We don't feel threatened by killings that take place in private so we focus elsewhere.
Repeated episodes of senseless carnage have, unfortunately, kept mass murder as one of the top news stories of recent years. And when we associate a face with our collective fears, we easily recall the disturbing image of a young man in Isla Vista, California detailing on video his deadly plan of revenge for his failed attempts to find romance in his life. Or, we envision the wild-eyed, orange-haired Colorado man sitting motionless in court after having turned a local movie theater into his personal battle zone.
Notwithstanding the unspeakable horror and dread sparked by these and several other high-profile massacres in public places, the more typical form of mass murder involves private turmoil within the family. According to USA TODAY's database on incidents since 2006, just over 50% of mass murders involve intimates — spouses, ex-spouses and other relatives.
Last week's mass shooting in a Houston suburb in which a gunman murdered two adults and four children before being arrested, allegedly, while on his way to kill others is a the type of tragedy that has befallen families in all corners of the nation. Most often it involves an angry and desperate man who seeks to kill his estranged partner and all her children, seeing the kids as an extension of his primary target. He slaughters the innocents as further hurt to his "unfaithful" or "uncaring" ex.
According to authorities, 33-year-old Ronald Lee Haskell, posing as a FedEx deliveryman, barged into the home of his former in-laws and demanded to see his ex-wife. By the time the smoke had cleared, Haskell had allegedly shot seven, all but one fatally. The sole survivor, a 15-year-old girl, managed to call the police with enough information to identify the suspect.
The Spring, Texas mass shooting made the news around the country, but hardly with the intensity and impact that one might expect when so many people, including children, are murdered. Moreover, the story will undoubtedly be short-lived in terms of the usual news cycle.
The Spring, Texas horror will also be ignored by various organizations, such as the FBI as part of its active shooter initiative and the Mother Jones news group for its continually updated database of mass shootings in America. Family annihilations do not fall into their narrow guidelines for inclusion. The Spring, Texas shooting spree may also be ignored by various interest groups seeking legislative action to reduce the risk of mass murder.
Of course, the loss of life is no less tragic if it occurs in a private home rather than a public place. Yet, just like the FBI and Mother Jones databases, we tend to dismiss such events rather quickly because we don't feel personally threatened. They are tragedies that only happen to other people. Unlike a mass shooting at an elementary school or a shopping mall which can occur at any time and to anyone, family annihilations can be anticipated, or at least we wish to believe that they are. In this way, we can distance ourselves from the devastation by thinking that such tragedy would never come to our doorstep.
However, such "not-in-my-world" thinking also causes us to pay insufficient attention to the precursors and remedies of domestic violence. We could all do a lot better in reaching out to our neighbors when they are struggling financially or emotionally. All too often, we choose somewhat conveniently not to get involved in someone else's business. However, our sense of community would only be enhanced were we willing to make the effort.
James Alan Fox, the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University, is co-author of Extreme Killing and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.
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