Incidents involving kids get outsized attention, while those that feature convicted criminals fall by the wayside.
Phoenix Police Department officers and investigators pause as they look for evidence at a local motel where multiple people were shot early Monday, June 6, 2016, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Over the past seven days, America witnessed seven mass shootings that left six dead and 23 wounded. These attacks bring the US mass shooting body count so far in 2016 to 118 dead and 466 injured. That means that this year's American mass shooting death toll already exceeds that of the 1981 collapse at the Kansas City, Missouri, Hyatt Regency Hotel, a tragedy that left 114 dead and 216 injured in one of the worst structural failures in US history.
Meanwhile, Europe suffered one mass shooting over the past week: On Sunday, an argument between two groups of young men outside a restaurant in the Moscow, Russia, suburb of Mytischi escalated into gunfight that left four injured. The shooting brings the continent's body count in such attacks this year up to 20 dead and 70 injured.
This week's bloodiest American mass shooting struck on Sunday as well: Just before 10:30 PM, 28-year-old Daterryn McBride opened fire in a Motel 6 lobby just off the interstate in Phoenix, Arizona. He ultimately killed a guest and employee, wounded another hotel worker in the lobby, and injured two more individuals in a truck in the parking lot who were attempting to flee. McBride followed up this semi-public and at least partially random attack by carrying out two carjackings and a kidnapping and leading police on a highway chase before finally shooting himself in the head; he died of his wounds on Monday.
A less deadly shooting ultimately garnered more national and global media attention, though: At about 1:15 PM on Wednesday, an unknown shooter killed a 17-year-old student, injured two more teens, and grazed a 67-year-old woman near a high school in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston during a fire drill. The attack was carried out in a crowd of students in broad daylight.
Both incidents had elements that usually draw significant media attention: They occurred in fairly public locations and felt random. It's unclear whether any of the victims knew the shooters, but from an initial public vantage they seemed like incidents of stranger-on-stranger violence.
Certainly, they were both more "exceptional" than this week's other, more routine American mass shootings: At about 8:15 PM last Friday, a shooting at a home in Denver, Colorado, ultimately left three dead and one injured—the deadliest shooting in the past seven days, albeit a very opaque incident. At about 2:30 PM on Sunday, a street shooting in Brooklyn, New York, left four injured. Then, at 9:20 PM, another street shooting in Minneapolis, Minnesota, injured four more. On Monday at about 12:45 AM, a shooter fired into a SUV outside of a bar in Visalia, California, wounding four more. Finally, at about 4:20 PM on Wednesday, a man carried out a targeted shooting on a street corner with a history of violence in Washington, DC, injuring four.
These incidents—especially the last one—largely involved individuals, settings, and patterns to which the public has become accustomed and that do not seem particularly newsworthy to national outlets.
Boston seemed to get the bulk of the attention at least partly because it occurred near a school and involved young people. As Jaclyn Schildkraut, a specialist on media coverage of mass (and especially school) shootings at the State University of New York—Oswego, tells VICE, schools are usually totemic locations, seen as repositories of "worthy victims." This wasn't the first shooting on or near a school this year, but it does appear to be the first mass shooting directly associated with a school, which makes it noteworthy. And it likely doesn't matter that the shooting occurred outside of the school; although there's no dedicated research on the subject, Schildkraut suspects it doesn't matter where in relation to a school a shooting occurs—so long as it involves a crowd of students and is associated with that venue, it will draw attention. The level of attention thereafter is usually determined by the extremity of violence involved and the ultimate body count in the event.
Although the Phoenix attack was ultimately more extreme and deadlier than the Boston tragedy, Schildkraut points out that elements of that incident probably negated its media salience.
"The perpetrator [was] an ex-convict," she tells me. "There may be a tendency to discredit the severity of the violence since the perpetrator has a record... When there is a pattern of crime, it seems to diminish the importance of a single event."
Between the multiplying effect that the word "school" has in drawing attention to shootings and the mitigating effect that the mention of a convict can have, it makes sense that the less deadly and murkier of this week's two most notable US mass shootings might draw the lion's share of attention. Such logic belies the hierarchy of care American media routinely manifests when it comes to mass gun violence. Fixating on schools is logical: It is particularly tragic when young lives are cut short or severely disrupted. Allowing that tragedy to hang so high and heavy that it eclipses other major incidents of violence is a shame, though, as it does a disservice to the broader spectrum of victims and makes America's grinding epidemic of large-scale gun violence seem narrower than it actually is.
In order to seriously address mass shootings, we have to keep a spotlight on all of them, confronting ourselves with the true magnitude of the tragedy, rather than indulging in a focus on exceptional cases that seem especially worth of our time.
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