles.90 While the incident at LAX garnered national attention that dominated the news cycle for an entire day—a Google News search at the time for “LAX Shooting” yielded 250,000+ results—we were not able to find any national headlines beyond the local media about these other deaths in the same geographic area, many involving the deaths of young children.

And, unfortunately, we suspect there is a racial angle here. ThinkProgress, a liberal blog, posted about a mass shooting in the gambling room in the back of a Detroit Barber shop, which occurred shortly after the shooting at LAX. This event garnered very little coverage in the media:

What makes this shooting different? Several things. First, it happened in Detroit, a city with a staggeringly high murder rate. Second, the reported gunman had a criminal history, and may have had a longstanding feud with some of the victims. And, third, it happened in a space where many people can’t imagine themselves: a gambling session in the back room of a barber shop. . . . Sadly, the relative media ignorance of the shooting tracks with a common theme: Gun crimes often occur in low-income neighborhoods with largely non-white victims, but, from the news, you’d think every shooting put the white and affluent at risk of violence. There’s an obvious reason from a producer’s perspective: They want traffic, or viewers, and think they can get more if more well-off news consumers are self-concerned with the story. But it doesn’t reflect the reality of gun violence in the United States, where black people are far more likely to be victims of gun homicides compared to their white counterparts. 91

This is akin to what some have called the “Missing White Woman Syndrome,”92 which shows that the media overwhelmingly covers missing white girls more than missing black girls.93

There are many unexplored reasons why certain shootings become salient. This analysis begins a discussion on this question.