Spokane Shouldn't Be the Only Place Scared of the Next Mass Shooting

People of Spokane: It was not our intention to have you think there would actually be a mass killing in your city next year. You should not be any more alarmed at the prospect of being gunned down than any other American — which was our point.

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People of Spokane (and the surrounding area):

Our apologies. It was not our intention to frighten you. Or, rather, it was not our intention to frighten just you. Despite what we wrote yesterday, there almost certainly will not be a mass killing in your city on February 12 of next year. But anyone with a passing knowledge of the recent history of gun violence in America should know by now that there will be another mass killing, somewhere, and soon. Residents of Spokane need not be any more alarmed at the prospect of being gunned down while shopping or eating at a restaurant or at their school or workplace than any other American. We apologize if you were frightened, but your reaction really raises another question: Why doesn't the rest of America share your (and our) fears about the statistical certainty of another mass shooting?

Granted, our description of such an attack was strong and detailed to drive that point home, as it appeared in this article. "The next mass shooting will take place on February 12, 2014, in Spokane, Washington," we wrote, not qualifying that statement until two sentences later. "Every assertion in the first paragraph is a function of probability, not fact," we went on. "The next mass shooting — which will happen somewhere, sometime — will almost certainly not be in that place at that time." The "almost certainly" was perhaps not a strong enough hedge. It won't.

There's a reason we included that specificity. In the past tense, mass shootings are defined and relatable — envisioning children dying in rooms decorated with gold stars and crayon drawings is terrifying. The uncertainty of who and where the next mass shooting will take place should not blind us to the collective horror we will share, but it does. So, we tried to move the idea of the next mass shooting from the abstract realm of a-thing-that-will-happen to the concrete realm of recognizability based on what's happened in the past: a white man, someone around 38 years old — you may work with one.

Residents and local media and law enforcement have been quick to recoil at the possibility of that scenario as reality, rather than the illustration that was intended. When asked by local media outlets enthusiastic about the article, the FBI called it "without merit" and taking the idea of predicting shooting sprees "into the theater of the absurd." Which is itself an interesting idea: that it is a loose extrapolation of data points that makes the murder of a dozen people absurd.

We pretend these things are weird, one-off events. We are shocked. Then we mourn. Then we subject the killer to a own psychological autopsy, with the results distributed among interest groups for their press releases. And then we let the thought of them recede. Tucson was an isolated incident. Aurora was an isolated incident. Sandy Hook was an isolated incident. The D.C. Navy Yard was an isolated incident. We can breathe with relief that those weird things didn't happen here. Until they do.

That's why the point was never Spokane specifically, any more than it was Washington state or February 12th or the semi-automatic weapon. The point was to make the idea of the inevitable next killing spree tangible, to present a plausible scenario outlining what it might look like based on the weighty body of existing data. Clearly, it had that effect.

The next mass killing could be carried out next week by an Asian woman in a small town in the Midwest using an AK-47. It could be a kid at school in Brooklyn next May using his grandfather's Glock. If we knew these details with certainty, you would also expect everyone from law enforcement to politicians to media to citizens to do everything in their power to prevent the next mass shooting. Spokane's reaction to yesterday's story proves that.

But there are two things we can say with certainty if we react to the Navy Yard shooting the same way as the 60-plus other mass shootings since 1982. There will be another shooting. And there will be nothing done to prevent it in the 149 days until the historical average says it will happen.

We'd like to address two specific concerns that were raised in response to our piece.

1. A number of people suggested over email and in the comments that by suggesting an attack on February 12 in Spokane, we made it more likely, that some unstable person might read the piece and decide to make it a reality. We'd offer that if Spokane has someone emotionally disturbed enough to go on a killing spree over a blog post, that's a broader issue of concern. But it also reinforces how we consider these attacks: utterly incomprehensible bolts of lightning with little forewarning. That is not the case.

2. One commenter made an argument that came up multiple times: "The author should have noted that Spokane already had a mass-shooting at Fairchild AFB in 1994, where 5 people were killed and 22 were injured. Statistically, a repeat of such an event is less likely and should have affected the calculations." Actually, statistically that doesn't matter at all, as another commenter replied. "A common fallacy. If you've flipped 10 heads in a row, the probability of heads on the next throw is still 1/2. The probability of Spokane having a mass shooting next year is the same as if nothing had happened in 1994." If every municipality had a quota of one mass killing and that was it, that would be both helpful to law enforcement and an assurance to Spokane. But that's not how probability works.

Look, the mass murder of people using firearms is an almost uniquely American phenomenon. Far fewer people die in such incidents than in even more run-of-the-mill street crime or acts of passion. Slate's on-going tally of gun-related deaths (itself controversial) describes that steady flow of blood. While 12 people were killed at the D.C. Navy Yard on Monday, an additional 28 Americans have been killed with guns since.

But these mass killings play an outsized role in our culture, as acts of terror tend to do. Whether or not it is the case, these acts seem more preventable than everyday murders, in part because we can better define the parameters under which they occur. Like the demographics and frequency and circumstances that arise with regularity.

Spokane, you're not in any more danger next February 12 than we are here in Manhattan or the people who work at the D.C. Navy Yard or people in Cleveland or Tulsa or Fresno or Augusta or Perth Amboy. Which is to say: we are all in danger. A mass killing can apparently erupt anywhere at any time, armed guards or no, relation to the killer or not. It can be committed by anyone or race using any sort of firearm. That and gender are the two most consistent things. Men with guns.

Our goal in Tuesday's article was to make the nebulous prospect of a the next "random" attack seem real. We did, so much so that people pushed to demand that the government assure them that it wasn't. Unfortunately, the way such events occur, any assurance that a mass killing won't happen in a particular place is only slightly more statistically trustworthy.

We can pretend that mass killings are patternless and unpreventable. We can accept that these killings are just a cost of living in America in the 21st century. Or we can try to figure out the pattern and try to break it.

Photo: Police respond to a standoff with an armed high school student in Spokane in 2003. (AP)

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.