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A new TV ad sponsored by the group Sandy Hook Promise depicts school shootings as a quotidian reality for children and teenagers in the United States, an ever-present threat that must be addressed through careful preparation and constant vigilance. The spot is emotionally compelling but highly misleading given the rarity of such incidents, inflating a tiny risk in a way that fosters unjustified anxiety, which tends to result in misguided policies and wasted resources.
The ad begins with a student at his locker, bragging about the backpack his mother bought him for the new school year. It continues with other students showing off their new purchases, which they use to deal with a mass shooter who is attacking their school: Sneakers come in handy as a student runs from the sound of gunfire, a jacket is used to tie closed a pair of doors to keep the shooter at bay, a skateboard is used to break a window so students can escape, a pair of scissors becomes a defensive weapon, a knee sock becomes a tourniquet for a wounded girl, and a crying girl hiding in a bathroom uses her new cellphone to text what may be her last words to her mother. "It's back to school time," says the closing caption, "and you know what that means. School shootings are preventable when you know the signs."
School shootings, like airplane crashes and terrorist attacks, are dramatic and horrifying events that get a lot of attention precisely because they are unusual. FactCheck.org counted 64 deaths from school shootings between the Sandy Hook massacre in December 2012 and the end of 2018. That number includes "students who died after being shot on school grounds, during school hours or after being shot on college campuses—or at student housing—where they were enrolled for classes." The total amounts to about 11 deaths per year, including college students as well as minors.
School shooting fatalities represent an infinitesimal share of all firearm-related deaths among minors (3,143 in 2017), which mostly involve homicides committed away from school and suicides. Car crashes killed more than 4,000 minors in 2017, while 1,430 died from suffocation, nearly 1,000 drowned, a similar number succumbed to drug poisoning, and 340 died from fire or burns. In other words, children and teenagers are about 370 times as likely to die in traffic accidents and about 90 times as likely to die from drowning as they are to be killed in a school shooting. Lightning strikes kill more than twice as many people each year.
Fatalities aside, school shootings are extremely rare events. From April 1999 through May 2019, according to a Guns & America tally, there were 68 K–12 school shootings in the United States, including every instance where "a gun is brandished, is fired, or a bullet hits school property for any reason, regardless of the number of victims, time of day, or day of week." Even using that broad definition, there were about three school shootings a year. In 2018, the year with the most gun-related incidents at K–12 schools during this period, there were nine.
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