We Should Stop Lowering the Flags for Mass Shootings


Last night the Washington Post reported that President Donald Trump was refusing to order the nation’s flags lowered as a gesture to the awful shooting of five journalists at the Capital Gazette in Maryland.

Had Trump made that decision it would have been easy to perceive it as yet another front in the on-going hostilities between the President and the anti-Trump national press corps. But this morning news is that the President will, in fact, order the flags lowered.

As I wrote this post I got a press release from North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum’s office indicating that he, also, was ordering the flags lowered for the Maryland shooting.

The thing is, I don’t think the President should have ordered the flags lowered. I don’t think Governor Burgum should have either.

My basis for that position has nothing to do with the Capital Gazette murders, specifically. Nor does it have a basis in the current administration’s ugly relationship with the press corps.

I’m just not sure what we’re accomplishing by treating every mass shooting as a national tragedy.

Mass shootings are a tiny slice of the overall violence which happens in America every day, and contrary to popular perception the rate of those shootings doesn’t appear to be increasing:

The man responsible for the data in the chart above, Northeastern University criminologist and gun control proponent James Alan Fox, argues that we should stop overreacting to each mass shooting incident. This from one of his USA Today columns in May:

Amidst the national mourning for the many innocent lives lost in these senseless shooting sprees, it is critical not to overreact and overrespond to the menacing acts of a few. It is, of course, of little comfort to those families and communities impacted in Santa Fe as well as Parkland, Florida, and Benton, Kentucky, but this is not routine. Schools are not under siege. Rather, this more likely reflects a short-term contagion effect in which angry dispirited youngsters are inspired by others whose violent outbursts serve as fodder for national attention.

Fox’s point about overreaction, and the inspiration it may provide to future mass murders, brings me back to the issue with the flags.

We treat mass shootings as a national tragedy because of politics. It’s not really about the victims. There are tragedies which happen all around this country every day. Murders and rapes and assaults. The President doesn’t order the flags lowered for the victims of those crimes, yet there is political pressure to do so for mass shooting victims because gun control is always a hot button political issue.

I wonder if a more routine reaction to mass shooting incidents isn’t a way to dissuade the disaffected from using them as a medium for their anger and mania. Maybe if we don’t lower the flags, maybe if we don’t make the shooter a benefactor of 15 minutes of infamy, mass shootings as a crime would look less appealing.

I know that’s a hard pill to swallow for those directly affected by these awful, awful incidents, but increasingly I think it’s the path forward.

Besides, if we lower the flags too often, what does the symbolism even mean? A couple of years ago a Fargo-Moorhead area veteran made that point. “Probably the worst one was (for) Whitney Houston. I don’t know. She wasn’t a veteran,” Terry Richardson told reporter Helmut Schmidt back in 2012. “It seems to be getting more common nowadays. It seems like the governors are just popping out with this all of a sudden.”

That argument makes a lot of sense to me.