Mass Shootings Fuel Fear of Crowds

Crowd stress is nothing new. Back in the ’90s, I was an on-air therapist for a reality-cam house full of 20-somethings in Boston. Without exception, the number one fear they all had was entering a crowded place where they didn’t know anybody. The unknown is a formless dark specter that looms out of our control at the best of times, but today, it has moved to a new level. The senseless mass shootings that occur on a seemingly regular basis – at concerts, in school, at places of worship and supposed sanctuary – have scared many of us into a state of apprehension. If someone’s going to open fire, it will probably be in a crowd. Will it be OUR crowd? There’s no way of knowing.

Here’s one thing we do know: There are more public mass shootings in the US than in any other country in the world. A recent study by the National Institutes of Health concluded that “The United States and other nations with high firearm ownership rates may be particularly susceptible to future public mass shootings, even if they are relatively peaceful or mentally healthy according to other national indicators.”

Even if they are mentally healthy? This conclusion flies in the face of 2nd Amendment rights supporters who argue: “guns aren’t the problem, people are the problem.”

According to a 2015 study, while the United States has 5% of the world’s population, it had 31% of all public mass shootings (defined as taking place in a confined, populated place and resulting in at least four deaths) between 1966 and 2012, and there is one marked difference between mass shootings in the US and those in other countries. Globally, the shooter typically had only one gun. In more than half of cases in the US, the shooter had more than one firearm, in fact, they often had an entire arsenal. And no wonder – the citizens of America own more guns than any other country on the planet – at last count, an estimated 270 million to 310 million firearms. That averages out to nearly one firearm for every man, woman and child.

Our national attitude toward guns after mass shootings is unique as well. In Australia, there were four mass shootings between 1987 and 1996 and afterward, the public’s objections against gun ownership resulted in the passing of stricter gun laws. It may be coincidence, but Australia hasn’t had a mass shooting since. In contrast, polls taken after high-profile mass shootings in the US showed that gun sales actually skyrocketed after such incidents, either because citizens feared that gun sales would become prohibitively restricted, or because they wanted guns to protect themselves from the people who already had guns. To 2nd Amendment rights advocates, this reasoning makes sense. They point out that the overall US rate of gun violence has actually dropped significantly over the past two decades. But individual killings may be an unfortunate trade off for an even more terrifying reality – mass shootings, according to a Harvard study, have tripled between 2011 and 2014.

While many of the shooters in the United States were, in fact, mentally ill, the number of mass shootings in the US has skyrocketed far beyond a minimal increase in cases of mental illness during the same period. A new motive for killing may be growing: a desire for fame. Adam Lankford, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Alabama, observed, “Being famous is one of this generation’s most important goals. It seems like Americans are growing in their desire for fame, and there is no doubt that there is an association between the attention that these offenders get and the likelihood that they will act.”

This copycat-induced behavior is taking on the characteristics of a disease and some researchers believe that mass killings are becoming increasingly contagious. One killing or shooting increases the risk that others will occur within about two weeks. This type of “infection” lasts about 13 days. An additional symptom seems to be a desire to up the ante. “We have seen this become almost a kind of competition,” Lankford said. “What perhaps is most frighting is that if offenders can kill more people and get more fame, the next may try to find ‘innovating’ — and I put quotes around that word, ‘innovating’ — new ways to get attention.” The tremendous press coverage these incidents get in the news doesn’t help.

According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been over 270 mass shootings incidents in 2017 alone. It is having an effect on us, mutating from shock into numbness, seeping into the culture as a norm.

What can we do? First, stop watching the reports of blood and terror. Turn them off. We give things power by speaking of them and remembering their names. Second, keep your eyes open and learn how to protect yourself. The Department of Homeland Security has developed a “Run, Hide, Fight” program. For a downloadable pocket guide, visit







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