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Mass shooting facts and statistics
Let's dig into the data
My piece a few days ago about the recent shootings in Texas was a little controversial for some readers. I realize that I’m in the minority on some aspects of gun control, especially within the Twitterverse, but I’m as certain as my critics that some of the gun control advocates don’t have a good grasp of the facts at hand or exactly what some of the gun terminology means. I’m sure that I’m not going to convince some on the other side any more than they’ll convince me, but I’d like to at least clear up a few misconceptions.
First, it’s helpful to look at the breakdown of gun deaths in the US. Pew Research is an excellent source for gun data and shows that the majority of gun deaths, about 54 percent, are suicides. Forty-three percent are murders and about 80 percent of all murders do involve a firearm. Both murders and suicides seem to have peaked in 2021. That year only about one percent of gun deaths were accidental.
One common misconception involves the term “semi-automatic assault weapon.” Let’s break this one down. First, “semi-automatic” means that the gun fires one bullet for each trigger pull. To be clear, a semi-automatic is not a “machine gun,” which is slang for a fully automatic weapon.
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Second, “assault weapon” can mean anything. It is not a term of art within the firearms community. My advice is that when you see the term “assault weapon” or “assault rifle” in a piece of proposed legislation, you should look at the text of the bill to see what it means. Bills typically include definitions of important terms and when it comes to laws, the term means whatever the bill in question says it means. The bill could literally define “assault weapon” as “a grilled cheese sandwich” and for the purposes of the law, it would be so. When I write the term, I typically put it in quotation marks because it is essentially a meaningless phrase on its own.
Likewise, terms like “mass shooting” and “school shooting” may not have the simple and obvious meanings that we would assume. Last year, I wrote another piece on shooting statistics and found that definitions of mass shootings and spree killings are somewhat inconsistent and overlapping.
Looking at the law, as we just discussed, “mass killing” is defined in federal law as “three or more killings in a single incident.” Note that this definition does not apply solely to spree murders, which the FBI defines as “two or more murders committed by an offender or offenders, without a cooling-off period.” So not all mass murders are spree murders and not all spree murders are mass murders.
These are not distinctions without differences. Some reports and studies use different definitions and that means that statistics can vary widely as different incidents are included or excluded from consideration. My advice is to read the fine print and methodology closely.
With respect to school shootings, there seems to be no formal definition at all so be very leery when presented with statistics about school shootings. I found a few different lists and databases about recent school shootings. A K-12 School Shooting Database lists a staggering 135 school shootings already in 2023. If that sounds high, it is. The site notes that its figures include “gang shootings, domestic violence, shootings at sports games and after-hours school events, suicides, fights that escalate into shootings, and accidents.” All that makes it not terribly useful in a discussion about spree killings of kids in class.
Similarly, the Education Week list of 2023 school shootings lists 19 incidents, but the first two entries are an employee injured by a stray bullet while outside in Nevada and a woman injured in an altercation in a school parking lot in Michigan. In fact, only two of the 19 incidents fit the conventional picture of a spree shooting of students and staff. One of those was the Covenant killing spree in Nashville and the other was a January shooting in Iowa that left two students dead and one adult injured.
I point this out not to say that there aren’t too many students killed - even one is too many - but to point out that school spree murders are extremely rare. That’s cold comfort to someone who has lost a friend or child in a spree killing, but it does mean that the chances of our own children being caught up in such an event are very, very low.
The same is true of the mass shooting claims. I’ve seen Twitter users claim that there have been as many as 199 mass shootings in 2023 to date, which works out to more than one per day. If that sounds high, again, it’s because it is. An Associated Press/Northeastern University tracker puts the figure at 22 incidents so far in 2023 and 553 since 2006. Again, it’s too many but a far cry from the more sensational claims. (By the way, the parameters for the tracker include “every mass killing since 2006 from all weapons in which four or more people, excluding the offender, were killed within a 24-hour time frame.”)
Further muddying the waters, we can look at the FBI’s reports on “active shooter incidents.” The FBI defines an active shooter as “active shooter as one or more individuals actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area.” Reports on this type of attack are released annually, the 2022 report is here, but there is also a summary that aggregates data from 2000 through 2019. These are what we typically think of when we talk about spree killings.
The 2022 report shows 50 incidents, declining from a peak of 61 in 2021. The incidents occurred in both red and blue states with multiple incidents in California, Illinois, and New York. An interesting chart from the 20-year report seems to indicate a correlation between both gun ownership and population when it comes to active shooters. in data that is admittedly a few years old by now, California tops the list of active shooter incidents while a number of both red and blue states haven’t had any. Florida and Texas ran a distant second and third.
In 2022, Texas was the most common location for active shooters, however, with six incidents. Four states (Arizona, Florida, Michigan, and New York) tied for second place with three incidents each.
The mass shootings reported for 2023 are not all active shooter incidents. To tease out the spree killings from more traditional mass killings, I looked at each of the 22 incidents individually. Only six (27 percent) would fall into the category of active shooters. Interestingly, two of those occurred in California (Half Moon Bay and Monterey), one of the most heavily regulated states when it comes to gun control.
The six active shooter incidents that I’m counting may be too high. I’m including the April shooting at a birthday party in Dadeville, Alabama that left four people dead. It fits the definition of a spree killing, but it seems to have been gang violence rather than a traditional active shooter.
Twelve were cases of family violence. While these may fit the technical definitions of a spree killing and mass shooting offered above, they don’t fit the active shooter definition. The overlap just underscores how hard it is to understand exactly what is happening from broad statistics.
The AP data shows that people are far less likely to die in a mass shooting by a stranger than by someone we know. The analysis points out, “Mass shootings in which family members or intimate partners are targeted are twice as common as fatal public mass shootings in which strangers are killed.”
There is some truth to the claim that red states have higher homicide rates than blue states, but this isn’t a firm rule. CDC data puts Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama at the top of the homicide mortality rate rankings, but New Mexico is only one notch down at fourth and Illinois is in seventh place. For violent crimes, FBI crime data puts Alaska in first place with purple and blue states also in the top 10.
Again, the data is mixed between the apparent availability of guns and population size. There is no simple, cut-and-dried distinction between red and blue states or between gun control and pro-gun states. It’s just not that simple.
Another common misconception has to do with the topic of “assault weapons.” There is a perception that these rifles, like the notorious AR-15, are ubiquitous and particularly deadly when it comes to mass shootings and/or spree killings and/or active shooters.
Let’s start with the FBI crime data. In the most recent report available, we see that 10,258 firearms were used in homicides. Of those, rifles were used in only 364 incidents. That’s 3.5 percent. There is no category for “assault weapons” or “assault rifles.” Remember what I said about it being a meaningless term?
To put that in perspective, several categories of weapons were responsible for more homicides than rifles of all types. These include knives (1,476), blunt objects (397), and body parts such as hands and feet (600).
Handguns were by far the most common type of firearm used. The 6,368 handgun murders make up 62 percent of firearm homicides. (In about 32 percent of cases, the type of firearm was not stated.)
But what about mass killings and active shooters? Surely those are almost all perpetrated by AR-15s.
There are a couple of sources that we can use to check that assumption. The Violence Project is a nonpartisan mass shooting database that has data back to 1966. This database is easily searchable and shows that only 28 percent of mass shooters used “semi-automatic assault weapons.”
But maybe that’s because the AR-15 has only recently become popular. Unfortunately, we can’t limit the search to a certain time frame, but we can do that manually. The data is current through March 2021 in the “explore the shooter” section (I encourage anyone who is interested in the real data behind mass shootings to spend some time looking at this), and we can arbitrarily look back four years to the beginning of 2017. Doing so yields 25 shooters. Eleven (44 percent) of these used “semi-automatic assault weapons.”
The FBI active shooter reports also break down attacks by weapon. The 20-year report showed that 67 percent of shooters used handguns, although 38 percent had multiple weapons.
The data is a bit more helpful in the 2022 report. Handguns were used in 21 incidents (40 percent), rifles of any type in 17 incidents (34 percent), and both types were used in six incidents (12 percent).
Looking at the six active shooter incidents from this year, rifles have been more common. Active shooters in Allen, Louisville, and Nashville used rifles, but those in Dadeville, Half Moon Bay, and Monterey used pistols. That makes this year a 50-50 proposition so far.
Anyway you slice it, handguns are the preferred weapons of criminals, and that includes active shooters and mass shooters. This may shock you because of the emphasis that is placed on “assault weapon” bans as a solution to the problem, but if we look to the data, we see that this strategy is misdirected.
“Assault rifles” are also not particularly deadly. The data does not break down victims by the type of gun they were shot with, but we can look at the number of victims in different incidents. Here are the six shootings so far this year:
Monterey Park - pistol - 12 dead (including perp) and nine injured
Half Moon Bay - pistol - Seven dead and one injured
Dadeville - multiple shooters with pistols - Four dead and 32 injured
Nashville - rifle and pistol - Seven dead (including the perp) and one injured
Louisville - rifle - Six dead and eight injured
Allen - rifle - Nine dead (including perp) and seven injured
The numbers do not bear out the conventional wisdom that shootings with “assault rifles” are necessarily more bloody. Numerous factors seem to reflect the death toll including response time by law enforcement and Good Samaritans as well as the skill level of the perpetrator.
I am not an advocate for the status quo. I want to solve the problems of mass shootings and active shooters as much as they can be solved. That means taking a hard look at the data and finding solutions that are based in reality rather than conventional wisdom. Strategies for dealing with active shooters are going to be different than strategies for dealing with common criminals, domestic strife, and suicidal gun owners. I invite my pro-gun-control friends to dig into the data at the links that I have provided and see for themselves.
Protecting the rights of gun owners is also a priority for me. I believe that we can greatly reduce our murder problem with a minimal impact on law-abiding gun owners who pose no threat to the public. Most gun owners want to stop mass shootings and active shooters but also see a slippery slope when gun control advocates start talking about bans and restrictions on those who are not committing these crimes.
As a piece of advice to gun control advocates, if you would stop talking about broad bans that mainly impact noncriminals, you might find that more gun owners would get on board with solutions that could actually help. With a broad coalition of sensible and practical reforms, together we might be able to persuade Congress to act in ways that would help to solve the problem.
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