As mass shootings pile up, we continue delving into the same polarized debate over guns – a dysfunctional national dialogue that tends to be rich in rhetoric but empty of evidence. To separate fact from fiction, here are eight evidence-based facts about mass shootings that you should know:
#1: America has a unique problem with mass shootings
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 an August 2015 analysis of gun violence across 171 nations.
This figure is even worse when the analysis is limited to developed countries: Between 1983 and 2013, the U.S. experienced double the number of mass shootings than all 25 of our peer (OECD) nations combined, accounting for 66 percent of mass shootings during that period:
#2: Gun ownership rates are the strongest predictor of mass shootings
Desperate to turn attention away from the epidemic of gun violence in America and shooters’ ability to get access to firearms, pro-gun activists have developed an unending laundry list of excuses to explain away the mass shootings that plague American society: it was mental illness, video games, poor parenting, and so on. But it’s never the gun.
Yet in scientific studies, civilian gun ownership is far and away the strongest predictor of the incidence of mass shootings (and other firearm violence). Specifically, where there are more guns, there are more mass shootings. These findings have been confirmed by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, which states that countries with higher levels of firearm ownership also have higher rates of firearm homicide and mass murder by firearm.
Statistically speaking, the relationship between a country’s gun ownership rate and risk of firearm death is so strong that it is characterized by a nearly perfect correlation coefficient (0.90). Here’s what looks like visually, in a chart by the Tewksbury Lab showing that the US is not only an international outlier in its lack of gun control, it is also a massive outlier in terms of firearm violence:
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,” said Dr. Adam Lankford, a criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama and the lead author of a recent study looking at more than four decades of mass shootings across the globe.
“No matter what test I ran the data always showed the same thing,” Dr. Lankford said. 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, Dr. Lankford concluded that “a nation’s civilian firearm ownership rate is the strongest predictor of its number of public mass shooters.”
#3: Mass shootings are becoming more frequent (and more deadly)
It’s not just your imagination: A recent study published by the Harvard Injury Control Research Center confirms that the frequency of mass shooting is increasing over time. The researchers measured the increase by calculating the time between the occurrence of mass shootings. According to the research, the days separating mass shooting occurrence went from on average 200 days during the period of 1983 to 2011 to 64 days since 2011.
The number of mass shooting victims has also risen, with an uptick in both injuries and deaths. So far this year, more than 500 individuals have been killed in mass shootings and 1,300+ injured, according to data compiled by moderators of the tongue-in-cheek subreddit /r/GunsAreCool, which tracks mass shootings in America. (For the purposes of data collection, they defined “mass shooting” as any incident in which four or more people were shot, including the gunman. This definition is more expansive than the FBI’s, which requires at least three people to be killed for an attack to reach the threshold of mass killing. While some have criticized this broad definition, the Washington Post points out that it is actually quite useful “because it captures many high-profile instances of violence that don’t meet the FBI’s criteria.”)
These trends are confirmed by official government figures published in a 2014 FBI report, which compiled data on active shooting situations (though their definition of a mass shooting is broader and includes all incidents where “an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area”). The FBI figures also point to a rise since 2000 both in the number of incidents and the number of casualties:
What is most alarming with mass shootings is the fact that this increasing trend is moving in the opposite direction of overall intentional homicide rates in the US, which decreased by almost 50% since 1993 and in Europe where intentional homicides decreased by 40% between 2003 and 2013.
Notably, the rise in public mass shootings over the past 30 years coincides with the rapid increase in the sale of semiautomatic weapons with detachable high-capacity ammunition magazines. As the gun industry sells and markets firearms designed for increased lethality, mass shooters purchase these same weapons to use in their attacks.
#4: The type of weapon matters
Opponents of gun control don’t like to talk about assault weapons. Even the terminology itself is so controversial that the gun industry and many within the pro-gun community refuse to acknowledge that such a class of weapons exists, claiming that the term ‘assault weapon’ was invented by gun control advocates, and that the high capacity semi-automatic rifles that have become the weapons of choice in mass shootings are no more deadly than the hunting rifles used by your grandpa.
But as Media Matters thoroughly documented in a 2013 report:
The truth is that military-style semi-automatic rifles were called assault weapons because that is what gun manufacturers and gun enthusiasts called them. The term has played a key role in the ongoing effort of the gun industry to rebrand and market military-style weaponry to civilians. Now, as legislation supported by a majority of Americans has been proposed to ban these weapons, the NRA and its gun industry and media allies are using semantics and terminology arguments to downplay the dangers of a class of weapons often associated with horrific mass shootings and law enforcement killings.
Indeed, despite the gun lobby’s best efforts to twist the narrative, data from the firearms industry itself show that there are far more than “cosmetic differences” between military-style assault weapons and other firearms. According to firearms manufacturer Ruger, the popular Remington brand .22 Rimfire ammunition commonly used for small-game hunting has a muzzle velocity between 700 and 2000 feet per second. Similarly, top-selling ammunition brand Hornady reports that the ammunition available for a .45 caliber handgun fires at a muzzle velocity of no more than 1,055 feet per second. The .223 ammunition most often used by the AR-15 assault weapon, however, can achieve a velocity of 4,000 feet per second. Some AR-15s are designed to accept 5.56 NATO ammunition, a similar round to the .223 that has a velocity of up to 3,130 feet per second.
Why does muzzle velocity matter? According to a 2011 report by a team of doctors who had performed autopsies on soldiers killed by gunfire in Iraq, “The velocity of the round as it strikes the target is the main determinant of the wounding capacity” and “[t]he greater energy of the round at the moment of impact the greater is the tissue destruction.” Indeed, the study found that rounds with a velocity exceeding 2,500 feet per second cause a shockwave to pass through the body upon impact, inflicting catastrophic injuries even in areas remote to the direct wound.
That’s why military-style firearms — designed for use in the battlefield — cause such devastation in civilian settings. In a study assessing mortality rates associated with different weapons used in war-related and civilian contexts, researchers concluded that military-style assault weapons like the AR-15 and AK-47 are far and away the deadliest weapon used in the civilian setting, frequently resulting in more people dying than being wounded.
According to data compiled by the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns, mass shooters who use an assault weapon and/or a high capacity magazine shoot twice as many people and kill 54% more victims than shooters who use handguns. These figures have been confirmed in analyses by Everytown for Gun Safety, the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, and the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, among others.
This chart from Business Insider shows the average number of casualties at a mass shooting event from 2009-2013. As you can see, mass shooting incidents involving an assault weapon resulted in an average of 15.6 total casualties, including 8.3 deaths, compared to an average of 7 total casualties and 5.4 deaths for mass shootings not involving an assault weapon:
While handguns still far outnumber other firearms and kill a greater number of people annually, the case fatality rate for assault weapons is several times higher — a fact that mass shooters undoubtedly take into account when choosing the most effective weapon to kill with.
#5: Most mass shootings do not take place in “gun-free zones”
In the aftermath of the October 1st, 2015 mass shooting that left nine people dead at a community college in Oregon, pro-gun advocates were quick to blame the school’s gun policies for the massacre. Even as details about the shooting remained scarce, they had already settled on a narrative, referring to the campus as a “gun-free zone” and suggesting that the school was targeted specifically because it did not allow guns.
According to this argument — a favorite fallback position for the gun lobby and its supporters in the wake of mass shootings — shooters choose “gun-free” locations for their attacks because they are less likely to be confronted with armed resistance. But this is simply not true for the shooting in Oregon, nor is it true for mass shootings in general. Umpqua Community College, where the shooting took place, is not a “gun-free zone,” nor are any other public colleges or universities in the state. There were also numerous armed students near the scene that day, including at least two trained military veterans.
More importantly, there is no evidence at all that shooters target certain locations because they are known to be gun-free zones. A 2012 analysis of 62 mass shootings over the last 30 years found that “not a single case included evidence that the killer chose to target a place because it banned guns.” Rather, the results showed that in the large majority of the cases “there was clearly another motive for the choice of location,” such as workplace disputes and domestic violence. And according to an FBI study of 160 active shootings between 2000 and 2013, the shooter had some type of relationship with his victims in nearly two-thirds of all cases (63%), clearly indicating that the choice of location was driven by an emotional or personal grievance, not by a calculation of the number of guns likely to be present.
Furthermore, there have also been numerous incidents in recent years where shooters have targeted what might be deemed “gun-full zones” for their attacks, including numerous attacks on police departments and military grounds. In one recent analysis of 33 public mass shootings between 2009-2014, researchers found that more than half of these incidents took place in part or wholly within areas where guns could be legally carried. When mass shootings in private residences were taken into account, only about 14% of all mass shootings were found to have taken place in so-called “gun-free zones”:
As Dr. Peter Langman, a clinical psychologist and author of the book School Shooters: Understanding High School, College, and Adult Perpetrators, explained to Politico, “Many of these shooters intend to die, either by their own hand or by suicide by cop. There was an armed guard at Columbine. There were armed campus police at Virginia Tech. The presence of armed security does not seem to be a deterrent… because they’re not trying to get away with it. They’re going in essentially on a suicide mission.”
Finally, the “gun-free zones” talking point also ignores the very basic fact that many “gun-free zones” are actually among the safest places in the country. If it were the case that “gun-free zones” attract killers because of their susceptibility to armed violence, we would expect places like schools, for example, to carry a high burden of youth homicides. A 2011 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, however, found that “the percentage of youth homicides occurring at school remained at less than 2 percent of the total number of youth homicides.” Furthermore, less than 1 percent of all nonfatal firearm violence occurs at schools. The same goes for college campuses, almost all of which still do not allow guns (though the number of states where they do is on the rise). In 2003, for example, there were 11,920 total gun homicides in the United States, but only 10 total murders on the nation’s college campuses.
Given how safe these locations already are, it is highly improbable the addition of guns would confer benefits to public safety. Rather, extensive evidence suggests that increasing the presence of guns would lead to more firearm-related injuries and deaths. For example, data from the National Crime Victimization Survey show that crime victims who use any weapon other than a gun for defense are less likely to be harmed than those who used a firearm. Even in the hands of trained professionals, firearms fail to serve their intended purpose with startling frequency — for instance, nearly 25 percent of U.S. hospital-based mass shootings from 2000-2011 were carried out with a gun taken from an armed security officer.
These stark figures may help to explain why even the NRA explicitly endorsed gun-free zones as recently as 1999, when Executive Vice President and CEO Wayne LaPierre called for “absolutely gun-free, zero-tolerance, totally safe schools.” Since then, the data have remained consistent; the only thing that has changed is the NRA’s narrative.
#6: “Good guys with guns” don’t stop mass shootings
In response to the San Bernardino shooting, Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of ultra-conservative Liberty University, issued a disturbing call to arms while speaking at the school’s convocation service on Friday, saying: “If more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in and killed them.” He encouraged students to enroll in the university’s free certification course and concluded by saying, “Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.”
As disturbing as it is, Fallwell’s message has become a familiar refrain in the aftermath of mass shootings. This “good guy with a gun” myth was made infamous by the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre, who, just a week after the Sandy Hook massacre, held a press conference in which he declared, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
While that may sound intuitively appealing, the problem is that no substantive evidence exists to support the idea that armed bystanders can reliably and safely intervene in active shooter situations. In fact, research strongly suggests just the opposite: that untrained, armed bystanders are highly likely to make these situations even worse. In the same 2012 analysis of 62 mass shootings mentioned above, investigators found that armed bystanders did not provide help in a single one of those incidents – rather, as the authors describe, they increased the numbers of innocent people injured and killed: “In cases in Washington and Texas in 2005, would-be heroes who tried to take action with licensed firearms were gravely wounded and killed. In the Tucson mass shooting in 2011, an armed citizen admitted to coming within a split second of gunning down the wrong person—one of the bystanders who’d helped tackle and subdue the actual killer.”
The FBI’s investigation of 160 active shooter incidents between 2000-2013 reached a similar conclusion, finding that just five of these incidents were stopped by armed individuals who were not law enforcement — and in four out of those five cases, the armed individual was a trained security guard. So according to official figures from the FBI, armed bystanders stopped only one, or 0.625%, of all active shooter incidents from 2000-2013:
Meanwhile, as an investigation by Mother Jones revealed, “the five cases most commonly cited as instances of regular folks stopping massacres fall apart under scrutiny: Either they didn’t involve ordinary citizens taking action—those who intervened were actually cops, trained security officers, or military personnel—or the citizens took action after the shooting rampages appeared to have already ended. (Or in some cases, both.)” On that topic, law enforcement officials and security experts — the people who are actually trained to deal with active shooters — overwhelming oppose the idea of armed bystanders getting involved, as it would make it far more difficult to gain control over a chaotic situation if they first had to figure out which of the shooters was the bad guy.
Finally, as Mother Jones noted, nearly 100 state laws loosening gun restrictions were passed between 2009-2012 — making it easier than ever to carry guns in public places — yet 2012 was the worst year for mass shootings in recent history. If more guns, and access to more guns, is the answer to curbing shooting sprees, then why haven’t more guns curbed shooting sprees?
#7: Most mass shootings do not take place in public
Mass shootings, such as those that took place in San Bernardino last week, Colorado Springs last month, and Oregon the month before, aren’t representative of the typical mass shooting in America. In fact, the overwhelming majority (70%) of mass shootings in the U.S. take place behind closed doors — usually in the home — and the victims are predominantly women and children. According to a 2015 analysis of five years of gun violence data, family members and intimate partners comprise more than half (57%) of all mass shooting victims; nearly two-thirds (64%) are women and children.
#8: Stricter gun laws work
The U.S. is not the only country in the world that has suffered deadly shooting rampages. The difference, however, is that other countries have reacted quickly to impose new and stricter gun laws. And it’s worked.
Australia is an excellent example. In 1996, a “pathetic social misfit,” as a judge described the lone gunman, killed 35 people in a spray of bullets fired from his arsenal of semiautomatic weapons. In the wake of the Port Arthur massacre — the worst mass shooting in the nation’s history — the conservative federal government succeeded in implementing tough new gun control laws throughout the country. A large array of weapons were banned – including the Glock semiautomatic handgun used in the Charleston, South Carolina, church shootings this past June. The government also tightened licensing and financed gun amnesty and mandatory buyback programs that substantially reduced gun possession in Australia.
At the time, the prime minister, John Howard, said, “We do not want the American disease imported into Australia.”
The effect of these reforms was that gun suicides and homicides (as well as total suicides and homicides) fell sharply and rapidly — and stayed that way. In 2010, a study published in the American Journal of Law and Economics reported that firearm homicides in Australia dropped 59 percent between 1995 and 2006, with no corresponding increase in homicides by other means. Government statistics show that the Australian murder rate has fallen to close to one per 100,000 while the US rate, thankfully lower than in the early 1990s, is still roughly at 4.5 per 100,000 – over four times as high. Perhaps most tellingly, in the 18 years before the 1996 laws, there were 13 gun massacres resulting in 102 deaths, according to Harvard researchers. There have been none since.
Similarly, after 16 children and their teacher were killed by a gunman in Dunblane, Scotland, in 1996, the British government banned all private ownership of automatic weapons and virtually all handguns. Those changes, passed by successive Conservative and Labour governments, gave Britain some of the toughest gun control laws in the developed world on top of already strict rules. Hours of exhaustive paperwork are required if anyone wants to own even a shotgun or rifle for hunting. The result? Annual firearm homicides were cut by more than half, as were suicides, and gun offenses dropped by two-thirds. In 2011, there were just two accidental gun deaths in the U.K.
Likewise, in Japan, which has very strict laws, only 11 people were killed with guns in 2008, compared with more than 33,000 deaths by firearms that year in the United States — a huge disparity even after accounting for the difference in population.