I’m in a state of shock. The recent mass shootings throughout the country have left me with a sense of fear and uncertainty. I am, however, unwilling to pretend that mass shootings are normal or that they are statistically rare. They are exceedingly common in the United States, when compared to other developed nations. The refrain that “the chances of this happening here are incredibly low” is profoundly selfish and assumes that personal safety is the only concern for individuals. Public safety, by contrast, assumes that I care about people I have not met. It assumes that I want them, the public, to be safe.
I take my cues from the President when addressing these issues:
So, we must talk about the problem. We must understand the problem. We must know that it is indeed a problem. Unfortunately, the problem is very large. There have been 1,052 mass shootings in 1,066 days in the US.
How can we help our students understand mass shootings? What tools are available for them to weed through the partisan handwringing and obstructionist punditry that occurs after each and every mass shooting?
Data can help. It can help us see the problem clearly. Knowledge is power, as the old adage goes. I would go even further: visualization is a political act. It tests our imagination. It begs that we visualize these events at a massive scale, and it demands that we envision a potential future. Understanding human actions in time allows us to envision what is beyond the chart.
I routinely ask my students to make visualizations for essays and digital projects. My students were ready to read the glut of visualizations being generated by the recent shootings. Primary data on mass shootings is available at the horrifyingly titled shootingtracker.com. You can easily download three years of mass shooting data in Comma Separated Values. Tools like Raw, by the Italian design firm Density Design, allow anyone to work with the data. Working with the data, I want to argue, will help us understand it. It will help us work through this problem. We can feel our way through the data statistically, psychologically, and emotionally. Raw is appropriately titled I think.
When you open Raw, you are presented with a simple interface.
The scatterplot Raw can generate about the mass shootings in 2015 is illuminating. The sheer scale of the problem is not apparent until you try to read the locations throughout the black of overlapping text.
Not that we can really understand much of anything. This chart is telling me that there are too many shootings without telling much about the data at all. The failure of the chart reflects the failure of our society to curb gun violence. It visualizes the underreported mass shootings that barely register above the noise of day to day news. San Bernardino, CA is clear. Roseburg, OR is an outlier. Wait, when did nine people die in Waco? I don’t remember the New York Times reporting on this. What about the masses of shootings that only had 4 or 5 fatalities? It takes 2500 more pixels to answer this question.
The casual way we scroll through this long visualization is a symptom of the casual way we cope with these events. In silence, eyes glazed. Unable to read all the names. The names of cities that mask the names of the dead. Places become placeholders for the uncomfortable accounting of human life.
There are things we can do. The American Psychological Association has resources for us. The American Public Health Association also lists five steps to curbing the largest preventable cause of death in the US. We can educate ourselves and understand the statistics. We can learn to help those in crisis. We can talk openly about this shameful state of affairs. Let’s just avoid silence.