A Modest Proposal for Reducing Rampage Shootings #4

This will be the fourth and final entry in this series, as it appears that the news cycle is already starting to move off of mass violence and back to the other components of modern American interest, such as the activities of the Kardashians and whatever Trump tweeted about today. I’ve written other proposals here, here, and here if you’d like to take a look, and this time I’ll be discussing one final option for reducing the incidence of mass shootings: reduce the attention given to the perpetrator.

The psychology of rampage shooters is fairly complex, from all accounts, but it seems to boil down to a few core motivations: revenge, empowerment, and recognition. Let’s focus on the last two elements for a moment. Mass shooters tend to be relatively young men. They tend to be loners, or become loners, and they tend to be distanced from their peers. As a result, they often seem to crave validation or recognition.

We could talk all day about why that’s the case, and whether it’s the parents fault, and what we could do in schools to identify and correct antisocial behavior before it hits this point. But frankly there just might be a simpler solution (at least for the rampage problem). Whenever there is a school shooting, or other rampage violence, the media swarms over the story and dissects the shooter’s life in close detail. They work night and day to uncover what went wrong, why the shooter did it, and what their motivation might have been.

Now, people (and particularly teenagers) tend to crave attention at the best of times. This level of attention must be like catnip to the type of person who perpetrates a mass shooting. We know for a fact that these shooters don’t seem to care whether they live or die — it’s the statement they’re making that matters. And statements can only get made if someone pays attention. Otherwise it’s just the same old thing for these people— they do a thing, and no one cares.

So, let’s tackle rampage shootings at the source, at the motivating principle: let’s deny the perpetrators the attention they crave. I think we can do this with the following points:

  • A blanket ban on publication of the shooter’s name.
  • A six-month ban on publication of the shooter’s motivations.
  • A blanket ban on any sympathetic descriptors of the shooter (i.e., “he was troubled”).

These elements should combine to remove most of the positive motivations from rampage shootings. The shooter’s name will never be known, which reduces their motivation from the recognition perspective. Their motivations will not be known for months, which takes them outside the normal news cycle (while still making them available for later research), thus reducing the motivation from the empowerment perspective. And they will know that no one will ever provide a sympathetic look at their situation in the media, thus reducing the motivation from both angles.

We could also go a step further by providing news outlets with a script of acceptably negative phrases to describe school shooters during initial coverage — words and sentences that adequately vilify their actions without offering praise from any angle. For example, one could promote the use of words like “cowardly” and “foolish” to describe the shooter, and avoid potentially empowering phrases like “destruction” or “wanton violence,” which might actually be attractive to individuals of the rampage shooter mindset.

The goal here is to stop casting shooters as people. A person can be empathized with, understood, idealized. These shooters should instead be treated as pond scum — the lowest of the low, abjured and exiled from even common recognition, worthy of nothing. It’s tough to really get into a state where you want to be pond scum… even if you are a suicidal maniac.

In sum, coverage of a rampage event should adhere to the following points:

  • Never give the shooter credit by name.
  • Never make the shooter sympathetic.
  • Never praise the shooter by emphasizing their violence, and particularly avoid hyperbolic statements concerning their actions.
  • Always denigrate the shooter.

In this model, the ideal coverage of a rampage event would read as follows:

“There has been a shooting at insert location. This was a cowardly act committed by an obviously moronic individual. The police are on scene and in control of the investigation, and further details can be found on the following website insert link, which will provide a list of the victims and support resources for affected individuals.” END.

Legislate it, give the oversight authority to the FCC, and have them police this issue the same way they’ve done such a wonderful job at saving us all from the dangers of curse words for so many years. I should also note that these restrictions would apply only to news outlets; you can’t police the whole internet, and we shouldn’t restrict information from researchers who are trying to better understand these events.

And as always, to forestall the inevitable protest that this proposal would violate the 1st Amendment… freedom of speech has always been a secondary concern to safety. This is a loathsome truth, but there are tons of legal precedents, and words have power. At least I’m not proposing the Sedition Act again, is all I can say.

As with other modest proposals, I suggest we try this for ten years. I wouldn’t expect this plan to result in an immediate drop in rampage incidents — it would have to have time to sink into the cultural consciousness that rampage shooters simply aren’t going to receive attention before it has a chance of working. And it won’t completely eliminate rampage violence; people with a revenge motive won’t be deterred at all, and people with smaller-scale motivations for empowerment and recognition won’t care about media coverage. But after ten years, if there is a significant drop in rampage violence, maybe we keep these restrictions in place.

This concludes my Modest Proposals. If any of these seemed like they were totally off-the-wall or hyperbolic, well… they were meant to be. There’s a fine, long tradition of modest proposals, after all. My point is not to suggest real answers, although perhaps one or two of the ideas presented here might be real answers. Instead, I was and am simply trying to call attention to the inherent ridiculousness of America’s current attitudes towards firearms and our total lack of action to address rampage violence.

If anything I’ve said here has offended, you have my apologies. In my view, we should all be offended. We are failing to adapt to this problem, and it reflects poorly on the democracy. But that doesn’t mean that there are no solutions, and it doesn’t mean we should stop trying to find them. The only way this stops is if something changes; the rampage djinn is out of its bottle. We’re not going to stuff it back in. But maybe we can find a different bottle.