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The Shocking Truth About School Shootings that No One Realizes (And How to Change A Bad Habit)

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On December 14, 2012, a deranged young man walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and gunned down 20 young children and six adults before killing himself. Oh, and he killed his mom at home beforehand. Nice guy!

The attack was shocking and tragic—just as any unnecessary loss of life is—and the whole world looked on as we tried to make sense of it all.

What follows is not pleasant, but perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned.

If you’re upset about something, or you want to change something about yourself or those around you, then it’s critical to understand the facts and statistics behind what you’re trying to change.

Here’s the problem. We all think we’re great at understanding ourselves and our surroundings, but it only takes a bit of analysis to see we’re often wrong in our beliefs.

“These things don’t happen here.”

As news conglomerates from around the world descended on Newtown, Connecticut the morning of the massacre, reporters stuck their cameras and microphones in the faces of anyone who would talk to them.

Neighbors were shocked. They didn’t know what to think, what to say. So, they said the only thing that made sense to them:

“These things just don’t happen here.”

It’s the same, horrified answer you’ll get in any small town when something bad happens. And who can blame anyone for thinking it? Things like that aren’t supposed to happen there.

Terrible things are only supposed to happen in the big city, right? Many people believe this, and if you trusted only your instincts, you’d tend to believe it.

The problem is that it’s wrong. Not just wrong, but completely wrong.

When I heard passersby on the news that morning tell a TV reporter, “These things just don’t happen here!” I couldn’t help but sympathize. I felt terrible for everyone there that morning—the tragedy they were facing and the work it would take to rebuild that community.

But I also couldn’t help but think to myself, “Actually, these things do happen there. And they seem to only happen there.”

Now, they haven’t happened in Newtown, CT before, but I had a hunch that, when they do happen, they happen in towns just like Newtown.

So, I did a little digging. Turns out I’m right.

Newtown is a small community of about 30,000 people, not far from some of Connecticut’s mid-sized cities.

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d heard of a tragedy like this taking place in a major city, so I dug through the last 20 years of gruesome, mass-shooting history* and made a list of all the incidents where more than three people were killed.

I recorded the year they occurred, the city and state where they happened, the specific place the shooting took place (school, workplace, church, other), and the population of the city.

Here’s what I learned.

  1. The largest city where a mass shooting took place in the last 20 years was San Francisco, population 813,000.
  2. The smallest town where a mass shooting took place was a Red Lake, Minnesota, population 1,731. I had to go back and break this number out. When I first collected population data, I rounded to the nearest thousand, which left a five-way tie for smallest town.

The breakdown of specific locations that mass shootings took places looks like this:

Going from just this information, you’d think the shocked resident on the news might be right—”These things just don’t happen here.”

Clearly, based on the numbers, you should be far more scared to go to work (80% more likely than going to school) or anywhere else crowds gather (90% more likely) than sending your child to school.

But lets dig a little deeper. Based on population, where do mass shootings take place?

Now the numbers are starting to take a bit of a turn. When you add the first three tiers of population together, you can see that 62% of all mass shootings take place in small towns with less than 100,000 people in them (and towns with a population less than 50,000 account for 87% of that number). 

Small towns are 63% more likely to experience a mass shooting than a big one.

The absolutely shocking truth about mass shootings, though—and the point I’m trying to make—comes when you put these two charts together and look at the data for mass shootings that occur specifically at schools in towns with populations under 100,000.

Ninety-mother-f****ing-percent, people.

Let me say that again in more relatable terms:

For every 10 school shootings that occurred in the last 20 years, nine of them happened in sleepy little towns.

So, when something absolutely heartbreaking like the shooting in Newtown, CT happens and a shocked resident tells the world, “These kinds of things just don’t happen here,” you can’t blame them—it hasn’t happened there before.

But when they do happen, they happen in towns just like Newtown. With about 90% odds, in fact.

And this is one piece of data we should probably consider if we’re going to have any kind of useful discussion about how to make it stop. Because, let’s face it, we really need to make this stop.

Our ingrained beliefs and our reality do not match up.

But what are you, dear reader, supposed to do with information like this? How do you make use of this?

How to Take Action on Your Own Misconceptions

This article would be upsetting to read and mostly useless if you couldn’t take a lesson from it and apply it to your own life.

So here it is:

If you live in a small town, don’t think that the problems that occurred in Newtown are not relevant to your life. Your hometown is really no different, and it’s your job to help the rest of the country address this gun disease that we have.

But we can go further than that.

In your own life, reality often doesn’t match your beliefs. This is normal. And, just as the shocked onlooker to a tragedy needs an outside perspective to see the truth, you could probably use some help, too.

As the saying goes, it’s easy to solve everyone’s problems but your own.

Let’s use a more fun and slightly embarrassing example from my life to illustrate the point.

I’m trying to speed up my savings to buy a house. Of course, this entails taking a good, hard look at how I spend my money and finding opportunities to cut spending.

“I don’t spend that much on food,” I used to tell myself. “No need to cut any spending there.” But then I started actually keeping my grocery and restaurant receipts. Turns out, I spend tons of money on food!

Of course, I didn’t want to believe I did, so I continued to tell myself I “wasn’t that type of person.”

My reality and my emotions were completely misaligned. Now that they’re back on track, I’m saving quite a bit of money by spending consciously at the grocery store and not going out to eat so often.

The funny thing is, all my friends knew I spent a lot of money on food; and they’d always known it. They had the benefit of seeing me from a different perspective. They noticed when I came home with a bunch of expensive stuff from the grocery store, or when I opted to go out for lunch or dinner and not make my own.

These are things, of course, I could not see myself because it was completely normal to me. They were habits, and I saw nothing unusual about them.

It wasn’t until I started talking to a few of my closest friends that I realized I needed to take a look at my food budget.

The Five Closest Friends Rule

If you’re going to succeed at making important changes in your life, then you’re probably also going to need to be able to rely on a few people you can trust to tell you the truth when your perception of yourself and your reality do not match.

I call this the “Five Closest Friends Rule,” and the idea is to surround yourself with at least 5 people who all excel at something different that you’d like to excel at yourself.

Each of these people will be able to analyze the way you live your life and give you sound advice about how to improve yourself to become better at what they do that you admire.

Basically, when you’re stuck trying to figure out your own problem, they’ll help you bridge that cavernous “perception to reality gap” that we all have and keeps us perpetually confused about the right moves to make.

  • Want to exercise more and stop being lazy? You need a few friends who know you well enough—and also exercises—to tell you the habits they see that will help you actually do that successfully.
  • Want to excel at work or start your own side business? You need to find someone who’s already done that and can give it to you straight when you ask them what you need to do to have the same success.
  • Want to save more money? Make friends with a super frugal person. Take them out to lunch and ask them how they do it. The first thing they’ll say is, “I don’t go out to lunch.”
  • Want to learn an instrument? Find someone who’s already good at it to practice with. They’ll show you how the way you practice is holding you back from making more progress.

Find those five people you can count on to tell you the truth when your beliefs do not match your reality. You’ll be glad you did.

And while you’re at it, if you want to help educate people about mass gun violence, send this article to all your friends who live in small towns.

* Here’s the public Google Drive spreadsheet where the data for this article was collected.

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What smart people are saying about this...

  1. Wow – interesting data and conclusions. Good on you for taking the time to challenge common assertions, even if the results are a little scary.

    And although I can definitely relate to the impact of food spending on overall savings (can’t believe how much money my husband and I blow at the grocery store each week!), my focus right now is on challenging my previously-held notions of my productivity.

    I’m a business owner and a full-time employee with plenty of hobbies on the side – so on the surface, I tend to think of myself as a productive person. And yet, nobody who’s as productive as I think I am should be as up-to-date on celebrity gossip and fashion blogs as I am :)

    It’s definitely a challenge to root out the thoughts, behaviors and actions that are keeping me from getting as much done as I’d like, but I think it’s a worthwhile battle to fight!

    • Funny how that works, right? I find myself in the same boat from time to time. If I’m keeping myself so busy with work, how do I know all the jokes from the latest episode of The Office?

  2. I’m no statistics expert, so I may embarrass myself, but I think your approach is wrong.

    The key piece of information you left out is that there are a LOT more towns in that population range than large cities, so obviously you are going to get more of occurrences of(insert anything here). That doesn’t make it more likely to happen in any particular town in that population range.

    • Yes, you’re right that there are more small towns than there are big towns. So, you can’t directly compare one to the other with raw numbers.

      But the approach isn’t wrong. What I’m pointing out is that everyone thinks these things only happen in big cities where it’s supposedly less safe when, in fact, 90% of the time, school shootings happen in small towns.

      What I’m trying to point out is that there’s a misalignment in perception, and it’s making it harder to accurately solve the problem.

      • You’re approach while well meant is unfinished, your conclusion therefor unsubstantiated.

        If you don’t correct your data for the number of towns in a specific bracket, your data is is not only useless, but maybe even misleading.

        Until those numbers are taken into account all we know for sure is a case really bad statistics.

        Sleep on it. This post went online too early.

        • Da, the numbers aren’t hidden. Every piece of information I used for the article is in the Google Drive spreadsheet. Feel free to have a look at it.

          Numbers were based on incidents in the last 20 years.

          Maybe I’m thick. Why don’t you use the data to create your own conclusion and report back?

      • I`m with Mike M. and Da insofar that you, if you want to stress the importance of “doing the math” you gotta do it right ;). But the data may be interesting anyway, `cause it seems that there is just NOT a linear correlation like “more small towns = more shootings” – there are way more <10k cities than 10k-50k cities, for instance. It would be fascinating to dig a bit deeper into this stuff, with more powerful statistical tools and a bigger database, since I guess for some reasons there ARE qualitative (and not only quantitative) reasons for the 10k-50k peak. Maybe Stephen King wasn`t that wrong about cities of that scale… ;)

          • Honestly, I think the numbers are less relavent than the overall message. “These things” do happen “here.” It’s the same song every single time things like this happen. “It doesn’t happen here.” Maybe it just hasn’t happened before. Not to say it will, because it might not. But to think anyone is immune to such tragedies based solely on where they live is naive.

            I live in one of those small towns, and last summer a father murdered his three daughters by cutting their throats before he tucked them into bed. That type of thing has never happened here before, but I would never believe that because I live in a small community that it can’t, or won’t again.

            People are fucked up everywhere you go. Big city, small towns. Doesn’t matter. Crazy is still crazy. And shit happens. There is no insulation or protection from it.

            But I’m not sure your food habits are too relavent to the discussion. :p

  3. I had no idea how you were going to link the shooting stats with a way to change your habits at the beginning, but well done! Point well made on the 5 closest friends being able to see you in a different way than you see yourself. I bet if I poked around in analysis mode I could find friends who fit the slots of being ahead on the paths I’m heading down- thanks for the thoughtful post!

  4. wow! i love the amount of research you put in. a bit nerdy in a way but awesome! and you’re right.. a lot of things happen in smaller towns. another thing that interests or fascinates me is the nazi party and how that all went down. they actually believed that they were doing something good. i mean, to warp your actions into a world view where that becomes normal. it’s just fascinating how value judgments can change throughout periods of history.

    • Well Janet, I *am* a bit nerdy!

      The human mind is an incredibly powerful, yet vulnerable, tool that can be co-opted by others for good or evil.

      Little by little, though, we can swing the pendulum further the right way and keep it there.

  5. Hi Tyler,

    Is there any reason to believe that the size of the community has any *causal* relationship to the amount of school shootings? i.e. Do you believe that 90% of mass shootings would stop if we all moved to a large city? I find that hard to believe, so why comment on the relationship at all?

    To follow up on Mike M’s commentary, what are the numbers for *per capita* shootings from small communities vs. large? My guess is a higher per capita amount for a large community (as there are more people to randomly go on a killing spree), but I’m open to being wrong.

    • I don’t claim to be the be-all-end-all to this discussion, but I think the numbers presented kind of speak for themselves.

      In scenarios where more than 3 people were shot at a school, 90% of those incidents in the last 20 years happened in a town of 100k or less.

      If you see a better or different way to present the information, it’d be great to see it. Here’s a link (also in the article) to the data I collected if you’d like to use it:

      https://docs.google.com/a/brewpony.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0Ak860oabhVH1dDFIUlV4NjBOMGlJLTdwRnplbFNYYUE#gid=0

      Also, Carlos, my hunch is that because everyone associates gun violence with big cities, security is more lax in smaller communities where big, terrible things like this can happen more easily. Also, smaller communities tend to lack the mental health facilities and programs that are available in bigger cities to potentially aid these kinds of people before they act.

      • Spent some time to do a follow up. Thank you for posting your data set.

        It appears that 19 of the 300 shootings were in cities over 100k, while the other 32 were in cities under 100k. According to the internet there are ~25k US cities [1] and ~300 US cities with population over 100k. The shootings for large cities took place in 17 unique cities (two cities appeared twice). This means that 17/300 or ~6% of large cities have had a shooting. On the other hand, 32/25000 small cities have had a shooting or ~0.13%. Would you rather be in a random large city or a random small one now?

        If you look at just school shooting the numbers are 1/300 vs. 9/25000.

        So there you have it, most of the shootings happened in small cities and yet in the data set a shooting was more likely to happen in any given large city than any given small city because there are far more small cities and comparatively few large cities. You are correct to say that most shootings happen in small cities, but I think it is wrong to conclude that it is because the smallness of the city *causes* the shootings. *If anything*, the data suggests that smaller cities prevent shootings, which is why the ratio of small cities that have had a shooting is much smaller than the comparable ratio for large cities.

        [1] – ~25,000 US Cities
        http://answers.google.com/answers/threadview?id=509183
        [2] – ~300 US Cities with Population over 100k http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0108676.html

  6. Nice way to generate some discussion ;)

    The biggest flaw with trying to draw conclusions from that data is that you’re dealing with outliers, with statistical anomalies.

    People are right in thinking that “these things don’t happen here” because, overwhelmingly, they don’t and their truth generally does line up with reality.

    The United States has a population of over 315 million spread over 18,000 towns and cities. In the last 30 years, there have been around about 60 mass shootings.

    If that worked out to be one town per mass shooting, that means that less that 0.3% of towns have had a mass shooting.

    Sources:
    - http://answers.google.com/answers/threadview?id=509183
    - http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2012/12/14/1337221/a-timeline-of-mass-shootings-in-the-us-since-columbine/

    • Actually, you’re 3x more likely to die in a car crash than you are to live in a town where a mass shooting takes place.

      And you’re just about as likely to get shot yourself.

    • Orrin, I understand your argument, but I think you misunderstand mine. I’m not saying “these things happen all the time.” They are, in fact, quite rare.

      But when they do happen, WHERE do they happen? I think I present my point pretty clearly.

  7. Excellent Job Tyler, thanks for putting this together…something to be said for (re)aligning concept of living every day with the reality of every day life, something I struggle with (every day).

  8. Statistically, if the undisclosed research is accurate, then the implication that the third set of data is a product of the first two, is not impossible. The statement is made that the first two data sets result in the third, and are for populations 100k. This leads to a conclusion that the third set of data is also a separate set based on undisclosed research.

    Yet, if you look at what the first two data sets say, then 87% (or ~90%) of the school shootings that occur in a population of <100k will occur in a population <50k, which is a relevant conclusion given the hypothesis that the first two sets of data are accurate.

    In other words, if you live in a town of less than 100k but greater than 50k, then ~90% of the school shootings will occur in those smaller towns. My town is about 65k, so am I safe, no, my "small" town is part of a metropolitan area of over 2 Million, as is true for most of us.

    That said, the point made is interesting.

  9. I’d gone and typed out a big long comment – and internet connection issues wiped it all. Condensed version:

    Speaking as a psych nerd, to the angers of academia/statistics/science reporting going bonkers in the ‘public consumption’ realm, I can appreciate the dangers of misrepresentative stats in the hands & of the uncritical consumer (depending on the field of study, I’m as guilty as the next person…). I’ll save this conversation for another day.

    I will leave you with this book recommendation though, Tyler – I think you’ll enjoy it: “The Invisible Gorilla” – Simon & Chabris. If you make the time to read it, let me know what you think!

    ~ H

  10. I was wondering what you meant by “gun disease”. Did you mean guns are a disease or that the way some crazed people are using them on innocent people is the disease?

  11. I found this article when looking up information on “how to sell art” but here I am. I want to point out another extremely relevant item about mass shootings that is extremely under covered by the mass media: The powerful antipsychotic and antidepressant and anti-anxiety drugs that these killer are/were on. Many of these have warnings against side effects to include homicidal and suicidal ideations. It’s one thing to blame guns and remove access to guns, all a knee jerk reaction to the real problem. People are on drugs that make them crazy (i.e homicidal and suicidal). I would like to see these drugs banned, but they make WAY more money for the pharmaceutical industry as well as government and the lobbyists/consultants who push them. Thought? You may now go back to your regularly scheduled programming. Thanks for the article Tyler!

Founded with love by Tyler Tervooren

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