Panicking In Response to Mass Shootings Does Not Help Anyone

Guess where I'm not shopping anymore?

Guess where I’m not shopping anymore?

Hamilton Nolan at Gawker has been doing particularly excellent work lately. This morning, he published a wonderful post titled “You Will Not Die in a Mass Shooting.” It addresses the fact that as mass shootings increase in frequency, Americans are terrified that they’ll be caught in a mass shooting situation. And when people get scared, they do stupid things. In particular, people who are scared of mass shootings will frequently buy guns. This is the dumbest thing you could do: if you really fear getting shot, having a gun in your house is much more risky for you and your loved ones than, say, going to the movies. I’ll let Nolan explain it:

…Mass shootings are very scary. And very visible. But in all likelihood they are not going to happen to you. You are more likely to die in a mass shooting than to win the Powerball drawing, but the truth is that you are not going to do either. That does not stop people from buying lottery tickets, and it does not stop people from fearing being killed in spectacular acts of terrorism.

It is true that guns kill tens of thousands of Americans every year—the majority of them from suicide. Of the fraction that are homicides, only a vanishingly small fraction of those are high profile mass shootings of the type that make people fear to go to office parties, or to movie theaters. If gun violence itself is what you fear, the most prudent action you can take is to not have a gun in your home.

This is a negative feedback loop: more mass shootings happen, so people buy more guns to feel safe, which cause more people to be killed or injured by guns, which inspires more fear and causes more people to buy guns in order to feel safe and so on. The best way to disrupt these kinds of negative feedback loops is to institute laws that encourage responsibility: background checks, training, licensing, waiting periods—the sorts of laws that allow people to slow down and really think about what they’re doing. The best defense against panicked irrationality is time.

But meanwhile, some people are profiting from this negative feedback loop. The Intercept’s Lee Fang has written a story titled “Gun Industry Executives Say Mass Shootings Are Good for Business.” Fang quotes executives from sporting good stores that carry guns, gun manufacturers, and Wall Street analysts who have actively encouraged the sale of guns in the wake of mass shootings. Here’s a sample:

Last year, Tommy Millner, the chief executive of Cabela’s, a retailer that sells guns, boasted at an investor conference in Nebraska that his company made a “conscious decision” to stock additional weapons merchandise before the 2012 election, hoping Obama’s reelection would result in increased sales. After the election, the Newtown mass shooting happened, and “the business went vertical … I meant it just went crazy,” Millner said, according to a transcript of the event. Describing the “tailwinds of profitability,” Millner noted Cabela’s “didn’t blink as others did to stop selling AR-15 platform guns,” and so his company “got a lot of new customers.” The AR-15 is a high-powered assault rifle based on the military’s M-16 model but without the full automatic capacity,

Steven Miller, the chief executive of Big 5 Sporting Goods, another gun retailer, was asked by investor analysts in 2013 to describe the state of the market during a conference call that year. The “real surge” in firearm sales, Miller said, “took place following the tragedy in Sandy Hook.”

I guess I’m not shopping at Big 5, Cabela’s, or Dick’s Sporting Goods anymore. I refuse to support businesses who profiteer off of panicked responses to tragedy.

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Paul Constant
Paul Constant has written about politics, books, and film for Newsweek, The Progressive, the Utne Reader, and alternative weeklies around the country.