Sunday, January 06, 2013

Mass Shootings and the Copycat effect

Has the rate of random mass shootings in the United States increased? Over the past 30 years, the answer is definitely yes. It is also true that the total U.S. homicide rate has fallen by over half since 1980, and the gun homicide rate has fallen along with it. Today, Americans are safer from violent crime, including gun homicide, than they have been at any time since the mid-1960s.

Mass shootings, defined as four or more fatalities, fluctuate from year to year, but over the past 30 years there has been no long-term increase or decrease. But "random" mass shootings, such as the horrific crimes last Friday in Newtown, Conn., have increased.

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Since gun controls today are far stricter than at the time when "active shooters" were rare, what can account for the increase in these shootings? One plausible answer is the media. Cable TV in the 1990s, and the Internet today, greatly magnify the instant celebrity that a mass killer can achieve. We know that many would-be mass killers obsessively study their predecessors.

Loren Coleman's 2004 book "The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow's Headlines" shows that the copycat effect is as old as the media itself. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's 1774 classic "The Sorrows of Young Werther" triggered a spate of copycat suicides all over Europe. But today the velocity and pervasiveness of the media make the problem much worse.

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