The first recorded school shooting in the United States took place in 1840, when a law student shot and killed his professor at the University of Virginia. But the modern fear dawned on April 20, 1999, when Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris killed 12 classmates and a teacher, and then themselves, at Colorado’s Columbine High. Since then, the murder of children in their classrooms has come to seem common, a regular feature of modern American life, and our fears so strong that we are certain the next horror is sure to come not long after the last.
The Education Department reports that roughly 50 million children attend public schools for roughly 180 days per year. Since Columbine, approximately 200 public school students have been shot to death while school was in session, including the recent slaughter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. (and a shooting in Birmingham, Ala., on Wednesday that police called accidental that left one student dead). That means the statistical likelihood of any given public school student being killed by a gun, in school, on any given day since 1999 was roughly 1 in 614,000,000. And since the 1990s, shootings at schools have been getting less common.
The chance of a child being shot and killed in a public school is extraordinarily low. Not zero — no risk is. But it’s far lower than many people assume, especially in the glare of heart-wrenching news coverage after an event like Parkland. And it’s far lower than almost any other mortality risk a kid faces, including traveling to and from school, catching a potentially deadly disease while in school or suffering a life-threatening injury playing interscholastic sports.
We sometimes seek protection from our fears in ways that put us in greater peril. In responding to the Parkland shooting, we may be doing just that to our kids.
Statistics seem cold and irrelevant compared with how the evil of a school shooting makes us feel. The victims are children, and research on the psychology of risk has found that few risks worry us more than threats to kids. Parents who send their precious children to school each morning are relinquishing control over their safety; that same research has found that lack of control makes any risk feel more threatening. The parents at Columbine and Sandy Hook and Stoneman Douglas placed their faith in the school systems, trust that was cruelly violated — and mistrust fuels fear, too, for the parents and all of us.
We don’t really think about risk in terms of 1 in 10, or 1 in 100, or 1 in 1 million in the first place. And when we do see such numbers, the only thing we think is, “My kid could be the one,” so even the tiniest risk appears unacceptably high. That powerful combination of psychological characteristics moots any suggestion that fear of a certain risk is irrationally excessive. Numerically, maybe. Emotionally, not at all.
That’s the thing about risk. We assess it less on the likelihood of the outcome and more on the emotional nature of the experience involved in getting to that outcome. The probability of dying doesn’t matter as much as the way you die. That’s why the infinitesimally low risk of being eaten by a shark scares millions of people out of the ocean, and why vanishingly rare plane crashes scare travelers into their cars and trucks (a statistically riskier way to get around). School shootings also trigger powerful emotions that swamp the odds.
And the more frightening a risk feels to you and me, the more coverage it usually gets in the news media, which focuses on things most likely to get our attention. Rare events with high emotional valence often get coverage disproportionate to their likelihood, further magnifying our fears. As a result of what the cognitive sciences call “the awareness heuristic” — a mental shortcut we use to quickly assess the likely frequency of things we don’t know much about — the more readily an event leaps to mind from our memory, or the more persistently it’s in the news, the more emotionally powerful and probable it feels. School shootings and the debate about gun control are prime examples. A threat feels more threatening if it’s getting a lot of attention. …
Fear also leads us to do things in pursuit of safety that may do more harm than what we’re afraid of in the first place. Think about the psychological effects on kids from all those lessons about when to run, how to hide, directions from their parents to call home if a shooting occurs. A few children have even brought guns to school, saying they wanted to protect their classmates . What happens to children’s ability to learn if they spend their time in the classroom wondering, even if only occasionally, who’s going to burst in and open fire? What does the chronic stress of such worry do to their health? What do constant messages of potential danger in a place that’s supposed to be safe do to their sense of security in the world? Across the population of public school children in the United States, fear of this extraordinarily rare risk is almost certainly doing far more overall harm than have the shootings themselves, horrendous as they are.
Robby Soave might argue we’re already at maximum worrywarting:
Students across the country plan[ned] to walk out of class at 10:00 a.m. [Wednesday] to protest the government’s failure to prevent crimes like the massacre at Parkland by tightening gun laws.
In doing so, the students are providing more evidence that increased safety is indeed the paramount goal of modern millennial and Gen Z political activism. They want to feel comfortable and protected, and they are willing to curtail other people’s rights to achieve this.
“It’s not Republican or Democrat; it’s about keeping people safe,” Arielle Geismar, a 16-year-old student from Manhattan, told Vox.
Another student activist, 18-year-old Fiorina Talaba, said, “We know what we want from our society: to have less guns and, at some point, no guns at all.”*
Perhaps ironically, the administrators at Geismar’s school also cited public safety as their top concern, and used it to justify their reticence about the planned walkout:
Arielle Geismar, a 16-year-old junior at the Beacon School in Manhattan, said her school administrators were primarily focused on student safety. “There definitely was pushback in terms of disrupting classes,” she said. “But we’re going to be loud, and we’re not going to apologize for that. I think that’s also the point of the walkout. We’re going to make ourselves heard whether you want to hear it or not.”
Of course Geismar and her fellow activists shouldn’t apologize for making themselves heard, being loud, or walking out of class. Nor should their First Amendment rights be curtailed because some overly cautious administrators are concerned about safety. Public safety is frequently used as a pretext for trampling the civil rights of some group or another. Think of racist stop-and-frisk policies, the anti-Muslim bigotry of domestic War on Terror paranoia, or the immigrant purges of the Trump era. Such measures are often justified on grounds of safety, security, and comfort.
Young people would therefore be justified in treating any safety-related abridgments of their rights with skepticism. Yet this post-Parkland student activism seems grounded in the exact same thinking: that we should sacrifice the rights of one group—gun owners—in order to make everybody else feel safer.
Whether doing this would actually make anyone safer is of course the subject of considerable policy debate. But just feeling safe is incredibly important to the current crop of high school and college students, who came of age during a time of increasingly paranoid parenting and hypersensitivity toward harm. Students certainly do deserve literal safety from violence. In many ways, they already do: Schools are safer than they used to be, and mass shootings are no more common. Unfortunately, these actual, dramatic social gains might seem counterintuitive to kids who live at a time of constant media coverage of murder, terror, and death. And the right caters to these fears by pushing airport-style security, more cops in schools, and metal detectors as reasonable solutions to school shootings, even though there’s little reason to believe these ideas work.
One of the main goals of this movement is to raise the legal age to purchase an AR-15 from 18 to 21, so these young activists are sometimes clearly willing to impose limits on their own freedoms as well as other people’s. Whatever you think of the gun issue, there’s reason to be concerned about just how much freedom the fragile generation would happily give away in order to feel safer—even when they’re getting safer already.
If today’s children favor safety over freedom, their parents have failed them.