Could Rare “Active Shooter” Cases Fuel Security Overreaction?


After the Fort Hood shooting, criminologist James Alan Fox of Northeastern University warns about an overreaction to “active shooter” incidents. Among the 110 such cases identified since 2000, nearly three-quarters resulted in fewer than four fatalities, the usual threshold for “mass murder.” Nearly one-quarter of active shooter cases were resolved without any loss of life. While the episodes were undoubtedly frightening to those affected directly, the majority should not be equated with the few catastrophic slayings that have alarmed the nation, Fox says. Mass shootings, instances in which four or more are killed by gunfire, are not on the rise. Over the past three-plus decades, there have been about 20 mass shootings a year, with neither an upward or downward trajectory. The only increase has been in publicity and dread.

The reason why the rampant misimpression about a raging epidemic in active shooters matters so greatly, Fox writes, is in how it drives public opinion and public policy on guns, mental health and security. Mass shootings remain exceptionally rare events. Excessive alarm leads to knee-jerk responses that are not necessarily for the best. Having armed guards at school entryways to ward off active shooters relays the wrong message to students: that they have a target on their backs, says Fox. Engaging youngsters in active shooter drills, instructing office workers to watch survival training videos on how to “run, hide and fight,” and expanding concealed weapons laws so citizens might stand their ground needlessly arouse fear and anxiety in schools, the workplace, and society in genera, Fox believes.

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