Why Terrorism Gets More Attention Than Gun Violence

My latest for The National Interest, "Why Terrorists Are Worse Than Guns," has posted.


My latest for The National Interest, “Why Terrorists Are Worse Than Guns,” has posted. The piece is over 1500 words, defies excerpting, and I’ve made some of the arguments previously in this space, so I’ll just provide the open and close here:

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, several commentators have asked why we label some acts of mass violence “terrorism” while others are considered ordinary crime. Why do we treat those two so very differently, despite the latter being responsible for far more American deaths?


The 9/11 plot was different. It was organized and perpetrated by a well-financed, well-organized group that had committed numerous previous attacks on United States targets—including a U.S. Navy vessel, two U.S. embassies, and a previous attempt on the World Trade Center—and had issued a manifesto declaring a war on the United States as part of a larger plan to take control of the Arab world. While many wanted—and still want—to treat this as a law enforcement matter, the scale, severity, and organization led to it being treated primarily as an act of war.

The Boston bombers, so far as we now know, were acting alone. One is dead and the other is in custody. So, they’re likewise able to be tried within our legal system. What makes al Qaeda different is that they’re active, organized and outside the reach of our institutions. While parts of it are attackable through the legal system and other parts through the financial system, there’s almost certainly got to be an intelligence and military approach applied to the armed wing because they reside in places where extradition and the like are unworkable.

Acts of terror get more attention than everyday gun violence because they represent a broad, repetitive, and often organized attempt to kill while spreading fear throughout society. Gun violence—tragic as it may be—simply doesn’t reach that level.

Much more at the link.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. john personna says:

    Based on that section, I think you give too much credit to the idea that this is rational risk analysis. I don’t think so. Instead, I think that old Time magazine article nailed it:

    How Americans Are Living Dangerously

    Which risks get excessive attention and which get overlooked depends on a hierarchy of factors. Perhaps the most important is dread. For most creatures, all death is created pretty much equal. Whether you’re eaten by a lion or drowned in a river, your time on the savanna is over. That’s not the way humans see things. The more pain or suffering something causes, the more we tend to fear it; the cleaner or at least quicker the death, the less it troubles us. “We dread anything that poses a greater risk for cancer more than the things that injure us in a traditional way, like an auto crash,” says Slovic. “That’s the dread factor.” In other words, the more we dread, the more anxious we get, and the more anxious we get, the less precisely we calculate the odds of the thing actually happening. “It’s called probability neglect,” says Cass Sunstein, a University of Chicago professor of law specializing in risk regulation.

    The same is true for, say, AIDS, which takes you slowly, compared with a heart attack, which can kill you in seconds, despite the fact that heart disease claims nearly 50 times as many Americans than AIDS each year. We also dread catastrophic risks, those that cause the deaths of a lot of people in a single stroke, as opposed to those that kill in a chronic, distributed way. “Terrorism lends itself to excessive reactions because it’s vivid and there’s an available incident,” says Sunstein. “Compare that to climate change, which is gradual and abstract.”

    Emphasis mine.

  2. PD Shaw says:

    Terrorism means that I am part of the target through the use of a combination of mass media and horror. I am not part of the target when a husband murders his wife or a drug deal goes bad.

  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Acts of terror get more attention than everyday gun violence because they represent a broad, repetitive, and often organized attempt to kill while spreading fear throughout society. Gun violence—tragic as it may be—simply doesn’t reach that level.

    James I don’t have time now to read the article, but Huh?????? Gun violence is far broader, FAR more repetitive, and in the case of gangs and cartels, just as organized as terrorism. I just don’t get how you come to that conclusion. The only real difference I see is that the vast majority of victims of gun violence live in the margins of society, and therefor the vast white middle class don’t fear it as they would never go into one of those neighborhoods. But terrorism can happen anywhere, anytime, even to them.

    from the NIJ:
    According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, 467,321 persons were victims of a crime committed with a firearm in 2011.[1] In the same year, data collected by the FBI show that firearms were used in 68 percent of murders, 41 percent of robbery offenses and 21 percent of aggravated assaults nationwide.[2]

    Most homicides in the United States are committed with firearms, especially handguns.[3]

    Homicides committed with firearms peaked in 1993 at 17,075, after which the figure steadily fell, reaching a low of 10,117 in 1999. Gun-related homicides increased slightly after that, to a high of 11,547 in 2006, before falling again to 10,869 in 2008.[4]

    From the State Department:
    The term “Private U.S. Citizen” refers to any U.S. citizen not acting in an official capacity on behalf of the U.S. Government; therefore these figures do not include, for example, U.S. military personnel killed or injured in a terrorism-related incident while on active duty or employees of the Department of State and other federal agencies. Members of U.S. government employees’ households are considered private U.S. citizens for purposes of this report.

    Although every effort was made to include all terrorism-related deaths and injuries involving private U.S. citizens, the figures below reflect only those cases reported to, or known by, the U.S. Department of State, and may not reflect actual numbers of injured, which may not always be reported depending on the severity of injuries. As NCTC also notes, in the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan , it is particularly difficult to gather comprehensive information about all incidents and to distinguish terrorism from the numerous other forms of violence.

    U.S. citizens worldwide killed as a result of incidents of terrorism: 17
    U.S. citizens worldwide injured as a result of incidents of terrorism: 14
    U.S. citizens worldwide kidnapped as a result of incidents of terrorism: 3

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Those State Dept #s are for 2011.

  5. john personna says:

    @PD Shaw:

    Terrorism means that I am part of the target through the use of a combination of mass media and horror. I am not part of the target when a husband murders his wife or a drug deal goes bad.

    Well, if you say terrorism is targeting you with emotion, that’s kind of true, but I think the way to defeat it is to get outside that feedback loop. Most people recognize that, which is why “Keep Calm, and carry on” has gained currency in our society (almost 70 years after the blitz).

    On murders and drug deals, one of the reasons that has lower emotional “appeal” is that people have come to understand those risks and developed strategies against them. We try to live in good neighborhoods, and we try to get at-risk women into programs.

    Murders and drug deals are not “out of the blue,” unusual and highly visual events which upset our emotional connection to the world.

    (Really, if more people internalized that Time article we’d all be better off.)

  6. James Joyner says:

    @john personna: I think that’s all true. I just think there are rational reasons to treat organized terrorism differently than either lone wolf terrorism or ordinary gun violence.

    @OzarkHillbilly: As I explain at some length in the piece, organized terrorism (i.e., al Qaeda, Hezbollah, etc.) is essentially corporate violence. Almost all murders–and many terrorist incidents–are one-offs. Getting a Charlie Manson or John Wayne Gacy or even a Timothy McVeigh off the streets ends the problem. Kill Osama bin Laden and you still have al Qaeda.

    Yes, there are far more ordinary murders. And car crashes kill more people, too. But they’re not systemic.

  7. john personna says:

    To emphasize the root of this, another bit from that article:

    We pride ourselves on being the only species that understands the concept of risk, yet we have a confounding habit of worrying about mere possibilities while ignoring probabilities, building barricades against perceived dangers while leaving ourselves exposed to real ones. Six Muslims traveling from a religious conference were thrown off a plane last week in Minneapolis, Minn., even as unscreened cargo continues to stream into ports on both coasts. Shoppers still look askance at a bag of spinach for fear of E. coli bacteria while filling their carts with fat-sodden French fries and salt-crusted nachos. We put filters on faucets, install air ionizers in our homes and lather ourselves with antibacterial soap. “We used to measure contaminants down to the parts per million,” says Dan McGinn, a former Capitol Hill staff member and now a private risk consultant. “Now it’s parts per billion.”

  8. john personna says:

    @James Joyner:

    If we assign government resources to bombers and gunmen with the same logic, we are behaving rationally. If we are overspending on one because we are assuaging a public fear, less so.

    (Bombers might simply be easier to catch, and provide better ROI on that basis, as they leave more of a trail on-line and through purchases. A mad shooter and a range addict may look too similar in purchase records.)

  9. Franklin says:

    @john personna: Although I agree it skews things somewhat, I actually think it’s perfectly rational to fear slow painful deaths over quick painless ones. Quality of life is at least as important as life itself.

  10. john personna says:


    I think the key message of the Time piece is that people actually shorten their lives other ways (and reduce their quality of life) while worrying about vanishingly unlikely things.

    A fear of a probable painful death would be completely rational, but people are seldom that discerning.

  11. matt bernius says:

    I also think its important to recognize how the fear of the former (Terrorists) tends to lead people to think in a way that helps muddy the latter (gun violence).

    Note how many people (including a few commentors on this site) talked about how “having a terrorist on the loose in your neighborhood” is another good reason for wanting to have a gun.

    Again, if we are looking at statistics, people who live in households with a gun are statistically more likely to be wounded by a gun. When comparing that probability to the chances of a home invasion, let alone one by a terrorist, one has to question the notion as to whether or not guns make the average home “safer.”

  12. grumpy realist says:

    Agreed to all of the above. If we were really worried about getting our risks down, we would eat a lot of veggies and make certain to work out an hour a day.

    I’m more likely to be killed on the road by a drunk driver or an idiot texting/talking on a cellphone than I am to be blown up by a terrorist.

    Heck, here in Chicago, we’re probably at more risk from the earthquake that’s supposed to strike Any Day Now, given that none of the buildings have been built to earthquake specifications.

    Part of the problem is the 24-hr media maw, which has to be kept fed with stories to grab people’s eyeballs to the screen. Hence Fox, CNN, etc. are just ecstatic when Something Unusual happens that they can hype as Terra Terra Terra and get the talking pundits learnedly pontificating about ad infinutem. So we’ll get analysis/backtracking/pontificating up the wazoo on the whole Boston thing for months, even through from a risk viewpoint it would be a hell of a lot better if they dragged a nutritionist out to say “eat your veggies.”

    (There’s no actual news anymore. It’s all infotainment.)

  13. matt bernius says:

    James, one thing that your essay brings out is that there are (at least) two types of terrorists:

    – Lone Wolves (to borrow a phrase)
    – Institutional (i.e. one with established, strong ties, to an organization)

    Part of the problem is that a lot of people fold the first category into the second. As soon as the phrase “terrorist” comes into play, the common assumption is that these individuals are *never* acting, more or less, alone.

    Though mass shootings continue to happen, people are able to keep each one of them separate. But for many , lone wolf acts of terrorism (that are for all intents and purposes unrelated incidents as well) are always linked. Each new act (or attempted act) represents one more battle in an ongoing (and never ending) existential war against “Radical Islam.”

  14. matt bernius says:

    @grumpy realist:
    I know you’re grumpy by name, but I gotta take issue with this:

    (There’s no actual news anymore. It’s all infotainment.)

    First, the news has always been infotainment. Even in the brief “golden age” of broadcast news and professional US journalism. Remember that one of Cronkite’s first national gigs was explaining news stories and issues to a lion puppet.

    Second, there is a lot of good reporting out there — though its not normally found on 24 hour news stations. To your point, that’s largely because those stations are stuck in the position of filling 24 hours worth of programming. It’s their own fault (of course) and it’s also a “fault” if you will of the medium itself.

  15. James Joyner says:

    @matt bernius: I don’t think this is true:

    Though mass shootings continue to happen, people are able to keep each one of them separate.

    There’s a veritable cottage industry in treating them as connected and therefore evidence of our need to do something about the “gun problem.”

  16. john personna says:

    @James Joyner:

    I don’t see you climbing the hill to rational argument with that one.

  17. Franklin says:


    Something just came to mind, comparing this post to another one, which I believe was last week in regards to background checks: You said last week something to the effect that our elected representatives’ jobs are to ignore emotional appeal and consider the legislation in a logical manner. This post, by contrast, appeals to the emotion of terror, categorizing it as more important than “non-terror” violence. And I must say, that puts you in the same camp as most of our legislators – in this case they respond to the fear emotion, but when considering gun violence, they do nothing.

    Both terrorist acts and mass shootings are rare, and it just seems like if we were consistent, we would react the same way.

  18. john personna says:

    (I hate to say it, but you are pushing the visceral fears because they advance the conservative agenda, “it’s terrorists not guns,” etc.)

  19. matt bernius says:

    @James Joyner:

    There’s a veritable cottage industry in treating them as connected and therefore evidence of our need to do something about the “gun problem.”

    Correct, however, when its put in perspective, it seems pretty clear that, so far, the public has not been seriously moved by this industry.

    And, it seems to me that the reach of that “gun control” industry has very little on the reach of the “War against Islam” industry — especially when one looks at which one has more power on the Hill.

  20. john personna says:

    @matt bernius:

    Should we attack the “cottage industries” opposing rape and famine next?

  21. matt bernius says:

    @john personna:
    Missing your point John. I’m not criticizing “cottage industries”, I’m just suggesting that the existence of one does not necessarily correspond to something being a widely held view.

    So, to James’ point, while there may be a cottage industry around connecting “lone wolf mass shootings” for political action, it doesn’t seem that viewpoint has taken as serious a hold as the one that connects all terrorists acts, lone wold and organized, into a broader “war against the US/us.”

    And that may be the key thing right there — the ability to call one a “War” which invokes a certain framework which includes a “united enemy” dedicated not to killing random people but, in theory, killing everyone in a society.

    Lone wolf mass shootings, not to mention the everyday shootings, are seen as being done against specific individuals (many of whom we assume deserve it because of their lifestyles). But terrorist acts are seen (correctly or incorrectly) as directed against society as a whole. In the latter category people are killed because the are residents of the US. And thus everyone feels like their a potential target.

  22. James Joyner says:

    @Franklin: No, that’s not at all what I’m doing. Gun violence is obviously more deadly that terrorism. But it’s a completely different problem. Gun crimes are almost all one-offs, whereas organized terrorism is corporate and systemic. Indeed, I contrast lone wolf terrorism with the latter and note that we largely treat them differently for the same reason.

  23. gVOR08 says:

    In discussion of this, we tend to slip casually between legal response, the surviving Tsarnaev being handled as a criminal; and informal public reaction, Graham and McCain(1) calling for treatment as an enemy combatant. With respect to public reaction, I think it’s well documented that we overestimate unfamiliar threats and underestimate familiar threats. That’s why many people fear terrorism more than auto accidents. You need to fear something? Fear your diet.

    I have to question the concept of a lone wolf terrorist. Dictionary definitions of “terrorism” revolve around political goals. A one-off attack won’t accomplish political ends. What did McVeigh accomplish except to focus attention on his militia buddies? Discussion would get into a morass of intention versus actual effects and the weight to be given to irrational intentions. I’d buy “intended terrorism”.

    Also, “terrorist” has meaning and implications within a legal context. In popular discussion, why is it so important to conservatives whether or not a thing is labeled “terrorism”?
    (1) OK, Graham’s scared witless of a primary challenge, what’s McCain’s excuse?

  24. john personna says:

    @James Joyner:

    organized terrorism is corporate and systemic

    Is that tautology useful?

    I mean, it selects from “terrorism” to the “organized” subset, which is by definition corporate and systematic.

  25. Caj says:

    Terrorists shouldn’t get more attention than those with guns as they are also terrorists! Having a gun pointed at you is not something you laugh at, you’re terrified! Hence the word terror! So they are one of the same and should be treated with the contempt they both deserve. Guns are not the saviors of the human race they are the destroyers of the human race.

  26. john personna says:

    @matt bernius:

    Just consider it my ill-humor that people, like the Brady Campaign, who have a heartfelt commitment to reducing injury are written off as profit-seekers.

    And yes, that is what “a cottage industry” means.

  27. Rafer Janders says:

    @john personna:

    “We dread anything that poses a greater risk for cancer more than the things that injure us in a traditional way, like an auto crash,” says Slovic.

    Do we? Personally, I dread a car crash more than I do cancer. The thought of dying or being horribly maimed in a car terrifies me to a degree that cancer doesn’t.

  28. john personna says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    You may have a personal connection to auto-risk, but most people do not. Most people in America climb in a car without a worry in the world.

    (The Time article is actually backed by a lot of real-world research.)

  29. john personna says:

    (I personally drive more carefully now on bright sunny days, now that I know that they have more fatal accidents than adverse conditions … to many drivers not worrying.)

  30. Rafer Janders says:

    @john personna:

    Most people in America climb in a car without a worry in the world.

    That baffles me, and is actually another good example of how Americans are very bad at assessing probabilities of risk.

  31. john personna says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    There is a PDF chart here with causes and odds. While motor vehicle accidents do come in 4th, their odds are quite a bit lower than the big 2:

    Heart Disease: 1 in 6
    Cancer: 1 in 7
    Stroke: 1 in 29
    Motor Vehicle Accident: 1 in 98
    Intentional self-harm: 1 in 109
    Unintentional poisoning: 1 in 126
    Falls: 1 in 163

    … and so on

  32. stonetools says:

    @James Joyner:

    Gun violence is obviously more deadly that terrorism. But it’s a completely different problem

    Actually, the terrorist attack in Mumai a couple of years ago was done with guns . The ten terrorists killed180 people.Eventually, terrorist groups are going to wake up to the fact that while explosives are tightly controlled in the USA, any idiot ( or set of idiots) can perfectly legally assamble an arsenal of highly lethal firearms, thousands of rounds of ammo, and body armor overnight. The terrorist group will then to launch an attack at a shoopiing mall or similar target, and then the cat will be among the pigeons.

  33. grumpy realist says:

    There is an absolutely righeous piece of writing over at Balloon Juice that I would like to spread as far as possible. Damn good.

  34. EddieInCA says:

    Dr. Joyner –

    What are pro-gun people going to do when five or six men decide to each arm and load themselves up like Stallone or Arnold, with body armor, using nothing but legally acquired guns and ammo, go into a mall, movie theatre, wedding, concert, club, and kill several hundred people in less than 2-3 minutes?

    These bombers killed a few people. Jared Loughner and Adam Lanza killed more than the “terrorist brothers”.

    That alone says something about how screwed up are our priorities.

  35. Pharoah Narim says:

    I’ll make this simple.

    1. Media outlets produce content their primary audience will consume

    2. People of color are not a primary consumers of media content because of its relevance to them (e.g. coverage and analysis of issues affecting their community–like gun proliferation)

    3. “Haahackmed” isn’t targeting people of color but rather, his targets are people who also are more likely to be the primary consumer of media output. (Return to 1)

  36. anjin-san says:

    @ Eddie in CA

    These bombers killed a few people. Jared Loughner and Adam Lanza killed more than the “terrorist brothers”.

    That alone says something about how screwed up are our priorities.

    But, but, but, but… freedom!

  37. Andy says:

    @Rafer Janders and @john personna:

    Well, Ok, but real life doesn’t boil down to a mathematical utilitarianism based on averaged probability. Context matters. When someone dies we care enough about the context to have different legal penalties for the criminal act ranging from 1st degree murder to negligence even though in all cases one person is responsible for the death of another person. We don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach to such matters – we don’t, in short, judge them equally. Is it irrational? Well, it depends.

    The problem with such statistical “odds” is that they are averages over the entire American population and don’t apply to individuals. The risks for me as a white, married with kids upper-middle class government worker living in suburban Florida are quite a bit different from a jobless black teenager living in urban Chicago.

    And humans, being creatures that rely on cognitive templated patterns to judge threats, frequently make mistakes when a “new” pattern arises or something unique happens. When some threat happens that doesn’t fit our established patterns, the natural and normal reaction is fear. Thus the common, everyday threat isn’t scary because it’s a known quantity which our minds have already accounted for, but the sudden “new” threat is very scary because we don’t have a cognitive frame to place it in which freaks out our survival instinct.

    All of this is well established in the cognitive literature going back to at least the 1950’s if not earlier. The “odds of dying” compilations are interesting and fun but shouldn’t be taken as truth since, as always, YMMV.

  38. john personna says:


    There is a considerable difference between refining statistics for your situation and rejecting them for emotion.

    Or, as many do, starting with emotion and never leaving.