Shootings: storms amid the calm

Another mass shooting, this time in L.A., challenges Americans' senseof security - even as crime declines.

Once again the peace of a normal place has been shattered by a gunman - inexplicably or, perhaps tragically, explicably.

First it was a Colorado school named for a woodland flower, the columbine. Then it was Atlanta offices where the eager pursue riches through day-trading stock. Now it's a Jewish community center in Los Angeles, where youngsters splash in the pool and the elderly come for card games.

Overall, national gun violence is decreasing. There are fewer guns in schools, workplace violence is down, homicides dropped 8 percent in recent FBI annual figures.

But the nation's sense of security is still being rocked by the disheartening string of mass public shootings.

Breathless media coverage of these disasters surely feeds the anxiety. Still, the shootings seem linked by a new phenomenon - the shooters' disturbing, mysterious fury.

Their hatred is such that perhaps Americans fear it reflects a profound defect within the culture. "The chilling conclusion is that hatred is pervasive and that those who hate are increasingly ready to kill," says Phil Baum, American Jewish Congress executive director. "Until this stops, it remains a distressing commentary on the soul of America."

Tuesday's crisis at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles was the 10th major multiple shooting in the United States this year, according to an Associated Press count.

Within the past four weeks alone, frustrated investor Mark Barton killed nine people at brokerages in Atlanta before taking his own life. Alan Eugene Miller committed three murders at former workplaces in Alabama.

At time of writing, the suspect in Tuesday's community center attack, named by law-enforcement authorities as Buford Furrow, remained at large. Police said Mr. Furrow had no known links to the center, and declined to say whether they felt it was targeted because it was Jewish.

But news reports indicate that a book written by the American Nazi Party was found in Furrow's abandoned van. Furrow had a close relationship with the widow of the founder of a hate group called The Order, according to reports. There were some indications the couple had married.

Given the nature of the attack - the suspect strode into the center and squeezed off more than 70 rounds from an assault weapon before fleeing into the streets of Los Angeles - its toll could have been worse than it was. But the bullets struck the nation's sense of protection, as well as human targets.

Is anyplace safe anymore?

Strictly speaking, yes, say experts. Fear engendered by mass shootings does not reflect a number of positive trends. Students are sneaking fewer guns into school. The Department of Education released a study on Tuesday which found that firearms-related expulsions dropped from 5,724 in the 1996-'97 school year to 3,930 in 1997-'98.

The number of work-related murders dropped 7 percent in 1997, the latest year for which full figures are available. Preliminary FBI figures show that, overall, US homicides dropped 8 percent from 1997 to 1998.

The gap between people's perception of safety and the reality is "the Grand Canyon," says media critic Michael Medved. "It's the widest possible difference.... There is every indication that what happened Tuesday is not a national crisis."

Still, there are indications that the number of multiple-victim shootings, particularly those driven by unfocused rage, are on the increase. The sheer scale of the disaster at Littleton, Colo.'s Columbine High, for instance, was unprecedented. "So you have these horrendous schoolyard shootings ... bucking the general trend," says Tom Smith, a pollster at the University of Chicago.

News coverage makes such shootings seem even more prevalent than they are, notes Mr. Smith. In the wake of Littleton, every mass shooting now receives saturation coverage.

That alone has the potential to increase national fear - the same way close coverage of airline problems in the wake of a major crash drives fear of air travel.

"You have a significant exposure, almost overexposure, to acts of violence and it may have no impact on you 3,000 miles away, but it does have an impact on your psyche," says William Bratton, ex-police commissioner in Boston and New York.

It's ironic that within several days of Tuesday's incident, a number of studies saying violence is down in schools and in the workplace have been released, says Mr. Bratton.

He sees the common element being the prevalence of guns, and lack of a comprehensive national plan to control them.

"Until we have that, we are going to see the potential for these acts of random violence," he says.

A safer America

The mass shootings of '99 notwithstanding, people are safer, in fact, at work, at school, and at home.

*Violent crime dropped 7 percent last year to its lowest level in decades. Nonfatal violent crime has not been so low since the US began tracking the data in 1973. Murders were down about 8 percent.

*Between 1993 and 1998, rates for violent crime plummeted 27 percent.

*Work-related murders were down 7 percent (to 856) in 1997 from the year before.

*Fewer weapons are being brought to school. The number of students expelled for toting weapons on campus dropped by nearly one-third during the 1997-98 school year. Across the US, 3,930 students were expelled for gun violations, down from 5,724 weapons-related expulsions in 1996-97.

*Crime at schools has declined. In 1993 there were 164 crimes for every 1,000 students ages 12 to 18, compared with about 128 per 1,000 in 1996.

*Even on the roads people are safer. The fatality rate per miles driven has steadily declined, and 42,000 people died in traffic crashes in 1997, an 18 percent drop from 1980.

SOURCE: US Department of Justice, Bureau of Labor Statistics; Department of Education; National Highway Safety Administration

*Staff writers Mark Sappenfield, Kris Axtman, Yvonne Zipp, Stacy A. Teicher, and Alexandra Marks contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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