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Why violent shooting sprees can paralyze people with fear

Availability heuristic can explain why people fear becoming a shooting victim

As 2012 comes to an end, it seems like the year could be dubbed the “shooting spree year.” These tragic events seem numerous, and they come easily to mind. Here are some notable examples from 2012, listed in chronological order. The list is not exhaustive.

On February 27th, Thomas “T.J.” Lane, age 17, walked into the cafeteria of Chardon High School in Ohio he attended, pulled out a handgun, and began shooting his classmates, killing 3 and wounding 3 others. Lane was later captured.

On March 8th, John F. Shick, age 30, entered the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic carrying two handguns and began shooting, killing 1 and wounding 7 others. Shick, who may have been suffering from schizophrenia, was killed in a shoot-out with police.

On March 30th, as mourners were leaving a funeral in Miami, Florida, a motorist drove by and opened fire, killing 2 and wounding 12 others.

On April 2nd, One L. Goh, age 43, entered Oikos University in Oakland, California and began shooting, killing 7 and injuring 3 others. Goh was angry because the university refused to refund his $6,000 tuition payment after he had been expelled.

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On May 30th, Ian L. Stawicki, age 40, walked into a café in Seattle, Washington and opened fire with two handguns, killing 4 in the restaurant. After leaving the café, he killed another woman and stole her SUV. After the police surrounded him, Stawicki killed himself.

On June 9th, Desmonte Leonard, age 22, got in an argument over a woman at a pool party near Auburn University in Alabama, and opened fire, killing 3 people and injuring 3 others.

On June 20th, 3 people were killed and 2 others injured in a shooting spree following a rap concert at Houston, Texas nightclub.

On July 9th, 3 people were killed and 2 others were injured when a shooter opened fire at soccer tournament in Delaware.

On July 17th, Nathan Van Wilkins, age 44, shot a man inside a nearby house, and then went to crowded bar and opened fire, injuring 17 people.

On July 20th, James Holmes, age 24, bought a ticket to see the new Batman movie in Aurora, Colorado. About 20 minutes after the show started, Holmes left the theater and returned through the emergency exit door dressed in full tactical gear, carrying several guns and lots of ammunition. He launched two smoke bombs, and then began firing into the crowd, killing 12 and wounding 58 others.

On August 5th, U.S. Army veteran Wade Michael Page, age 40, opened fire in a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, killing 6 worshipers and wounding 4 others. Page shot himself during a shootout with police.

On September 27th, Andrew Engeldinger, age 36, upon learning he was being fired from Accent Signage Systems in Minneapolis, Minnesota, went on a shooting rampage, killing the business owner, 3 fellow employees, and a UPS driver, before killing himself.

During the month of October, Raulie Casteel, age 43, was charged with 24 random shootings in southeastern Michigan near Interstate 96. The targets were motorists and pedestrians, such as a man taking out the trash. One person was injured in the shootings.

On December 11th, Jacob Tyler Roberts, age 22, entered a shopping mall in Happy Valley, Oregon wearing a hockey mask and load-bearing vest and began shooting a semi-automatic rifle, killing 2 people and injuring 1 other. The Santa Claus in the mall even had to take cover.

On December 14th, Adam Lanza, age 20, first killed his mother in their home, and then went to an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut and began shooting, killing 20 children and 6 school employees, and injuring 2 other school employees before killing himself.

On December 24th, William Spengler, age 62, set his own house on fire killing his sister and tried to burn down his neighborhood (seven house were destroyed by fire), and then took up a sniper position with three guns and lots of amunition, waiting for firefighters to arrive. He killed two firefighters and injured three other men before killing himself. Spengler had served 17 years in prison for killing his grandmother with a hammer. He left a note that said, "I still have to get ready to see how much of the neighbourhood I can burn down and do what I like doing best - killing people."

When random acts of violence such as these occur, some people can become paralyzed with fear because they don’t want to become the next shooting victim. For example, during the I-96 shootings, several of my friends were afraid to drive on or near I-96. Some parents are afraid to send their children to school following school shootings, or even want to remove their kids from schools and home school them. Going to ordinary places such as movie theaters, malls, concerts, restaurants, swimming pools, sporting events, and even churches can be scary following shooting sprees. Imagine the impact of the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic shootings on the mental patients in that facility.

For example, following the Aurora, Colorado shootings, which occurred on a Friday, a poll by the National Research Group found that 20% to 25% of respondents were afraid to go to theaters that weekend.[1] AMC Theaters, the nation’s second-largest theater chain, issued a press release stating that costumes making other guests “feel uncomfortable,” including face-covering masks and fake weapons, would not be allowed in movie theaters.[2]

The Sunday following the Aurora, Colorado shootings, Theresa Walsh Giarrusso, who writes “A Blog for Busy Moms—Momania,” describes her experience going to watch the new Batman movie “The Dark Knight Rises” the Sunday following the shooting[3] Here are some experts from her blog:

“After the shooting, we felt a little weird going to see the movie but thought it would be OK once we got seated and the movie started. It wasn’t. … When I sat down my eyes went to the emergency exits picturing in my mind someone coming in through the door holding a gun. I kept watching the doors to make sure they stayed shut. The previews were rolling but in my head I was planning my escape. I thought about getting low behind seats. I thought about getting to the exit on the right side of the theater. … As the movie got started, my eyes couldn’t help but follow people walking up and down the stairs. You knew they were just going to the bathroom or to get a drink but they made me nervous as hell. I couldn’t get focused on the movie. I kept trying to remember at which point in the movie the shooter came in. I kept looking at those emergency exits.”

On another blog, an anonymous post read: “After that mass shooting incident in Colorado, people may think that it is very scary to watch a movie in a movie house. So I would prefer to watch a movie at home on Netflix.”

The objective odds of becoming a victim of a shooting spree are very low. For example, of the 10,000 shoppers in the Oregon mall, 2 were killed and 1 other was injured. The other 9,997 made it out safely.[4] According to the International Council of Shopping Centers, there are over 105,000 shopping malls in America.[5] Thus, the probability of being shot in a shopping mall is almost zero. In contrast, over 40,000 Americans die each year in automobile accidents.[6] Indeed, one is much more likely to be killed in a car driving to any destination (e.g., a mall, movie theater, restaurant, school) than of being shot by a spree killer while there.

If objective reality of becoming a violence victim in a shooting spree is so small, why are people so afraid? The availability heuristics provide the most plausible explanation. A heuristic is a mental shortcut that people use to estimate the frequency and likelihood of events, such as becoming a shooting spree victim. The availability heuristic is the tendency to judge the frequency or likelihood of an event by the ease with which relevant instances come to mind. The ease with which relevant instances come to mind is influenced not only by the actual frequency but also by factors such as how salient or noticeable the event is, how recent the event is, and whether attention was paid to the event. Shooting sprees are extremely salient, noticeable, and memorable. They grab our attention immediately.

Thus, when people try to estimate the likelihood that they will become a victim of a shooting spree, they search their memories for examples of when others have become victims of shooting sprees. In the media, “When it bleeds, it leads,” so the saying goes. That is, the lead stories in the media are often the most violent ones. On the news, graphic photos and descriptions that can be very frightening accompany shooting spree incidents trump most other forms of news, and these stories are repeated frequently as any new information becomes available. These images and stories are “burned” into our memories, and easily come to mind. Because many examples of shooting sprees easily come to mind, people grossly overestimate their frequency and likelihood.

Indeed, research has shown that people overestimate the frequency of dramatic deaths and underestimate the frequency of less dramatic deaths.[7] Because the media focus on dramatic deaths, such as those that occur in shooting sprees, people think they are common.

Of course shooting sprees are horrific events, and we should do everything possible to prevent them even if they are rare. As President Barack Obama said following the shooting spree in Newton, Connecticut: “As a country, we have been through this too many times. Whether it is an elementary school in Newtown, or a shopping mall in Oregon, or a temple in Wisconsin, or a movie theater in Aurora, or a street corner in Chicago.”[8] However, shooting sprees should not paralyze us from engaging in our normal activities, such as going to movies, malls, schools, restaurants, and sporting events. As President Obama went on to say, “these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods."

[1] Santo, M. (2012, July 26). Survey says 20 to 25 percent of moviegoers afraid to go after 'TDKR' shootings. Retrieved from http://www.examiner.com/article/survey-says-20-to-25-percent-of-m...

[2] AMC Theatres Statement About Aurora, Co. Incident. Retrieved from http://www.amctheatres.com/aurora

[3] Giarrusso, T. W. (2012, July 23). After the Colorado shooting: Will going to the movies eventually feel normal? Retrieved from http://blogs.ajc.com/momania/2012/07/23/after-the-colorado-shooti...

[4] Carson, T. (2012, December 12). Oregon mall shooting appears to be lone, random rampage. Retuers, Retrieved from http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/sns-rt-us-usa-shooting-oregonb...

[5] ICSC. Retrieved from http://www.icsc.org/srch/faq_category.php?cat_type=research&cat_id=3

[6] Car accident statistics. Retrieved from http://www.car-accidents.com/pages/stats.html

[7] Fischhoff, B., Lichtenstein, S., Slovic, P., Derby, S. L., & Keeney, R. L. (1981). Acceptable risk. New York: Cambridge University Press.

[8] School shooting: President Obama’s remarks on the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. (Transcript). Retrieved from http://historymusings.wordpress.com/2012/12/14/full-text-obama-pr...

Brad Bushman, Ph.D., is a Professor of Communication and Psychology at Ohio State University and a Professor of Communication Science at the VU University Amsterdam.

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