Malcolm Gladwell being sloppy and school shootings

I’m just now getting through The Tipping Point. A lot of it felt poorly researched- Kitty Genovese and Broken Windows and the fashion industry’s Just So stories represented too uncritically for me. Not that I think these stories have no merit, but before you draw conclusions I want to see them questioned. Then, in an afterword to the book, he talked about the Columbine shooting starting an epidemic. That was where I got annoyed.

In 1998 I was teaching part time at a Jr. High/Highschool in Oregon City, Oregon. On May 20th we got the news of a school shooting in nearby Springfield. It was the fifth school shooting since I’d starting teaching, but the only that close to me. It all hit much harder than I expected. The kids were fine, it was as random and distant to them as all the other school shootings. The fact that it was so normal to them was what made me finally unable to handle the situation. My principle saw my condition and told me to take the day off. Columbine, almost a year away, would be the next shooting.

If it was already so normal the year before Columbine, how did Columbine start the trend? In fact, it seems to have kicked off a period with fewer actual school shooting. It wasn’t until the 2006/2007 school year that we would see as many shooting as the 1997/1998 year that I taught.

Then comes the interesting aberration. 2008 (the year, not the school year) saw nine shootings. That’s a notable and horrible spike. Is that how long it’s taken the media’s over coverage of Columbine to hit? Is it related to the recession? Foreclosures? Neither the 97/98 nor the 06/07 spikes were times of financial stress. It drops off to a normal level come 2009, though I suppose we could have a sudden burst in September.

So if Gladwell is pulling the Columbine connection out of thin air, what is really going on? And what started in the 60s and 70s to set the whole phenomena going, both here and around the world? There wasn’t a precipitous rise in gun access, that’s for sure. What makes school shootings jump or settle down?

I have no idea. But I can promise the answer is complex. I find these questions far more interesting, and too hard for the quick answers Gladwell seemed to settle for in this book. I guess the problem with something like The Tipping Point is that how these things happen is actually an ecological question, but ecological contexts are highly complex- there are no simple answers, no generalizable useful truths one can fit into a short book. Anything you can say needs a caveat about probably being wrong.