I’m sure you’ve noticed that suddenly a lot of mass murders have been taking place with guns — and they aren’t all happening in America.
A gunman murdered 15 at a school in Germany last month. On April 10, a Greek college student in Athens killed three people before killing himself. The very next day a gunman in Rotterdam shot and killed one person and wounded three others after opening fire on passers-by from a café. There have also been a couple of mass murders in Finland in the last couple of years. Here in the United States, 13 people were killed by a lone gunman in Binghamton, New York, on April 3, and three police officers were shot and killed in Pittsburgh the following day. What’s going on?
While these tragedies garner enormous coverage, they are actually pretty unusual. There were just under 16,000 murders in the U.S. in 2007, with just over two-thirds of those involving guns. All of these high-profile mass murders combined would be a fraction of 1% of murders for the year. If you want to make public policy, letting the mass murders drive it makes no sense.
Why are these attacks clumped together like this? Between 1989 and 1991, we had a similar spate of attacks, which were likely due to too much media attention. Social commentators have known for a long time that highly-publicized crimes provoke copycats. This dates all the way back to Herostratus burning the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus in 356 B.C. because he wanted to be famous. (We still know his name; it worked).
From 1989 to 1991, Time and Newsweek provided disproportionate coverage of mass murders with guns because they were banging the drum for restrictive gun control. They virtually ignored much larger mass murders committed with gasoline. They only restrained themselves when one mass murderer, George Wesbecher, left behind a copy of Time devoted to a previous mass murderer with the headline “Calendar of Senseless Shootings” underlined. And in this same period, there were other mass murderers who carried around newspapers with articles about previous mass murderers and who were clearly seeking publicity.