American media creates overblown gun anxieties

Credit: Sarah Wang/ Credit: Sarah Wang/
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°As headlines like “End the Gun Epidemic in America” become more common, Americans are growing increasingly afraid for their safety at work, school, and even in movie theaters. But has gun violence in America really gotten that much worse? While the media would like us to think so, the details say otherwise.

According a Washington Post article that went viral, “there have been 334 days and 351 mass shootings so far this year.” While this number initially seems insane, the definition of “mass shooting” is often disputed. The Washington Post took its data from the Mass Shooting Tracker, acknowledging that it “is different from other shooting databases in that it uses a broader definition of mass shooting.” According to the FBI, a mass shooting involves four or more deaths. However, according to the Mass Shooting Tracker, a mass shooting occurs when four or more people are shot but not necessarily killed. Such a change greatly increases the number of reported mass shootings, such as one that occurred in a nightclub where only one person was killed but many more were shot.

In order to analyze gun violence in America, we must look at more meaningful statistics, such as the decline in gun-related deaths over the last twenty years. According to the Pew Research Center, firearm homicides have nearly halved from 1993 to 2013, from 7 to 3.6 homicides per 100,000 people. The Washington Post attributes this decrease in violent crimes to more police officers, technology, and a decrease in alcohol consumption. Even the prevalence of mass shootings has not increased substantially over the years. James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northwestern University, claims that the rate of mass shootings has remained flat overall since he started tracking it in the 1970s.

America has become a safer nation over the last several decades. So why have we seen many more of these mass shooting headlines recently? For one, shocking headlines get higher reader counts. A much more interesting statistic than the number of mass shootings by year would be the number of articles about mass shooting by year. The prevalence of violence was greater in the 1990s, but media coverage of such events was not.

The media is instilling false fear in Americans. According to the Center for Disease Control, 11,208 homicide deaths occurred in 2013. In comparison, heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States, took 611,105 lives. However, a search through the USA Today archive shows how much larger media coverage of mass shootings (a fraction of homicides) has become than heart disease. In total, there were 1682 articles results for “gun violence” and 1266 for “heart disease.” There were also more gun violence articles with shocking headlines that made the front page. Even though people are almost 60 times more likely to die of heart disease than homicide, they don’t walk the street worrying that they could have a heart attack any moment.

I do not deny that America has gun violence issues; it does. But gun violence is rooted more deeply into the history of America than the media coverage of a few recent mass shootings would lead us to believe. America has not entered a so-called “gun epidemic,” nor will it with any likelihood in the near future. If anything, America has had a gun-epidemic for generations. The prevalence of gun violence is decreasing in America, and though we still have a long way to go before gun violence can be ended altogether, we are in no more danger walking the streets than we were two decades ago.