The recent tragic shooting in Las Vegas has Americans asking themselves an all-too-familiar question: Why has this happened again? With 59 killed, and hundreds more injured, it is the worst mass shooting in modern US history. Clearly, we need to re-evaluate our laws–and our society at large—if we’re going to reduce (and hopefully eliminate) such horrible events.
In order to prevent future issues, perhaps we should first evaluate the importance of these sorts of events. By doing so, we might determine what lengths we should go to. In the past decade, about 400 people have been killed in mass shootings, and these kinds of events have been happening more and more frequently. Terrorist attacks have killed around 50 people in the US in the past decade, although some of those incidents might also fall under the category of mass shootings (such as in San Bernardino). Many would agree with the sentiment that even one death from a mass shooting or from a terrorist attack is too many. But should we consider these tragedies to be the most urgent issues that we face?
It’s true that it might seem morbid to look at the odds of the different ways in which people die. However, doing so can help us get an understanding of the relative importance of the risks that we, as a society, face. Moreover, it can give us insight into what we can do to improve the lives of Americans (and people everywhere). Examining the statistics: the odds of an American dying in a car accident are about 1 in 100. Suicide is also around 1 in 100. Dying in a fire: 1 in 1,400. Dying from a natural disaster (hurricane, snow storm, earthquake, etc.) is 1 in 3,000. The odds of dying from Cancer are 1 in 7, and while this category does skew toward people of advanced ages, some cancers do afflict children and young adults specifically, and so can also end a life prematurely. So, we might wonder, where do mass shootings fall? Their odds are 1 in one million. Terrorism is 1 in 50 million. Clearly, neither are anywhere near the vicinity of other, more common causes, and yet attacks such as these are often the focus of the public. A slight reduction in the rate of car accidents, an improvement in suicide prevention, or a new cancer drug could all reduce fatalities far more effectively than an outright end to mass shootings and terrorism.
So, this begs the question: Why do we focus so much of our attention on shootings and terrorism? The answer is this: They are dramatic and we can easily empathize with them. The events in Las Vegas are definitely newsworthy, as were other recent shootings or bombings. That being said, the large amount of press coverage that such events invariably receive can skew our perceptions of what is normal or likely. We hear news stories when bus accidents occur, or when several unrelated shootings occur in one city, but these slow-moving, day-in day-out issues just don’t make for the same dramatic headlines. Certain events are given a disproportionate amount of attention, and this warps our sense of reality, of what is likely and what is rare. People keep asking why these mass shootings occur in the US, these events that happen every few weeks or months. But fewer people ask what we can do to stop deaths from drunk driving, something that happens several times a day. Or, what we can do prevent childhood leukemia, or teen suicide.
It would be easy to say that this is deflection, sometimes called “Whataboutism”. This is a method, commonly attributed to the Soviet Union, which people sometimes use to try to change the subject from important issues. However, to place our focus on intermittent threats at the expense of more common dangers can and does have real world effects. We spend billions of dollars on counterterrorism, although this arguably saves very few lives. People spend political capital trying to implement or prevent gun restrictions. These dollars and these people’s efforts could help many more people, if redirected. Again, building safer roads and safer cars would save many times more lives, even if this would be an incremental change. Having a proactive policy to reduce opioid deaths would be a more effective use of spending. Funding suicide prevention and improving mental health infrastructure in general is sorely needed and would not just save lives, but potentially save hundreds of billions of dollars. The United States, like any other country, has a limited amount of resources. If the country’s goal is to prevent harm to its citizen with the least cost, then the US is spending its resources poorly.
And this certainly goes beyond government resources: this has to do with individuals’ attention and awareness, as well. We are all taught, “If you see something, say something,” so we get freaked out if someone leaves their bag for 30 seconds at an airport or public plaza. After the events in Las Vegas, it would not be surprising if many people began to look askew at hotels or office blocks that overlook public areas. What danger might lie behind a windowpane? Ideally, we could look for and objectively assess the relative importance of a multitude of different possible hazards. The reality, however, is that looking out for these rare events probably leads us to overlook more common risks: car drivers not keeping an eye for pedestrians, that one quiet kid in school who is lonely, using fireworks unsafely, and more. The attention of the public can be a tremendous asset to safety. But again, our priorities seem to be distorted.
In spite of the events in Las Vegas, and a greater perception of mass shootings and terrorism in general, the reality is that the US is at one of its safest points in history. Murder rates specifically and crime in general are at historic lows. Death rates from car accidents have also decreased. An ever-increasing number of diseases and illnesses are becoming treatable. The result is that average lifespans are at historic highs. True, these improvements would provide little comfort to family and friends of the victims in Las Vegas, but the big-picture view is that things are not just OK, things are actually good. If we want to make the situation even better, stopping these infrequent events probably shouldn’t be our top priority.