Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Fear Makes Us Do Irrational Things

Fear sometimes makes us do irrational things.

Fear isn't all bad, of course. When our human brains are functioning properly, fear is a natural instinct that helps keep us safe in dangerous situations. It prepares our bodies to physically respond for fight or flight action. A healthy amount of fear is...well, it's healthy.

However, sometimes our highly-evolved hominid nervous systems malfunction and cause irrational fear responses, blowing perceived dangers completely out of proportion.

Like when we run screaming from a room because we saw a tiny spider.

Or when we gather in droves to put an end to mass shootings in public schools.

On Saturday, people took to the streets in Washington DC (and 800 other cities) to demand stricter gun control laws in the United States.

The "March for Our Lives" was organized in response to the February 14th shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. That tragic event, where 17 people lost their lives to an armed psychopath, sparked heated debate about the safety of our schools and guns in our culture. Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas H.S., along with some major media support and the organizational skills of the Women's March, have inspired a movement.

I am impressed with how effective the voices of these young students have shaken so many voters out of complacency. Although I'm always concerned by mass marches. They tend to represent a sort of group think that probably frightens me because I've read too much dystopian teen fiction.

But they've sparked conversation. The subject of both school safety and gun violence has been the subject of social media banter, public forum discussions, and media coverage for weeks now. Voters from all over the political spectrum are expressing views and looking for solutions to the rapidly expanding epidemic of public school shootings.

From the March for Our Lives website:

...We cannot allow one more family to wait for a call or text that never comes. Our schools are unsafe. Our children and teachers are dying. We must make it our top priority to save these lives... 
...Every kid in this country now goes to school wondering if this day might be their last. We live in fear. 

Photo Credit: Mathias Wasik

How can we strap on our kids' backpacks, kiss them good-bye, and send them off to school when the threat of them being gunned down by a madman is so high?

Boarding the school bus has apparently become the equivalent of playing a dangerous game of Russian Roulette.

From the messages on the signs to the mission statement on the March's website, you can tell these kids are convinced that once they enter their schools, they are entering a war zone. With bullets flying left and right, how can we expect these kids to learn?

On their path to gun control, these kids (and the adults who are using them for political purposes) have inadvertently triggered societal panic. I have a friend whose 8 year-old son is afraid to go to school because he "might get shot." 

While it is stupid to wallow in comfortable complacency thinking, "That could never happen here," and every child lost to gun violence is a cataclysmic loss to society, the risk of experiencing a mass shooting in a local public school is a statistical anomaly.

It may be hard to believe over all of the shouting, demanding, and marching, but children do not actually "risk their lives" every day when they climb aboard those yellow school buses. They are actually at a greater risk of dying from falling down (1 in 122) or being hit by a car (1 in 611) on their way to school. They are actually three times more likely to die from choking on those disgusting school lunches (1 in 3,461) than they are of being gunned down in their classrooms (1 in 11,125).

Yet here we are...

This is what mass hysteria looks like. It's like the villagers going after the monster, only they've traded their torches and pitchforks for pithy signs with rhyming chants... and the monster, while unarguably terrifying, isn't exactly running amok.

Perhaps we are so angry and afraid because the media has been feeding the panic, stoking and fanning the flames with inappropriate enthusiasm. For them, tragedy means big ratings, especially when children are involved. The 24-hour coverage that mass shootings provoke usually leaves us glued to our screens for hours on end in a vain attempt to make sense of the horror.

The media is also guilty of feeding us inflated statistics to push an agenda and reinforce a paradigm. In the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, progressive activists and media outlets repeatedly reported there had been 18 school shootings since the beginning of the year.

Horrible, right?

Except it isn't true. When we think of school shootings we think of Columbine. We think of heavily armed, masked lunatics spraying bullets as they go, gunning down innocent, unprotected children by the dozens.

The thought that this had actually happened 18 times in just under two months is enough to strike terror in any parent, teacher, student, or basic and decent human being. 

But this figure is a gross exaggeration. In an attempt to push their anti-gun agenda, Everytown for Gun Safety  inflated its numbers by including every single incident of gunfire, even if it was only in the vicinity of a school.

For example, included in the 18-shooting figure was the very first incident of the year. On January 3, a 31-year-old man parked outside a Michigan elementary school and placed a phone call to police saying he was armed and suicidal. Several hours later, he shot himself. While his suicide is indeed tragic, this hardly counts as a "school shooting"...especially considering the school had been closed for seven months.

It was shuttered and inactive. There were no teachers or students present. Not one single innocent life was at risk.

In reality, there have only been eight mass shootings in American schools...

...since 1996. 

Go ahead and read that again.

Time magazine reports that a total of 6 adults and 35 children have been killed in school shootings since 2013. That is 41 people who tragically lost their lives.

However, there are, on average, 51 annual deaths due to lightening strikes. Since most of you probably attended questionably effective public schools, I'll do the math for you.

You are more likely to be killed in a thunderstorm than a school shooting. While the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was definitely heartbreaking, it is not part of an epidemic and it is downright deceitful to call it such.

Our nation's schools do not resemble war zones. They are, in fact, incredibly safe considering their soft target "gun-free" status. According to new research from Northeastern University, "schools are safer than they were in the 90s, and school shootings are not more common than they used to be."

Here is a little visual perspective for you:

The truth is, there is no “school safety” crisis in this country. We have a gun violence problem that consists primarily of suicides, accidents, and single-victim homicides, most of which are committed with handguns, not the dreaded AR-15.

But it must be true. It must be true because large numbers of people are shaking their fists on national television. It must be true because there is so much media coverage, and general yelling, and so many small children afraid to go to school.

Fear, even when it isn't based in reality, is a powerful motivator. In this case, fear fueled by the media and organizations with an agenda, mobilized masses to demand tighter regulations on weapons they don't even understand.

So, like...yeah...let's all get together, and like...demand that the government ban something we like can't even define.

Shaping public policy with emotion rather than common sense,  no matter how strong the emotions, is just plain juvenile (So, I guess the teenagers doing the angry demanding are acting age-appropriately). But common sense isn't as marketable as passionate, sanctimonious teenagers shouting profanity and raising their fists. Common sense rarely inspires marches.

Here's the deal. Grief and anger are all understandable in the face of what happened in Parkland. These children have a right to mourn. They have a right to be angry. Anger is actually a healthy part of the grieving process.

However, surviving a tragic event doesn't magically make you a leader. It doesn't suddenly bestow magic policy-making talents. PTSD does not automatically instill wisdom or grant miraculous oracle-like understanding. You don't get special powers, although the media is likely to make you an instant celebrity (at least if your politics agree with their agenda. Don't believe they pick and choose their victims of tragedy? Have a conversation with Parkland survivor Kyle Kashuv. I wonder why he didn't make the cover of Time?)

Ask any parent of a teenager and they will tell you that teenagers have a limited ability to make rational decisions. Teenage brains have not fully developed. A study conducted by the McLean Hospital Brain Imaging Center in Boston, Massachusetts suggests that while adults can use rational decision making processes when facing emotional decisions, adolescent brains are simply not yet equipped to think them through.

There is a reason that adults get to do things like take out mortgages and vote and influence public policy. It's because we are less likely to be ruled by our emotions. We have fully developed frontal lobes and can usually approach decision-making from a place of rational thought rather than heated passion.

I understand the desire to DO SOMETHING. But it's important to approach major decisions, ones that could have long-lasting and wide-reaching effects, with caution and a level head, something these new celebrity children and their devotees seem to be lacking.

"Ban the guns" sounds like a great way to end gun violence, especially since it makes a catchy chant for D.C. marches. But like filing your income taxes, as well as most things in the adult world, it's actually much more complicated than that.

Most of the policy ideas that the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas H.S. and their fan club have proposed are vague. Most would be ineffective, and in some cases, they would be downright harmful. I guess we shouldn't be surprised, though. Public schools are too busy prepping kids for standardized tests to actually teach them critical thinking skills.

For example, raising the firearm purchase age to 21 sounds like a great idea on the surface. This would keep guns out of the hands of the irrational teenagers that are currently demanding they are rational enough to influence public policy. (oh, the irony!) But maybe...just would have kept a gun out of the hands of the Parkland shooter, who was only 19.

But let's take a quick look at some facts and statistics.

Of the 64 mass public shootings that have occurred in the United States since 1998 (not all were in public schools), ten were committed by people under age 21. Five of those shooters were already too young to legally purchase a firearm. That means only five of those 64 gunman would have been affected by raising the purchase age.


Maybe they would have been affected. It is quite likely the shooters would have obtained weapons illegally, since they weren't deterred by those pesky murder laws in the first place.

But do you know who a raised purchase age would affect? The 20 year-old frightened woman being stalked by a potential rapist . The young college student dealing with an obsessed and violent ex-boyfriend. Sorry, ladies. You're too young to defend yourselves. Better luck next year. If you're still around, that is.

Disarming law-abiding citizens, leaving them with no way to protect themselves, has life-threatening consequences.

People will still die. They just might not be the same people.

I understand the need to protect our children. They are our greatest gift, our nation's most precious asset. But radically changing the founding principles of the United States over a minimal risk is drastic, and won't keep guns out of the hands of criminals and deranged psychopaths anyway.

Before we start disarming the populace, maybe we should look at other ways to keep our children safe. Maybe improve security measures at our local schools. Invest in school-based mental health services. Let's consider placing more armed law enforcement officers and security guards on campuses. Perhaps we should try enforcing the gun-control laws already in place before we pass more.

Too much is at stake to make trendy political decisions fueled by the emotions of loud-voiced teenagers. We all want to save lives, but being well-meaning isn’t enough. Plenty of mistakes are made by well-meaning individuals who rush to act without considering all of the nuanced consequences.

This subject needs careful consideration of the long-term repercussions to both the individual and society. It should be approached with caution, examination of facts, and thoughtful deliberation.

Let's not make rash decisions just because we are afraid, or else there might be bigger things to fear.

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