By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
Another mass shooting at a school, this time at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. Another isolated and disturbed gun collector, and another set of victims to be remembered: nine in this case. In President Obama's remarks, we see increasing frustration as he spoke of "more American families -- moms, dads, children -- whose lives have been changed forever." Shortly thereafter, GOP Presidential candidate Jeb Bush commented, also calling it a "tragedy," but then following that with, "Stuff happens, there’s always a crisis, and the impulse is always to do something, and it’s not necessarily the right thing to do." The "stuff happens" part of those remarks isn't resonating well right now. Fellow candidate Donald Trump quickly followed Bush's remarks with his own take: "That's the way the world goes." Their word choices capture a certain reduced intensity that the President called out in his earlier remarks: "Somehow this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. The conversation in the aftermath of it. We've become numb to this."
These comments got me thinking. As a social scientist, can I say what accounts for the difference between events that are perceived as tragic, and those that are seen as just unfortunate or sad but expected? Mass shootings are starting to seem routine, but more broadly, the mass shootings that still tend to regularly galvanize our attention and restart the discussion don't make up the bulk of gun deaths. While deaths from mass shootings are much more common in America than other countries (as President Obama noted, "We are the only advanced country on earth that sees these kinds of mass shootings every few months"); they are still just a drop in the cartridge-bucket when we look at all gun deaths in the country. Compared to mass shooters, gun deaths by accident, suicide, domestic dispute, or drunken argument are far more common. But still, we focus on the occasional mass shooting more than we focus on the steady drumbeat of more common gun deaths. Four social science effects can help explain why some events will be viewed as major tragedies while others will end up in the “stuff happens” bin. Understanding these effects is useful to litigators who are trying to influence whether the events at the center of a trial end up in one cateogory or the other. This post takes a look at each.