Letter Number 5: No More Letters
Putting the cancel culture debate aside and focusing on the real stuff like gun crime and the weird way it worries us.
I was lured onto Substack by my once (and hopefully future) friend, Adam Davidson, who asked to engage in a conversation about cancel culture. He wrote the opening salvo, titled “Cancel Culture is a Myth”. I penned a response. From that point on, all future correspondence, which flowed only in one direction, has gone unanswered. Were the letters lost at sea? Perhaps we will someday find them being used as insulation in the walls of a frigid New England farmhouse.
Maybe Adam and I will mend our relationship. Maybe one day we will publicly correspond. Maybe I will admit to all the terribly wrong things I have ever thought. In my imagination of this moment, I am confined in the stockades in town square, my head cocked to one side, clarity descending upon me, with yet another piece of moldering fruit whizzing past my nose. One can dream. Even if only of softer fruit. In the meantime, I do have this Substack, and I hope it can join the list of institutions that started out as one thing and became another, like Post-It Notes, Nascar, and, of course, Viagra.
As such, Pesca Profundities uses this episode to rebrand. It will no longer be the dead-letter office of an 80% unidirectional dialogue. Instead, it shall become a repository for the written reflections of a podcaster, journalist, and gentleman-raconteur.
If you’ve listened to THE GIST, you’ll have heard some themes I will reflect on within the pages of Pesca Profundities, but I’ll also use this space to expand the palette, an example of which I present below:
Not Every Mass Shooting Leaves Mass Bodies
When a mass shooting occurs in America, the day-one news focuses on “who” and “what.” By day-two, they’re trying to figure out “why.” Follow-up stories come next, which place the shooting as part of an overall phenomenon. The latest incident will be positioned as one data point in a much larger trend of mass shootings.
The intent is clear: to shock us out of complacency. The motivation is humane; it’s a call-to-no-more-arms. However, the conflation of a mass murder with these other incidents has the opposite effect. The databases that count mass shootings aren’t lying. They count exactly what they say they count: incidents when masses of people were shot. Shot, but not necessarily killed. In fact, roughly half of mass shootings do not result in the killing of any victims. Mass woundings aren’t what we worry about when we worry about mass shootings. It’s terrible to be wounded in a shooting, but why is it more worrisome to be wounded alongside other people simultaneously? Gun murder in America is a horrible problem. Gun woundings are a subset of that horror, and gun woundings of four or more people together is a further subset still. None of these circumstances are good, but the last category (a murder accompanied by woundings, or a multi-person wounding) is the weirdest way to conceptualize this problem. That is, however, the story being told by most of the mass shootings statistics.
Other than the mass shooting in Monterey Park, which was a mass murder, the four “worst” mass shootings this year were all events with zero fatalities. Those were terrible crimes, and a reflection of the pressing emergency of gun crime, but they don’t actually demonstrate what the headlines intend to convey, which is that more mass murders occur than make the news. There are mass murders less likely to make the news than mass shootings of strangers in public places, but those mass shootings that receive little coverage are usually instances of intra-family or gang-related violence. It’s rare for such murders—mass murders though they are—to make national news, unless they can be cited as proof of the overall trend.
During the January 16th slaughter in Goshen, California, six members of a family were killed inside their home in what authorities describe as a “gang hit” or a “cartel style” execution. That murder wasn’t reported on in the pages of The New York Times until January 26, in the wake of the Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay murders, to exemplify the point that mass murders were a common phenomenon. Apparently, they were not common enough to report on for a week.
School Shootings, Both Rare and Record-Breaking
A similar phenomenon occurs after school shootings. When a major school shooting happens, we are soon informed that school shootings are prevalent, on the rise, or even set to break records.
The best database explains the recorded numbers include gang shootings, domestic violence, shootings at sports games and afterhours school events, suicides, fights that escalate into shootings, and accidents. While news reports speak of hundreds of school shootings, because a gun was fired in a school or on the grounds of a school hundreds of times, the kind of school shootings that concern the public are fairly rare. Any number of school shootings is too high, but active shooters wandering the halls, claiming victims as they stalk, are extremely uncommon. In 2022, the majority of students killed in US schools were the victims of a single incident - the Uvalde Texas Robb Elementary shooting. Active shooter situations, though dominant in our minds and the impetus for millions of lockdown drills, are actually infrequent.
Source: K-12 SCHOOL SHOOTING DATABASE
The point is not to quibble about strict definitions, and it’s certainly not to argue we shouldn’t be anything other than horrified that people are shot in should-be safe-havens. If school shootings are seen as the problem, then the solution of armed resource officers will be become widespread, as will the risks and tradeoffs associated with stocking our schools with more armed officers.
The reason to push back against the conflation of murders and wounding, which serves to convince us mass shootings are rampant and widespread, is that we need to re-conceptualize the problem. The cause of school shootings in America isn’t that shooters target schools. It’s that shooters target America. Mass shootings aren’t a scourge because so many people die at once. They are simply one form of the gun homicide epidemic.
See this Guardian headline:
You likely can surmise it’s “just the start” of mass shootings because it is just the start of the year. The subhead-line does identify a piece of important information, stating there were 1,214 gun deaths in January. It does not say that of these 1,214 gun deaths, 70 were in mass shootings. 94% of the gun deaths were not.
Why Quibble, If It’s All A Horror?
So why is this worth noting at all? Conservatives will say misleading reporting of mass shootings undermines the gun control argument. If the problem were really so bad, they argue, why would gun control advocates and their allies in the media need to exaggerate? An argument is not undermined though. The NRA and like-minded gun rights groups, in fact, would pick on any misstatement, real or imagined, to try to discredit their opponents. On the other hand, a gun-control advocate might worry a public engaged on the specific issue of mass shootings will be less eager to tackle the other 94% of gun murders. I question the premise that swaying public opinion leads to effective public policies on this issue. I also don’t think that with a gut-wrenching topic like this, citizens have a fixed amount of concern. Even if they do it’s not as though effective public policy will map directly onto the desires of the median voter who somehow might care about street corner shootings a little less than mass shootings.
It’s important to be accurate on the most crucial issues, even issues where inaccuracy can be excused as directionally understandable. Accurately describing a phenomenon is an ipso facto good-for-all sort of reasons including trust, credibility, understanding, and combating hopelessness. The point in refraining from not-incorrect, but generally misleading headlines like the ones above isn’t in order to achieve a desired outcome, but so anyone who cares to be properly informed, can be. Stoking the fear and anguish of one horrible, but very atypical form of shooting, hinders our ability to really understand the truth of the gun murder epidemic.
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For what it's worth, assuming you have Adam's email, may just want to hit him up there. :-)
It's too bad cancel culture debate ended at two letters - I was certainly hoping for some robust back and forth. Just based on what there is, I think you had the better argument, but you had an advantage in going second.
On mass shootings, it's curious the incidents themselves are not well-mined for patterns unlike, for instance, airplane crashes or terrorist attacks. Usually be the time the details come out (and the actual facts as opposed to the inevitable early speculation and mis-reporting), people have moved on.
What's most depressing to me is this repeating pattern where most everyone says their ideological catechisms for a few days after a mass shooting and then goes on with their lives until the next one - or at least the next one that goes "viral" since only some do.