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.
- The largest city where a mass shooting took place in the last 20 years was San Francisco, population 813,000.
- 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.
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.