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School shooting: Despite toll, mass killings remain rare
A gold plaque hangs next to a bullet hole in the Sikh temple in Wisconsin where a lone gunman killed six worshippers and injured three in August. It is engraved with the words, "We Are One."
"It frames the wound," says Pardeep Kaleka, son of former temple president Satwant Singh Kaleka, who died in the massacre. "The wound of our community, the wound of our family, the wound of our society."
In the past week, that wound has been ripped open again.
In what has become sickeningly familiar, gunmen opened fire in what should be the safest of places — first, at a shopping mall in Oregon, and then, unthinkably, at a school in Connecticut.
Once again, there were scenes of chaos. Once again, there were pictures of weeping survivors of candlelight vigils and teddy bears left as loving memorials. And once again, a chorus debated gun control and violence as society attempted to make sense of the senseless.
"Are there any sanctuaries left?" Kaleka asked. "Is this a fact of life, one we have become content to live with? Can we no longer feel safe going Christmas shopping in a mall, or to temple, or to the movies? What kind of society have we become?"
As this year of the gun lurches to a close, we are left to wonder along with Kaleka: What is the meaning of all this?
Even before Newtown, we saw a former student kill seven people at Oikos University in California. We saw gunmen in Seattle and Minneapolis each kill five people and then themselves. We saw the midnight premiere of "The Dark Knight Rises" at a theater in Aurora, Colo., turn into a bloodbath, as 12 people died and 58 were wounded.
And yet those who study mass shootings say they are not becoming more common.
"There is no pattern, there is no increase," says criminologist James Allen Fox of Boston's Northeastern University, who has been studying the subject since the 1980s, spurred by a rash of mass shootings in US post offices.
The random mass shootings that get the most media attention are the rarest, Fox says. Most people who die of bullet wounds knew the identity of their killer.
Society moves on, he says, because of our ability to distance ourselves from the horror, and because people believe that these tragedies are "one of the unfortunate prices we pay for our freedoms."
Grant Duwe, a criminologist with the Minnesota Department of Corrections who has written a history of mass murders, said that while mass shootings rose between the 1960s and the 1990s, they dropped in the 2000s. Mass killings reached their peak in 1929, according to his data. He estimates there were 32 in the 1980s, 42 in the 1990s and 26 in the first decade of the century.
Chances of being killed in a mass shooting, he says, are probably no greater than being struck by lightning.
Still, he understands the public perception when mass shootings occur in places like malls and schools. "There is this feeling that it could have been me. It makes it so much more frightening." Duwe says the cycle has gone on for generations.
"Mass shootings provoke instant debates about violence and guns and mental health, and that's been the case since Charles Whitman climbed the tower at the University of Texas in 1966," he said, referring to the engineering student and ex-Marine who killed 13 people in a shooting rampage on campus. "It becomes mind-numbingly repetitive."
"Rampage violence seems to lead to repeated cycles of anguish, investigation, recrimination, and heated debate, with little real progress in prevention," wrote John Harris, assistant professor of medicine in the College of Medicine at the University of Arizona, in the June issue of American Journal of Public Health. "These types of events can lead to despair about their inevitability and unpredictability."