When shots rang out Monday at the closure of the Minnesota State Fair, we all jumped to the same terrifying conclusion — yet another mass shooting.
Still reeling from a month of high-profile mass shootings in Gilroy, Calif.; El Paso, Texas; Dayton, Ohio; and, most recently, in the Texas cities of Odessa and Midland, mass violence is certainly on the mind. Its specter looms large over America’s public spaces — even the Great Minnesota Get-Together.
Thankfully, the events that unfolded on Labor Day were not another mass-casualty shooting. But that’s not permission to move on. Three people still got shot. The State Fair shooting is instead a timely reminder that there is not one gun violence problem but several, and that each deserves our focused attention.
Every day, about 100 Americans are killed with guns and hundreds more are shot and injured. Many if not most of these victims receive little to no media coverage. Perhaps what’s most sad about this is that they are disproportionately young black and Latino men.
Gun violence is so routine that we now just brace for impact. Children sing lockdown nursery rhymes in school while adults manage the low-level anxiety that eats away at them when they attend a movie theater or shopping mall. Watching survivors flee, communities mourn and politicians equivocate on cable news is almost a daily ritual. It is the price of admission for another day in the land of the free and home of the brave.
In 2017 alone, the Centers for Disease Control reported 14,542 homicides by discharge of firearms. According to Violence Project data, 112 of those deaths — fewer than 1% of all gun homicides — were attributable to public mass shootings. It is notable that 2017 was the highest of any year recorded because of the Las Vegas shooting that claimed an unprecedented 58 lives.
Why so many shootings? One reason is gun violence is contagious. One shooting can inspire another. The mass shooting disease is a noncontact, airborne pathogen. It is spread largely by fear and fascination, the blueprint laid down by past shooters, and the desire of new shooters to outdo their predecessors.
Everyday gun violence is equally contagious. It ricochets back-and-forth among small groups of people and places. The method of transmission that builds up to the violent event is just different.
A mass shooting is a crime of isolation — a personal trouble turned into a public grievance. Urban violence is a crime of intimacy. People are socialized into its methods and motives by their acquaintances, friends and families. By street codes that promote violence as a means of dispute resolution.
In this sense, everyday gun violence is a blood-borne pathogen. Like an STI, it spreads when people are acculturated to violent scripts that allow for certain risky behaviors — not needle-sharing and unprotected sex, but joining gangs and carrying illegal guns.
There was a time in the early 1990s when Minneapolis was called “Murderapolis” and urban homicide was so common, so deadly, that the situation felt hopeless — not unlike the mass-shooting situation today. But in the decades since, homicide has declined to historic lows, in part because we acknowledged its contagiousness. First, law enforcement targeted the people most infected. Then community organizations, following a public health model, began interrupting the transmission.
Alas, we have faced the prospect of a supposedly unpredictable and intractable violence before, only to find that murder is predictable, therefore preventable. As we continue to process what feels like a new normal of violence, let us not forget this. We can do more than just run, hide, fight. We must stop the contagion.
Dr. James Densley is a professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University and co-founder of the Violence Project. Dr. David Pyrooz is a professor of Sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder.