This is what Bryce Williams wrote in his manifesto today about Seung Hui Chon, the Virginia Tech shooter. Mr. Williams also referenced the Charleston and Columbine shootings as inspiration admitting he purchased a gun two days after Charleston because he was a “human powder keg just waiting to go BOOM!” Obviously Mr. Williams was mentally ill and joins the tens of thousands of shooters here in America struggling with mental illness, whether diagnosed or undiagnosed, who can easily purchase a gun. In retrospect, Sandy Hook marked the end of the U.S. gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over. Is that true? I really hope not.
Today’s shooting wasn’t a mass shooting. It’s one person shy of meeting the definition of four people shot in one incident. However, it’s highly sensationalist and was carefully planned to reach the masses via traditional and the virality of social media. Mr. Williams wanted to join the ranks of other mass shooter celebrities. Celebrities given celebrity status by the media. Zeynep Tufecki wrote an article in The Atlantic a few years ago stating:
“As a sociologist, I am increasingly concerned that the tornado of media coverage that swirls around each such mass killing, and the acute interest in the identity and characteristics of the shooter – as well as the detailed and sensationalist reporting of the killer’s steps just before and during the shootings – may be creating a vicious cycle of copycat effects similar to those found in teen and other suicides.”
In the 1980s, after a wave of high profile teen suicides, the CDC published recommendations for how the media should cover suicides. Miraculously, the media has largely obliged out of respect for the contagiousness of suicide. Will they do that in 2015? I highly doubt it, not after the invention of the 24 hour news cycle.
A few months ago, after being held in political limbo for over a year by the NRA’s lobbying due to his gun control comments, Vivek Murthy was sworn in as our nation’s Surgeon General. He should commission the CDC to write media recommendations addressing how our media covers contagious mass shootings. That should be his number one priority.
In the meantime, it’s day 238 of the year 2015. We’ve had 247 mass shootings. They are contagious. We can do things to make them stop. We should start with raising awareness that this is a public health crisis similar to suicide and seat belts and I applaud Dr. Murthy for taking the political plunge to do so.