On nice days, YouTube employees would enjoy their lunch hour in the enclosed courtyard at the company headquarters in San Bruno, California. On April 3, that lunchtime routine was shattered: A woman entered the courtyard from the parking garage through an unlocked gate and opened fire with a 9 mm handgun. She wounded three YouTube employees — one remains hospitalized — before taking her own life. The shooting unfolded in real time on social media and cable news, captivating public attention. The incident and its aftermath illustrates two points: how media coverage of such shootings creates more vicarious than actual victims and how that coverage makes the United States appear to be more dangerous than it actually is.
Only 25 percent of all mass public attacks in the United States are ideologically or politically motivated terrorism. Most attacks are motivated by workplace or personal grievances or mental health problems. However, no matter the motive, the planning cycle is similar for all these attacks, making it possible to see attack developing and to take steps to disrupt it.
Media, Murder and Vicarious Victims
In the past I have written about how the media can act as a terror magnifier and leave the wrong impression about threat levels in the United States. In fact, FBI statistics show that the U.S. murder rate is near historic lows. It was 5.3 per 100,000 people in 2016, the last full year for which statistics were available. That figure is close to the murder rates in the early 1960s and is little more than half of the historic high of 10.2 in 1980. Some cities such as Baltimore, Maryland, and Columbus, Ohio, have experienced recent increases in their murder rates, but preliminary data suggest that New York City's rate in 2017 dropped to the lowest it has been in seven decades. That drop goes beyond just New York. In the nation's 50 largest cities, homicides fell about 2.1 percent, from 5,863 in 2016 to 5,738 in 2017. In 1980 there were 23,404 homicides in the United States and only 17,250 in 2016. This drop happened while the population of the United States grew from 226 million in 1980 to over 320 million today. So if homicides and homicide rates are down considerably from 1980s high, why are so many Americans fearful of being murdered?
Compare that 1980 news coverage with that of April 2018, when Twitter and other social media platforms delivered the news of the shooting around the world within minutes of it happening. YouTube employees and bystanders tweeted the events they were seeing and posted photos and videos from around and even inside the building in real time. Millions of people around the globe watched in suspense as the "active shooter" drama unfolded, creating numerous vicarious victims.
The effect of such instant coverage on public perception is readily apparent in polling data. Between 1993 and 2016, Gallup, Inc., asked Americans about crime rates. In those polls, a majority said that violent crime was worse than it had been in the previous year, despite the actual downward trend in crime for that period. Similarly, a Pew Research Center survey conducted in late 2016 found that 57 percent of registered U.S. voters said that crime had gotten worse since 2008 despite the double-digit drops in violent and property crime rates during that period.
Public Shootings and Real Victims
But changes in media technology aren't the only reasons for the heightened fear. The number of mass shootings has increased. In 2014 the Congressional Research Service completed a study on mass public shootings from 1970 to 2013. Its researchers defined those attacks as "a multiple homicide incident in which four or more victims are murdered with firearms, within one event, in at least one or more public locations, such as a workplace, school, restaurant, house of worship, neighborhood, or other public setting."
That study found an average of 1.1 public mass shootings per year in the 1970s, 2.7 such incidents per year in the 1980s, four incidents per year in the 1990s, 4.1 in the 2000s and 4.5 during 2010-13. A U.S. Secret Service report on mass shootings in 2017, which was published in March 2018, found 28 public mass attacks. The federal agency defined an incident as one "in which three or more persons were harmed, were carried out in public places within the United States." Of these attacks, 23 were conducted with guns, three with vehicles and two with knives.
While the number of murders is down, the number of people killed in public mass attacks is up. Until 2013, the number of those killed in such incidents rarely exceeded 50 and never 100, but in 2017 that number reached 144, largely based on two large incidents: the Las Vegas shooting that killed 58 and a shooting that killed 26 at a church in Sutherland, Texas. Indeed, the Las Vegas incident alone surpassed the death toll of public mass shootings every year from 1999 to 2013, except for 2012.
Perspective and an After-Action Report
Are mass public shootings a serious and growing problem? Absolutely. Even one mass public shooting is too many. But even in 2017, the year with some of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history, only 28 such events occurred and the 144 people killed in them represented less than 1 percent of all the homicides in the United States.
Public officials, as well as security managers for businesses, schools, churches and other public spaces, must continue to train people on how to react in the event of a mass attack. YouTube employees recognized the attack and rapidly responded to the active shooter in progress by switching to avoid-deny-defend mode, displaying an awareness that undoubtedly saved many lives. At the same time, and perhaps even more important, public officials and security managers must increase their efforts to proactively detect attackers as they progress through their planning cycle. Prevention is always preferable to reaction.
Another positive response we noted in the YouTube shooting was an awareness by bystanders that bleeding in victims be immediately addressed. (The White House started the "Stop the Bleed" trauma-treatment campaign in 2015.) In the wake of the shooting, a restaurant worker reported that a woman with a bullet wound in her leg ran into the establishment seeking shelter. He quickly applied an improvised tourniquet to staunch the blood flow. In addition to knowing how to stop bleeding and treat people for shock, it is helpful to have the necessary medical supplies on hand. I carry a tourniquet, hemostatic bandage and a chest seal in my briefcase every day, and I also carry Stop the Bleed kits in each of my vehicles. It is certainly possible to use improvised items in an emergency, but with first aid gear so compact and inexpensive, it makes sense to carry the real deal.
Even though the number of public mass shootings has grown, and they remain a significant threat for the people affected, the number of such incidents is still quite limited. Only a statistically small portion of the public will ever be exposed to such an incident. That said, it is still prudent for people to be prepared for the unlikely eventuality that they could be caught in such an event — but they must not let fear cripple them. This is a critical distinction. Fear and paranoia are detrimental to effective personal security. Certainly, people should be alert to the threat and know what to do, but that should be tempered with situational awareness in public places and the confidence of knowing how to instantly react.