As a country, the United States comprises just 5 percent of the global population, but has experienced a staggering 31 percent of public mass shootings across the world between 1966 and 2012, according to research, which identified high rates of civilian gun ownership in the U.S. as the primary reason for this disproportionate number of mass killings.
The study, “Mass Shooters, Firearms, and Social Strains: A Global Analysis of an Exceptionally American Problem,” provides the first quantitative analysis of all documented public mass shootings worldwide over the last half century. The findings were first presented in August 2015 at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting in Chicago, and have since been published in the peer-reviewed International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice.
“The connection between firearms and mass shootings is something people have speculated about for a long time,” lead investigator Dr. Adam Lankford, a criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama, told Deutsche Welle news agency. “This is the first time that empirical evidence confirmed this connection, but the strong association between the two was even surprising for me.”
Lankford used data from the New York City Police Department’s 2012 active shooter report, the FBI’s 2014 active shooter report, and international sources. It omitted gang-related or drive-by shootings, as well as hostage-taking incidents, robberies, and shootings in domestic settings. A public mass shooting can be defined as a shooting that killed at least four victims, according to the FBI’s definition of mass murder.
“It’s a bigger problem today than it was a decade ago and it may be a bigger problem in the future,” Lankford told Newsweek. “There are a lot of questions that people have posed in the past that we didn’t have statistics on or quantitative answers for,” especially when it came to understanding the prevalence of mass shootings in America as compared with other countries.
‘Civilian firearm ownership rate is the strongest predictor of mass shootings’
Out of the 171 countries included in the analysis, the United States had by far the most public mass shooters in the world: 90. That’s five times as many as the Philippines, the next country on the list, which had 18. Of the remaining top five countries, Russia had 15, Yemen 11, and France 10.
The study also found that public mass shootings in the U.S. were distinct from those abroad. Mass shooters in America, for example, were more likely to use multiple weapons and higher-powered (e.g., semi-automatic) weapons than shooters abroad. They were also more likely to attack in schools, factories, warehouses, and office buildings than shooters in other countries.
“Given the fact that the United States has over 200 million more firearms in circulation than any other country, it’s not surprising that our public mass shooters would be more likely to arm themselves with multiple weapons than foreign offenders,” Lankford said.
Also unsurprisingly, Lankford found a strong connection between America’s high rate of civilian firearm ownership and its high number of mass shootings. According to the 2007 Small Arms Survey, the United States, Yemen, Switzerland, Finland, and Serbia, rank among the top five countries for firearms owned per capita. They are all also ranked in the top 15 countries for public mass shooters per capita. “That is not a coincidence,” Lankford said.
“What was surprising,” he told Newsweek, “was how strong the relationship was—no matter what test I ran the data always showed the same thing.” That finding “suggests that essentially you can’t be in the top five in firearm ownership and not have this problem.”
Based on the analysis, Lankford concluded that “a nation’s civilian firearm ownership rate is the strongest predictor of its number of public mass shooters.”
The ‘dark side of American exceptionalism’
Lankford also believes there may be uniquely American social and cultural issues at play that, when combined with lax gun laws, make the country particularly vulnerable to mass shootings.
“In the United States, where many individuals are socialized to assume that they will reach great levels of success and achieve ‘the American Dream,’ there may be particularly high levels of strain among those who encounter blocked goals or have negative social interactions with their peers, coworkers, or bosses,” he explained in a statement.
While patriarchal societies are present across the world, the intersection of toxic masculinity with American gun culture appears to be particularly deadly. Elements of toxic masculinity and aggrieved entitlement have played a role in many of the country’s most notorious mass shootings: According to some estimates, all but one of the mass murders in the U.S. over the last 30 years were committed by men, and 90 percent of them were white.
Mass shootings, Lankford concluded, are the “dark side of American exceptionalism.”
Lankford says that the main lesson from the study is an obvious one: Mass shootings can be reduced if the number of guns in circulation is reduced, as happened after a spate of mass shootings in Australia. The turning point for the nation was the 1996 Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania, in which a gunman killed 35 people using semiautomatic weapons. In the wake of the massacre, the conservative federal government succeeded in implementing tough new gun control laws throughout the country. A large array of weapons were banned, and the government also imposed a mandatory gun buy back that substantially reduced gun possession in Australia — basically, they actually did all of the things that we only talk about doing after every mass shooting in the U.S.
What happened next is truly remarkable: homicides by firearm plunged 59 percent between 1996 and 2006, with no corresponding increase in non-firearm-related homicides. The drop in suicides by gun was even steeper: 65 percent. Studies found a close correlation between the sharp declines and the gun buybacks. Robberies involving a firearm also dropped significantly. Meanwhile, home invasions did not increase, contrary to fears that firearm ownership is needed to deter such crimes.
But here’s the most stunning statistic. In the decade before the Port Arthur massacre, there had been 11 mass shootings in the country. There hasn’t been a single one in Australia since.
“I didn’t come into this study with any gun control agenda—I just let the data speak for itself,” Lankford told Deutsche Welle. “Whether people are willing to act on it is another question.”