The Oregon school shooting is one out of 74 such incidences in the past 18 months since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, according to a statistics reported by Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control group that was started by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Vox recently posted a map of the U.S. that shows where the shootings took place. Despite the numerous accounts, schools in the U.S. are actually experiencing a lower rate of school violence than in the early 1990s, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. This provides evidence that the Oregon school shooting and other such cases are not becoming the norm nor are they indications of more school violence when the cases are measured and observed in the long-term.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) keeps a running tab on the number of homicides and suicides not only on school property, but also while the victims are on their way to or from school or attending or traveling to or from a school-sponsored event. The number of homicides, suicides, and people associated with the violent deaths showed a declining trend from the 1992-93 to 2010-11 school years with an exception of the outlying 2006-07 school year.
Author Jesse Walker of Reason pointed out that the number of deaths on the graph may seem much smaller compared to the recent shootings, the BJS report ends at the 2010-11 school year and does not take into account the more recent events, including the Sandy Hook school shooting. However, Walker stated that could be enough to “cause a spike in 2012-13 all by itself.” There had been 17 school-related violent deaths between December 15, 2012 to November 14, 2013: Among those, 11 were homicides and six were suicides. Six of them were within student age. These numbers seem low compared to the 74 shooting incidents reported by Everytown, but not all shootings had fatalities and not all happened at K-12 schools. Thirty-five of the school shootings happened on or near a college campus. Some of these cases had no injuries or were accidental discharges. One case, Walker indicated, took place at a parking lot of an elementary school at night — long after students, teachers, and other staff members had gone home. “The victim was 19.”
It is easy for some people to think that the Oregon school shooting and other such tragedies are an indication of more school violence. Thanks to the media and the human mind, availability heuristics can make people think so. This type of cognitive bias relies on a mental shortcut that uses examples that easily comes in mind to draw a conclusion or to make a decision. A person relies upon knowledge that is readily available rather than examining and considering other alternatives or evidence. In the case of the school shootings, some people may perceive that these events are common and jump to the conclusion that schools are unsafe. The same can be said about other issues, such as airplane safety, vaccinations and autism, heart disease prevalence, and terrorism.
Social psychology assistant professor Joshua D. Foster from the University of South Alabama gave such an example on Psychology Today. He estimated that the 2009 budget for homeland security (protecting Americans from terrorism) to be about $50 billion. In the worse-case scenario, terrorists killed about 3,000 Americans in one year, and less than 100 killed in most years. However, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (protecting Americans on the road) had a budget of about $1 billion with more than 40,000 fatalities each year on American roads. This equates to about $17 million per fatality in terrorism prevention and $25,000 per fatality in road accident prevention. “This huge imbalance tells us that our priorities are seriously out of whack,” Foster stated.
The Oregon school shooting, the Sandy Hook killings, and other such cases are clearly not indications that school violence is rising. The BJS reported that during the 2010-11 school year, 11 of the 1,336 homicides among school-age kids (ages five to 18) happened at school. Therefore, there is very little need to overreact when the current data indicate a downward trend. For the families and friends of the victims of the school shootings, their reality may very likely be very different from what the data show.
By Nick Ng