Understanding Recent Mass Shootings

When it comes to mass shootings, America lives in two separate worlds. The first is the one of Gilroy, California, El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio among many others. They follow a familiar script: a white shooter using a high-powered weapon kills multiple victim and this carnage is quickly followed by public outrage, intensive on-site media coverage, and never-ending publicized pronouncements on gun violence, and, in recent years, condemnation of Trump’s alleged racism and xenophobia that fuels such carnage.

The second universe consists of urban, black-on-black shootings, typically of the drive-by-shooting variety using handguns where relatively few are killed but many more are wounded, including innocent bystanders and children. Though the per incident death toll tends to be small compared to the first type of incident, their cumulative impact far exceeds what has transpired at El Paso or Dayton.   

Most importantly, these incidents of inner-city killings scarcely generate widespread outrage and it is inconceivable that President Trump would visit Baltimore or Chicago to console victims. If anything, candidates for office, particularly Democrats, typically ignore these murders. In a nutshell, the reaction to black-on-black mass killing, even when children are murdered, is ho-hum.

The standard politically correct explanation for this disparity in attention stresses how black lives are undervalued by an allegedly racist society. Furthermore, intended black shooting victims are often gangbangers with felony records so why should law-abiding Americans be outraged? Good riddance, some might say. One might also suppose that the liberal-leaning media hardly wants to publicize inner-city pathologies that might encourage white racism.  By contrast, the media willingly devotes hour upon hour to white shooters, everything from their childhood to interviews with parents and friends. It is no wonder, then, that millions of American believe that we are awash in white racism or white supremacy -- why else would a TV station pre-empt all its daily program to cover the evil deeds of one (white) person?

There is, however, another factor that makes these white-perpetrated mass killings so terrifying: for nearly all Americans, the typical black-on-black killing might as well be on Mars insofar as it can impact their lives. That is, if you want to escape being shot by a black shooter, just avoid any venue where blacks congregate, particularly if local gang activity is present. If you happen to be near a black neighborhood and a group of teenage blacks are being rowdy, immediately leave. Given widespread racial segregation, this not especially difficult regardless of race.     

Avoiding risk is far more difficult if the mass killer is white, though statistically speaking the odds of being shot remains miniscule. Predicting where the next black-on-black shooting will occur is relatively easy; the opposite is true if the shooter is white. Sooner or later, most whites will attend some public event like a food festival or a concert, a bar, a movie theater, a chain store like Walmart, or a church or synagogue, all places that have experienced deadly mass shootings perpetrated by whites. Then there are the thousands of vulnerable schools. Thus understood, provided one will eventually leave one’s house, one can never be 100% safe, and to make matters worse, white shooters (who favor high capacity military style weapons) tend to have a higher kill to wounded ratio than black shooters.    

It is the psychological uncertainty that is critical -- the mass shootings perpetrated by whites are beyond personal control, and it is this randomness makes them so terrifying. It is impossible to totally escape a killer at Walmart and comparable public venues regardless of prudence. That the white shooter is likely to be mentally unbalanced and often indifferent to choosing victims only adds to this psychologically disturbing unpredictability. Indeed, this unpredictability is what makes terrorism successful -- despite the odds of being killed (virtually zero), people will demand that action be taken and no amount of rhetoric about the miniscule odds of being killed in such shootings will calm anxieties.   

Short of transforming the U.S. into a Soviet-style police state, no foolproof defense exists against these unpredictable anxiety-generating deadly shootings. Even the most intensive background check prior to purchasing a gun can never be 100% effective and you only need a handful of mass shootings of the random variety to inspire widespread apprehension.  It is also impossible to “harden” more than a tiny handful of public spaces. A visitor to New York City will feel safe in Grand Central Station since it is conspicuously flooded with heavily armed National Guard soldiers but the often crowded nearby Bryant Park is a tempting “soft” target to any would-be mass murderer.  

Going one step further, it is a mistake to view would-be mass killers as gun nuts so that we can all live safely if we only restrict the Second Amendment and confiscate assault weapons. Multiple other ways exist to kill innocent victims without guns. The deadliest home-grown terrorist attack occurred on April 19th 1995 in Oklahoma City when Timothy McVeigh detonated a bomb made from agricultural fertilizer, diesel fuel, and other chemicals. The explosion killed 168, including 19 children. An internet web search will uncover multiple books on how to make explosive devices on the cheap, for example, there’s the TM 31-210, the Improvised Munitions Handbook (downloadable for free) that explains homemade grenades, pipe bombs, how to use black powder and lots more for those inclined to violent mayhem. (Note that the federal government keeps track of whoever actually does this.)

Ironically, the mass shooter may be preferable to those eschewing firearms given that a shooter is almost always quickly apprehended or killed while somebody like the Unabomber (Theodore John Kaczynski) eluded capture for 17 years while mailing pipe bombs to his victims (he killed only three while wounding 23). Similarly the anthrax attacks targeting media figures and congressional offices in 2001 killed five people while injuring 17 and despite one of the longest and most intensive FBI investigations, the culprit was never positively identified and punished though there were suspects. The Boston Marathon bombers in 2013 killed three people and injured 264 using a crude homemade device. Imagine if the El Paso shooter had instead used a biological weapon at Walmart so he could flee long before people got sick and died? Dealing with that type of threat if far more troublesome than trying to control assault-style weapons.

In the final analysis, mass shootings, regardless of the race of the shooter, are not a national catastrophe if judged by the number of people killed. Death by shooting doesn’t even make to the federal government’s list of the top 15 causes of death in 2017. If Americans were genuinely interested in curbing gun-related violence, less attention needs to be focused on El Paso-events and more on what almost daily occurs in the black neighborhoods of Baltimore, Chicago, and other cities with large black populations. Alas, as we noted, putting a spotlight on this carnage raises awkward questions, and if the public’s appetite for televised violence is to be satisfied, it is far safer to publicize the far rarer (and more psychologically disturbing) mass shootings perpetrated by whites.  

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