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The Columbine memorial. (Photo: DenverJeffrey/Wikimedia Commons)

The Simple Facts About Mass Shootings Aren’t Simple at All

• December 23, 2013 • 3:43 PM

The Columbine memorial. (Photo: DenverJeffrey/Wikimedia Commons)

The first step in stopping future mass shootings is figuring out what we know and working from there. Unfortunately, the real first step is getting rid of a bunch of stuff we “know” that turns out to be wrong.

A year after Newtown, there’s plenty of bad information circulating about mass shootings, a lot of it trying to bold down a mass of sometimes conflicting data into a headline.

After all, we don’t want nettlesome social issues to be a complex mixture of causes and effects. Better that a single prescription—ban guns, lock up crazy people, make all video games feature the Smurfs—can solve the problem, ideally before the station break. It’s complicated, however, and gets more so when the facts are screwed up.

A lot of the assumptions that underlie that debate are, if not outright wrong, outright misleading, argue two Northeastern University criminologists. In a new paper appearing in a special mass shooting-themed issue of the journal Homicide Studies, James Alan Fox and Moncia J. DeLateur “attempt to identify and assess a number of these misconceptions that seem to have encouraged policy responses with a slim probability of achieving their desired outcome—eliminating the risk of mass murder.” Fox, dubbed the “Dean of Death,” is one of the go-to academics whenever a mass shooting roils the national consciousness; a number of the studies he cites in this paper are from his own work, many of them with Pacific Standard author Jack Levin.

Although the authors call these misconceptions “myths,” really these are more “memes.” That’s just as well, because in many cases the authors don’t so much debunk the conventional wisdom as add both context and that political poison, nuance.

Some of their myth-busting is pretty unequivocal, such as the idea that mass shootings are on the rise. They’re not. While numbers vary from year to year, looking at figures between 1976 and 2011 the number of mass shootings have not gone up.

Without minimizing the pain and suffering of the hundreds of those who have been victimized in recent attacks, the facts clearly say that there has been no increase in mass shootings and certainly no epidemic. What is abundantly clear from the full array of mass shootings is the largely random variability in the annual counts. There have been several points in time when journalists and others have speculated about a possible epidemic in response to a flurry of high-profile shootings. Yet, these speculations have always proven to be incorrect when subsequent years reveal more moderate levels.

A comprehensive report in Mother Jones did demonstrate a rising tide of carnage using actual numbers, making the argument that the rise in incidents parallels the increases in the number of guns in the U.S. But Fox (who provided some assist to the Mother Jones team) and DeLateur argue that the magazine’s ground rules for determining what to include in its report—numbers had to come from a single incident in a public place by a lone shooter, resulting in at least four dead, and not be related to street crime—obscured the long-term trends by creating an arbitrary definition of “senseless” killing. (The magazine did include some two-person attacks, such as Columbine and Westside Middle School, but its rules would leave out incidents such as the D.C. sniper attacks or the recent incident at a Centennial, Colorado, high school.) By not excluding cases based on motive, location, or victim-shooter status, the academics show that there’s actually been a baseline average of 20 mass shootings a year, with bad years (like 2012) followed by better years (like 2013).

It’s worth noting that when the authors break down figures from the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Reports into three time frames (1976-94, 1995-2004, and 2005-11) meant to show how an assault weapons ban in the middle period wasn’t particularly effective, the figures do show an upward drift in each subsequent period in the average number of incidents and the annual average number of victims.

The authors also find that recent mass killings don’t always involve record-setting body counts, always a media fixation. But improvements in news gathering and delivery do mean that any incident gets crammed down the public’s throat, creating the aura of moral panic.

[A]s news of the Sandy Hook shooting was still unfolding and before any perpetrator or motive was identified, scores of journalists were asking whether this was the worst school shooting in history. It didn’t matter that deadlier episodes had occurred overseas (the 2004 school siege in Russia), at a college setting (Virginia Tech in 2007) or involving means other than gunfire (the 1927 school explosion in Bath, Michigan), reporters were eager to declare the Sandy Hook massacre as some type of new record.

What about guns?

On the whole, the authors write, banning assault weapons is unlikely to end future mass shootings, in large part because the gunmen—and they’re almost always men—are more likely to use pistols or revolvers than AK-47s. Handguns, particularly semiautomatic ones, were used in 62 percent of all incidents, while assault weapons were used in 25 percent. “Only 14 of the 93 incidents examined by [Mayors Against Illegal Guns] involved assault weapons or high-capacity magazines,” the authors write. “Of course, limiting the size of ammunition clips would at least compel a gunman to pause to reload or switch weapons, potentially giving others a brief window of opportunity to escape or even intervene.”

There’s less definitive data on whether arming potential victims would at least reduce the casualties from mass shootings. The connection between concealed weapon/right-to-carry laws and mass shootings has been examined by a few academics, with one working paper finding they reduce the carnage while a paper published in Homicide Studies in 2002 found “virtually no support for the hypothesis that the laws increase or reduce the number of mass public shootings.”

Nonetheless, looking just at schools, Fox and DeLateur suggest the idea lacks merit. “It is hard to imagine,” they write, “however, that a vengeful student, who is willing to die by police gunfire or by his or her own hand, would be dissuaded by knowing that the faculty were armed. He may even welcome the chance to shoot it out with the principal at high noon in the school cafeteria.” The authors also suggests that turning schools into bunkers—as Ben Ikenson discussed for us earlier this month—or having an armed guard at every campus are also not supported by the relatively sparse academic literature.

What about the shooters? The authors dispense with four myths here, including two—the shooters just snap one day versus that there are telltale signs the wise could divine—that are somewhat mutually incompatible. Instead, most mass shootings are neither completely random nor are there filters that reliably allow observers to pick out who in the population will carry out a plot.

Profiles and checklists designed to predict rare events—such as mass shootings—tend to over-predict, producing a large number of “false positives.” Many people may closely match the profile—angry, frustrated folks who are reclusive, quick to blame others for their shortcomings and make threatening remarks—but very few will in fact commit murder, much less mass murder.

In that same vein, they find that greater availability of mental health services or more rigorous background checks are not a magic bullet, as Lauren Kirchner has just reported for us. These methods might do some good, but aren’t the whole answer. Citing that Mayors Against Illegal Guns study again, the author write, “in just 10 of the 93 cases, there was evidence that concerns about the mental health of the shooter had been brought to the attention of a medical practitioner or legal authority prior to the shooting spree.”

And what about America’s culture? Here the authors only focused on one myth, one that’s been hashed out repeatedly in years past—video games. And they come down squarely on the side of “we don’t know:”

It is not surprising that most schoolyard shooters and many adult mass murderers played violent video games in their spare time. To be sure, violent people are often attracted to violent entertainment, on TV, in film, or through game consoles. However, the ability to document a direct causal link indicating that consuming violent entertainment leads to violent behavior has eluded social science researchers for years.

What they do know is this—any single variable prescription isn’t going to solve the problem of mass shootings. “Banning violent entertainment may be an easy fix, especially when policymakers are unwilling or unable to deal with the more fundamental causes of violence.”

Commenting on the paper by Fox and DeLateur, Jack Levin—who edited the special issue of Homicide Studies—noted the nettles. “These researchers indicate that many of the policy suggestions recently proposed—while worthwhile generally—may have limited utility for reducing the risk of mass murder.” In short, it’s complicated.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

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