Amid the anger and the frustration expressed in the media over the horrible murders in Newtown the one sentiment expressed most often seemed to be that no one ever thought that “this” could happen “here”. The truth is that events such as this, as awful as they are, as unthinkable as they seem to be, are rare. As a society, of course we should do whatever we can to reduce to whatever degree we may be able their occurrence, but for any individual to change his or her behavior out of fear of falling victim to a mass shooting would be irrational. There are an average of 20 mass shootings per year, and this in a country of 300 million people.
In spite of this, there is clearly an underlying message in the sentiment that “no one ever thought that this could happen…here.” That is to say that one could imagine it happening in some “elsewhere”. Now I wonder just where that would be? Always in immediate contiguity to the expressions of disbelief were references to the idyllic beauty of the town, even allusions to its wealth, and its bucolic setting. Finally one commentator on MSNBC actually said it: There are places in this country where people do expect this sort of gun violence to occur: poor, minority, urban areas.
That’s true of course. I have lived in a poor, minority, urban area for decades. I raised my two daughters here, forcing each of them to attend urban schools filled with poor minorities and every day I expected a gunman to enter my daughters’ school and slaughter their classmates and possibly them. But I sent them to school anyway, you know, that’s the kind of people we are in cities.
Strange though, I did a little Wikipedia research on Newtown, Connecticut; Clackamus, Oregon; Oak Grove, Illinois; Aurora, Colorado; Littleton, Colorado; and now Webster, New York. What I found was that each one of these communities is predominantly white, considered suburban, and wealthy. Others who have engaged in a more thoroughgoing analysis of the data have found the same thing.
“While some in the media tend to portray poor urban areas as breeding crime and violence, it’s the quiet suburbs and rural areas which appear to be more likely breeding grounds for mass killers and mass killings.”
I ask myself, if each of these mass murders had taken place in an equivalently black, urban, and poor community, and the inevitable “next” shooting were to take place in my neighborhood, would any commentators be saying that they could have never imagined that it would happen here?
Any rational and objective analysis of these events would lead one to the conclusion that, while an event like this is unlikely to occur in any specific place, when an event like this does occur it is likely to happen in a community just like Newtown, Connecticut.
Even President Obama, in one of his speeches regarding the Newtown tragedy listed the above mentioned specific, real, actual, mass shootings, and then added “a street corner in Chicago, or Philadelphia.” Now murder is murder, and tragedy is tragedy, but there is a chasm of difference which separates these types of events. In only 15% of murders is the murderer known to be a stranger to the victim. In the most publicized urban killings (Drug and gang related homicides, domestic disputes) it is precisely the relationship to the killer which puts the victim at risk. It is their identity, not their location which puts these individuals at risk. In the case of Newtown the killer would not have altered his behavior if 20 different school children had been in those classrooms. It was their location which put them in harm’s way. The same is true for the shoppers in Clackamus, and the movie goers in Colorado.
This is not in any way to say that anyone deserves to be murdered, it is simply to say that all of these victims in these mass shootings have been killed because they have been going about the activities of daily life in white, wealthy suburbs. If I lived in a white, wealthy suburb, would I rethink my decision to live there due to this knowledge? No. But urbanites are told constantly that the violence endemic to the city which overwhelmingly targets specific individuals for specific reasons should cause us to fear for our lives and flee.
I want fewer drive-by shootings in my city in spite of the fact that I am unlikely to be harmed by one. I want to see the incidence of domestic violence reduced, although I don’t foresee ever being involved directly in it. I want gang activity lessened, although I’ve never even perceived an impact thereof on my life. These are urban problems, but I want them resolved not because I worry about myself, but because I care about people. The culture of gun violence which exists in America sickens me, not because I’ve ever witnessed a mass shooting, not because I believe that it is likely to directly impact me in my life, but because I cannot imagine the suffering created thereby, and I do not want anyone to suffer in that way.