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Dissecting America's Muted Response to Mass Shootings

The U.S. is stuck in a vicious cycle, not just of bloodshed, but also of helplessness.
People are brought out of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after a shooting on February 14th, 2018, in Parkland, Florida.

People are brought out of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after a shooting on February 14th, 2018, in Parkland, Florida.

On Wednesday, a former student, identified by officials as 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County, Florida, the Associated Press reports. As of this writing, 17 people are dead. "It is a horrific situation," Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie told the Associated Press. "It is a horrible day for us."

Marjory Stoneman is just the latest school marred by a mass shooting. The statistics vary: While Gun Violence Archive has recorded 29 shooting incidents in 2018 that resulted in at least four people shot and killed, Everytown for Gun Safety counts six out of 17 instances when firearms were discharged in American schools where the intent (and result) was death or injury. No matter how you slice the data, the fact remains: As mass shootings in the United States remain an ever-present threat, they're becoming increasingly more deadly. Indeed, the U.S. closed out the first month of the year with three school shootings in just two days.

These shootings leave just as much of an effect in the aggregate as they do an individual level: They become almost predictable, and people, in turn, grow desensitized to them—and eventually, start to ignore them outright. And while much of this is a function of the media (research suggests news outlets were far more likely to cover mass casualty incidents with 10 or more deaths), the sudden surge in media attention on Marjory Stoneman amid an already-turbulent year suggests that mass shootings have finally hit the tipping point from inescapable tragedy to depressing normalcy.

Indeed, disaster fatigue is very real. According to an analysis of cable news transcripts conducted by the Trace in the aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting that left 58 people dead, media coverage of the tragedy quickly plummeted, from 1.3 percent of all sentences spoken on October 2nd to 0.31 percent of all sentences just five days later. The previous record-holder, the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, experienced the same phenomenon, with media coverage declining from 1.9 percent of sentences spoken to 0.6 within a span of five days. (By contrast, cable news networks maintained a prolonged focus on disasters like Hurricane Harvey and the Charlottesville "Unite the Right" rally, per the Trace.)

But why? The four months immediately following the killing of 20 schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut, in December of 2012 catalyzed a remarkable shift in the national conversation regarding gun control. A 2017 analysis published in Frontiers in Public Health found that national media embraced "increased use of the sensible legislation, special interests, and will of the people (pro-gun control) frames" in narratives surrounding gun violence. "Prior to Sandy Hook, news media attributed most of the responsibility for gun violence to individuals, lawmakers, and then executive government," the report notes, so far that the national media saw "a significant increase in the percentage of news pieces holding lawmakers responsible" after the mass shootings.

THE NUMBNESS OF NICE: On the globalization of terror.

From a purely storytelling standpoint, such a shift in focus isn't insignificant. Where previous coverage of mass shootings largely dissected perpetrators and motives to—think: the "Trenchcoat Mafia" of the Columbine shooters—there's a uniformity to coverage of mass shootings in the modern era. Indeed, there's a "template of our grief" that follows them: Wall-to-wall media coverage that deadens the historical enormity of a mass casualty incident. Indeed, modern news coverage intent on focusing on abstract villains like gun regulations rather than glamorize shooters and inspire would-be copycat killers ends up rendering each incident as business-as-usual. Even the controversies that emerge—Was the shooter radicalized on Facebook? Was his gun acquired illegally? Why does everyone always send thoughts and prayers?—do nothing to change our public attitude toward mass shootings; they're tired, predictable distractions.

"Tragedy is followed by collective anger, then a desire to help followed by a failure to see any real change happening," explains Michael Unger in Psychology Today. "Then more tragedy strikes (it is only a matter of time before the next mass shooting occurs), more anger erupts, more helplessness follows." Unger says that, as these attacks continue, "the desire to advocate for change fades and is replaced by two emotions. First, resignation, or emotional withdrawal. Second, bitterness tinged with blame, not at the person doing the shooting, but at the people who keep putting themselves in harm's way."

There are broader causes of American gun fatigue beyond the predictability of the resulting trauma cycle: the futility of gun violence prevention measures in Congress; the never-ending stream of headlines and images that inundate us on every medium; the insane pace of the American news cycle since President Donald Trump took office. One thing is clear: The U.S. is stuck in a vicious cycle, not just of bloodshed, but also of muted helplessness.