When two students shot up Columbine High School on a sunny Tuesday in 1999, it felt like an earthquake. There had been school shootings before in the country, including at least six the previous year. But this was the deadliest on record, with 13 people killed, and — perhaps more important psychologically — millions of people across the United States watched it happen on live television. Though it took place in a small town in Colorado, it was experienced as a national calamity.
To this day, Columbine endures as an emblem of random, senseless murder. But as of this week, it is no longer one of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in postwar America. When it happened, Columbine was the nation’s fifth-deadliest mass shooting since World War II, surpassed only by attacks at a Luby’s restaurant in Killeen, Tex., in 1991 (23 deaths); at a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, Calif., in 1984 (21); at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966 (15); and at a post office in Edmond, Okla., in 1986 (14).
Yet today, not one of those shootings is among the five deadliest. That category, which previously covered more than 30 years, is now occupied entirely by shootings from the past decade — all but one from the past five years. Fifty-eight people were killed in the Las Vegas shooting. The Orlando nightclub shooting last year, 49. The 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, 32. The 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, 27. As of Sunday, the fifth-deadliest mass shooting since World War II is the attack on a Baptist church in tiny Sutherland Springs, Tex., which killed 26 people. Columbine was the first mass shooting in nearly eight years that killed 10 or more people — and after 1999, seven years would pass without one. Today, such gaps are unthinkable. Five of the past six years have included at least one shooting with 10 or more casualties.
The American Psychological Association’s 2017 “Stress in America” survey found that “violence and crime” was one of the five most common sources of stress in the United States. And people interviewed after mass shootings frequently express a sense that nowhere is safe anymore: not school, not work, not church, not clubs, not concerts, not movie theaters or malls or Walmarts. But amid the horror and fear, a central emotion seen after Columbine seems to be missing: surprise.
Arthur Evans, chief executive of the American Psychological Association, emphasized that there was no scientific literature on whether public attitudes and reactions to mass shootings had changed. But “anecdotally,” he said, “it appears that the public is reacting differently than we did when the events first started happening.” At some point, “How could this happen?” gave way to “Here we go again.” The mood is seen in interviews and even in satire: The Onion has published the same article, headlined “‘No Way to Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens,” after six mass shootings.
This is not surprising, Dr. Evans said, given what scientists know about how we react to repeated stimuli. Studies have shown that when people are exposed to continuous light or sound, “they become less sensitive to that stimuli,” he said. “It would be expected that if people are exposed to these kinds of events in the news all the time, that they’re going to be less reactive. That wouldn’t be surprising at all.”
In April 2009, almost exactly 10 years after Columbine, a shooting at an immigrant center in Binghamton, N.Y., killed the same number of people: 13. It came on the heels of a shooting rampage that killed 10 people in rural Alabama in March. But unlike Columbine, it was followed seven months later by yet another mass shooting: this one at Fort Hood, Tex., where a gunman again killed 13 people. And the next eight years brought at least seven shootings with similar or greater death tolls. Today, the shootings in Binghamton and Alabama are rarely mentioned.