No rise in mass killings, but their impact is huge
A gold plaque hangs next to a bullet hole in the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., where a lone gunman killed six worshippers and injured three others last August. It is engraved with the words, "We Are One."
"It frames the wound," says Pardeep Kaleka, son of former temple president Satwant Singh Kaleka, who died in the massacre. "The wound of our community, the wound of our family, the wound of our society."
In the past week, that wound has been ripped open with shocking ferocity.
In what has become sickeningly familiar, gunmen opened fire on innocents in what should be the safest of places first, at a shopping mall in Oregon, and then, unthinkably, at an elementary school in Connecticut.
Once again there were scenes of chaos as rescuers and media descended on the scene. Once again there were pictures of weeping survivors clutching one another, of candlelight vigils and teddy bears left as loving memorials. And once again a chorus of pundits debated gun control and violence as society attempted to make sense of the senseless.
"Are there any sanctuaries left?" Kaleka asked. "Is this a fact of life, one we have become content to live with? Can we no longer feel safe going Christmas shopping in a mall, or to temple, or to the movies? What kind of society have we become?"
As this year of the gun lurches to a close, leaving a bloody wake, we are left to wonder along with Kaleka: What is the meaning of all this?
Even before Portland and Newtown, we saw a former student kill seven people at Oikos University in Oakland, Calif. We saw gunmen in Seattle and Minneapolis each kill five people and then themselves. We saw the midnight premiere of "The Dark Knight Rises" at a theater in Aurora, Colo., devolve into a bloodbath, as 12 people died and 58 were wounded; 24-year-old James Holmes was arrested outside.
And yet those who study mass shootings say they are not becoming more common.
"There is no pattern, there is no increase," says criminologist James Allen Fox of Boston's Northeastern University, who has been studying the subject since the 1980s, spurred by a rash of mass shootings in post offices.
The random mass shootings that get the most media attention are the rarest, Fox says. Most people who die of bullet wounds knew the identity of their killer.
Society moves on, he says, because of our ability to distance ourselves from the horror of the day, and because people believe that these tragedies are "one of the unfortunate prices we pay for our freedoms."
Grant Duwe, a criminologist with the Minnesota Department of Corrections who has written a history of mass murders in America, said that while mass shootings rose between the 1960s and the 1990s, they actually dropped in the 2000s. And mass killings actually reached their peak in 1929, according to his data. He estimates that there were 32 in the 1980s, 42 in the 1990s and 26 in the first decade of the century.
Chances of being killed in a mass shooting, he says, are probably no greater than being struck by lightning.
Still, he understands the public perception and extensive media coverage when mass shootings occur in places like malls and schools. "There is this feeling that could have been me. It makes it so much more frightening."
On one spring day more than four years ago, it WAS Colin Goddard.
For two years after a gunman pumped four bullets into him in a classroom at Virginia Tech, Goddard said he couldn't bear to listen to television reports about other shootings, or read about them. It brought him back instantly to that day April 16, 2007 when he lay on the floor of classroom 211, blood dripping from his shoulder and leg as he wondered if he would survive.
And then, on April 3, 2009, he turned on the computer and heard the news. A 41-year-old man had opened fire at an immigrant community center in Binghamton, N.Y., killing 11 immigrants and two workers. The shooter, a Vietnamese immigrant and a former student at the center, killed himself as police rushed to the scene.
Goddard watched, riveted, realizing that this is what it was like for the rest of the world when a mass shooting occurs. Inside the school, or the mall, or the theater, the victims lie wounded and terrified and dying, while the rest of the world watches from afar. People glue themselves to the television for a day. They soak in the horror from the safety of their office or home. They feel awful for a while. Then they move on with their lives. They grow numb.
Duwe says the cycle has gone on for generations.
"Mass shootings provoke instant debates about violence and guns and mental health and that's been the case since Charles Whitman climbed the tower at the University of Texas in 1966," he said, referring to the engineering student and former Marine who killed 13 people and an unborn child and wounded 32 others in a shooting rampage on campus. "It becomes mind-numbingly repetitive."
"Rampage violence seems to lead to repeated cycles of anguish, investigation, recrimination, and heated debate, with little real progress in prevention," wrote John Harris, clinical assistant professor of medicine in the College of Medicine at the University of Arizona, in the June issue of American Journal of Public Health. "These types of events can lead to despair about their inevitability and unpredictability."
And there is despair and frustration, even among those who have set out to stop mass killings.
"We do just seem to slog along, from one tragedy to the next," Tom Mauser said last July, after the Aurora shootings.
Mauser knows all about the slog. He became an outspoken activist against such violence after his 15-year-old son, Daniel, was slain along with 12 other at Columbine High School in 1999. But he has grown frustrated and weary.
"There was a time when I felt a certain guilt," said Mauser. "I'd ask, 'Why can't I do more about this? Why haven't I dedicated myself more to it?' But I'll be damned if I'm going to put it all on my shoulders.
"This," he said, "is all of our problem."
Carolyn McCarthy enlisted in the cause in 1993, when a deranged gunman killed her husband and seriously injured her son in shooting rampage. She has served in Congress since 1997.
Known as the "gun lady" on Capitol Hill for her fierce championship of gun control laws, McCarthy says she nearly gave up her "lonely crusade" after hearing about the Virginia Tech shooting. And when she heard about the January 2011 shooting of former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords she says, "I just sat there frozen and watching the television and couldn't stop crying."
"It's like a cancer in our society," she says. "And if we keep doing nothing to stop it, it's only going to spread."
After the Binghamton shootings, Colin Goddard resolved that he had to get involved, to somehow try to stop the cycle. Reminders are lodged inside him: three bullets, a legacy of Virginia Tech.
He now works in Washington for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
"I refuse to believe this is something we have to accept as normal in this country," he said. "There has to be a way to change the culture of violence in our society."