The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Mass shooting hysteria and the death of John Crawford

The video below shows the last moments of John Crawford, the Ohio man shot and killed by police in a Wal-Mart last month while he was holding an air rifle. (Editor’s note: The video may be unpleasant for some readers.) 

On Aug. 5, police responded to a 911 call about an armed man walking through a Walmart outside Dayton, Ohio. (Video: Ohio Attorney General's Office)

The video is obviously disturbing, and also casts a lot of doubt on the police version of events. The police have said they shot Crawford only after repeated demands that he drop the rifle. The video strongly suggests that they shot him almost immediately after encountering him. The video also doesn’t show Crawford pointing the gun at anyone. Witness Ronald Ritchie told a 911 dispatcher that Crawford was pointing the gun at children, a claim he repeated to the media. Earlier this month Ritchie changed his story, apparently after viewing the surveillance video above.

More importantly, the video makes clear that Crawford never pointed the gun at police, and strongly suggests they never gave him an opportunity to drop it. The video is also consistent with the story from LeeCee Johnson, the mother of Crawford’s two kids, who was on the phone with him at the time he was shot:

We was just talking. He said he was at the video games playing videos and he went over there by the toy section where the toy guns were. And the next thing I know, he said ‘It’s not real,’ and the police start shooting and they said ‘Get on the ground,’ but he was already on the ground because they had shot him.

Yes, Crawford’s behavior seems a little odd, although we really don’t know why he was carrying the rifle around. Perhaps he was thinking about buying it for his kids. In any case, the penalty for odd behavior isn’t execution.

There are some obvious questions here about police training, most importantly why they fired so quickly and made no attempt at de-escalation. If they had, it seems pretty clear that Crawford would have dropped the gun and would still be alive today. It’s hard to believe that a father of two knowingly provoked police with a pellet rifle. That Crawford was black and the police officers who shot him are white (as is Ritchie) also raises the usual questions about racial bias, both in policing and in our perceptions of criminality.

But the case also raises some important questions about the consequences of how we cover mass shootings. This week, the FBI released a report that claimed to show a significant increase in “active shooter” incidents over the last 10 years. The report did not claim to show an increase in mass shooting incidents. Yet that’s how it was widely reported. Over at Reason, Jesse Walker consulted two academics who study mass shootings, Grant Duwe at the Minnesota Department of Corrections, and James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University.  Both say the FBI report is a helpful contribution to the discussion, but also insist that it does not show what the media claim it shows.

Public discussion of mass shootings is of course usually draped in the gun-control debate, for obvious reasons. It also inevitably leads to discussions of what cultural factors maybe be causing the alleged increase in mass shootings — identified culprits include video games, violence on TV or in the movies, and the quality of our mental health system, among others — and how to protect against them. That inevitably leads to calls for gun control, but also prescriptions from the right for armed guards in schools, laxer gun laws to allow citizens to fight back, and so on.

But not only is there little evidence that mass shootings are on the rise, they’re also extremely rare, to the point where it may be unreasonable to think they can be prevented with changes in public policy — as Fox and Monica J. DeLateur concluded in their report on the Newtown massacre in the journal Homicide Studies. Of course, it’s difficult to point this out without being seen as callous, indifferent to those affected by these incidents, or shilling for the gun lobby, particularly after a mass shooting. Some of these policies may well be good ideas in and of themselves, but if there’s no evidence mass shootings are on the rise, and there’s no evidence that these policies will reduce them, arguing for them in the context of mass shootings becomes little more than a cynical appeal to emotion.

But there may be unintended consequences to our oversaturated coverage of mass shootings and the widespread belief that they’re increasing, even if neither produces a single new law. In 2010, there was an incident at a Las Vegas-area Costco that bears a striking resemblance to what happened in Ohio. Police gunned down Eric Scott, 38, outside the store after employees complained about the gun he was (legally) carrying. (Though the Costco had a surveillance system, the store claimed that the cameras mysteriously malfunctioned at the time of the shooting.) Scott was a West Point graduate with no criminal record. His family says he may have been agitated when hassled about a gun he was legally permitted to carry, but like Crawford’s family, they find it hard to believe that a guy with no criminal history or emotional problems would have intentionally provoked the police into shooting him.

It isn’t difficult to see how the misconception that mass shootings are becoming ubiquitous might make us see threats and potential mass killers instead of, say, a guy checking out a pellet gun, or a Costco shopper with a legal sidearm. And it isn’t difficult to see how a frightened witness might even exaggerate what he saw to get the police to take him seriously. Last month, the California State University San Marcos campus was put on lockdown and a SWAT team was sent in after someone mistook a staff member carrying an umbrella for a mass shooter. Umbrellas have caused similar lockdowns in Issaquah, Wash.Fort Washington, Pa.; and Akron, Ohio.We’ve seen other recent lockdowns after cellphones (again here, here, and here), camera tripods (again here), a silver watch, and a folded-up apron were all mistaken for guns; an arm cut was mistaken for a bullet wound; an exploding basketball was mistaken for a gunshot; surveyors and an unarmed jogger were mistaken for gunmen; other various “mistaken identity” errors; and when someone misheard the lyrics to the theme song from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”(Yes, really.)

Perhaps these incidents can all be dismissed as a “better safe than sorry” approach. But the consequences get more serious when you start to think about the impact false perceptions about mass shootings might have on police officers. In the debate over police militarization, law enforcement officials and defenders of militarized cops frequently cite mass shooting incidents, particularly school shootings, as a big reason why cops need big guns, armored vehicles, and other battle gear. In truth, as University of Virginia sociologist and school violence scholar Dewey Cornell has pointed out, the average campus can expect to see a homicide about once every several thousand years. But it’s clear that much of the law enforcement community believes that it’s only a matter of time before a mass shooting incident comes to every community in America. And it seems reasonable to ask if those fears may be affecting the way police respond to incidents like those in Las Vegas and Beavercreek.