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The Briefing: Some perspective amid the carnage

WASHINGTON – So many of us have walked down Yonge Street.

So many of us have ended long nights of partying seeking a dose of recovery in a diner like the Waffle House.

And so many of us have shuddered over the horrors of the past few days, which seems, to some degree, to be an ultra-concentrated version of the horrors of the past few years.

As always, then, some perspective is in order – and it's hard to find.

“There is little good research on what are probably a host of problems contributing to mass violence,” criminologist Grant Duwe, of the Minnesota Department of Corrections, told Science News earlier this month.

Duwe ought to know. He's been studying mass killings for more than two decades.

Still, a cursory review of the research and journalism stemming from mass killings yields some conclusions.

Mental health matters. A mentally fit person does not walk into a Waffle House restaurant wearing nothing but a green jacket and then shoot four people to death with an AR-15. A mentally fit person does not drive a van into a crowd on Toronto's most famous street, killing 10 people, and then plead with police to shoot him in the head.

Despite these obvious facts, some experts have downplayed the connection between mental illness and mass violence, fearing that stressing that connection could stigmatize the mentally ill.

Still, research backs up the anecdotal evidence that mental illness often underlies mass murder.

"At least 59 percent of the 185 public mass shootings that took place in the United States from 1900 through 2017 were carried out by people who had either been diagnosed with a mental disorder or demonstrated signs of serious mental illness prior to the attack," Duwe and his colleague Michael Rocque, a sociologist at Bates College, found in their study of such incidents.

The researchers found a slight uptick in mass shootings in the U.S. in recent years – and it occurred as the number of people in in-patient psychiatric care has plummeted, Dr. Torrey E. Fuller, a psychiatrist with the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, found.

Fuller also noted that research has shown that people with violent tendencies tend to get less violent if they get treatment – but you have to wonder if some potentially violent people are getting the treatment they need. After all, the number of in-patient psychiatric beds in America plummeted from 558,000 in 1955 to less than 45,000 in this decade.

More guns = more mass murder. The public discussion of every mass shooting tends to be all about guns and only guns. And while it's clear that other issues are at play, you can't dismiss the high rate of gun ownership in America when you think about our similarly high rate of mass killings.

The U.S. had more mass shootings and more mass shooting deaths than 10 other advanced nations combined between 2000 and 2014, Jaclyn Schildkraut of SUNY Oswego and H. Jaymi Elsass of Texas State University found.

Can it really be a coincidence that the United States has the world's highest rate of gun ownership, which is nearly twice the rate of any other advanced nation? Researchers don't think so. In fact, academics at the Harvard Injury Control Center, Boston University and the University of Washington have all found a connection between gun ownership rates and gun violence.

But it's not just guns. The incident in Toronto proves, though, that there is something deeper going on that seems to be prompting troubled souls to kill in large numbers – not just in the U.S., and not just with guns.

The vehicle attack in Toronto is at least the 12th such attack worldwide in recent years, according to a CNN compliation.

So vehicle attacks seem to be a trend, just like mass shootings. What they seem to have in common is that one mass murderer appears to inspire others.

“When you look at these collective events over a long period of time, what you see as a hallmark of contagion is these things bunching together unusually in time," Sherry Towers, lead author of a study on the issue, told The Atlantic.

That being the case, two other researchers – Adam Lankford of the University of Alabama and Eric Madfis of the University of Washington – argue that the media should not be spreading the contagion. Their article on the topic is called: "Don’t Name Them, Don’t Show Them, But Report Everything Else."

The reasoning for their proposal is simple: "Prior research has shown that many mass shooters have explicitly admitted they want fame and have directly reached out to media organizations to get it."

Of course, the public has the right to know who mass murderers are, but we can adopt the Lankford-Madfis proposal to some degree. We can avoid repeating the names of mass murders again and again when it's not necessary, which is what is being done here.

You're probably not in danger. It's natural to watch the news and feel a jolt of anxiety throughout your body.

But that's an emotional reaction. It's far better to assess the odds and go on with your life. And the odds are in your favor.

Even with a recent uptick, the overall murder rate in the U.S. is now about half of what it was at its peak in 1980.

Moreover, "the lifetime risk of dying in a mass shooting is around one in 110,154 – about the same chance of dying from a dog attack or legal execution," the newsletter reported in 2016.

And given that vehicle attacks are a relatively new phenomenon that have claimed even fewer lives, the odds of you being mowed down by a murderous driver are likely even lower.

That being the case, you should feel safe to drive up to Toronto this weekend. Feel free to party until the wee hours and stare into your coffee in a Yonge Street diner at 2 a.m.

But be sure to stay the night. Remember that your odds of dying in an alcohol-related car crash in Canada in any given year are roughly six times higher than your lifetime odds of dying in a mass shooting.

Happening today

The Supreme Court hears arguments on what could become a landmark case from Hawaii on the last version of President Trump's travel ban … CNN airs a town hall meeting with former FBI director James Comey … French President Emmanuel Macron holds a town hall meeting with students at the George Washington University … The House Ways and Means Committee's Trade Subcommittee holds a hearing on stopping the importation of fentanyl to help crack down on the opioid crisis.

Good reads

The New York Times details how Rep. Devin Nunes politicized the House Intelligence Committee ... The Atlantic delves deeper into the reasons why people voted for Donald Trump in 2016 ... New York Magazine tells us that Sen. Bernie Sanders is quietly building a digital media empire that could help him if he runs for president in 2020 ... The American Interest reports that Facebook's growth strategy is just like Russia's geopolitical strategy ... And Foreign Policy magazine says French President Emmanuel Macron is increasingly in trouble at home.

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