The Truth About Mass Shootings in America

Ryan Lau | @agorisms

Without a doubt, mass shootings are a major issue in the United States today. Too often, a gunman opens fire and kills innocent people. As a result, many American citizens and officeholders alike are calling for drastic increases in gun control. They believe that doing so will help to reduce gun violence in America.

To defend this point, two figures are often touted; that there is nearly a mass shooting a day in America and that our country is a radical outlier in mass shootings and violence. Ultimately, though, neither of these points rings true. Both reside on a faulty foundation that involves manipulating the facts.

A Mass Shooting a Day?

The Gun Violence Archive, an organization that collects data on gun violence and mass shootings, has been pushing a big myth: that one mass shooting occurs a day in America. Many major news outlets jumped on board, publishing purportedly factual stories condemning the clearly-present violence in the country. However, the Gun Violence Archive uses a poor definition of a mass shooting that simply does not line up with the official criteria.

The FBI defines a mass shooter as someone who kills four or more people (not including him or herself) in one altercation. Thus, it naturally follows that a mass shooting is an event in which someone acts as a mass shooter. The Gun Violence Archive rejects this. Instead, they broadly claim that an incident in which someone injures four or more people with a gun is a mass shooting. It does not, in any way, specify the nature of the injuries. Theoretically, an event where a bullet grazes four people, causing little to no harm, would qualify.

When using the broad definition, the one-a-day stat is nearly accurate. However, the proper definition that uses official data reveals that this is not nearly the case.

The Accurate Count: 5% as Frequent

Using the legitimate definition of a mass shooting, the prevalence of them drops drastically. In fact, in 2018, there were only 20 incidents that met the criteria. This averages out to less than two mass shootings per month, as opposed to the claim of more than 30. The real figure shows that mass shootings actually only occur about 5% as often as the broad definition suggests. Though still an issue, it appears that many people, by using the illegitimate, broad definition, are exaggerating its frequency.

In addition, most of these mass shootings involve the minimum number of people: four. Of the 20 mass shootings in 2018, 14 of them involved exactly four victims. Some weren’t even all in the same place, which makes their inclusion on the list questionable. Two more of the shootings resulted in five deaths, and the remaining four were all over ten.

A similar number of the shootings were also not random acts of violence. Though this does not excuse them in any way, at least 14 of the shootings involved a shooter specifically targeting victims. Only six times in 2018 did a mass shooter open fire randomly and without discretion.

Are Mass Shootings Most Common in America?

Another common piece of rhetoric for gun control is that America’s gun problem is unique. In 2016, researcher Adam Lankford published a paper that he believed would strengthen the case for gun control. The data claimed that from 1966 to 2012, there were 292 mass shootings across the world. Of these, 90 of them occurred in the United States. If this is true, it would mean that America was home to over 30% of the mass shootings in the world during that time, despite only having 4.6% of the world’s population. But once more, the data is misleading.

In his study, Lankford simply does not account for most of the mass shootings across the world. He neither identifies the cases of mass shootings nor described how he assembled them. For this reason, it is impossible to replicate his study. According to PsychCentral, replicability of a study is essential for it to be well-conducted and touted as truth. As Lankford’s data does not contain this critical aspect, it is impossible to confirm the validity of it.

The Counter-study: America’s True Share

Recognizing this flaw, John Lott of the Crime Prevention Research Center carried out his own study on worldwide mass shooting prevalence. In it, he described his results and publicly released them with the study. Thus, it does not rule out its replicability, unlike the Lankford study.

Lott’s findings blew Lankford’s out of the water. In just 15 years, Lott discovered over 3,000 mass shooters in the rest of the world. This is 15 times the number that Lankford reported in less than 1/3 of the time. All in all, this shows that Lankford only accounted for about 1/45 of the world’s mass shooters: just over 2%. Lott’s own study found that the United States only makes up 1.43% of mass shooters, 2.11% of mass shootings, and 2.88% of mass shooting victims. All of these are far below the 4.6% mark, which is the country’s share of the population. Thus, these results suggest that comparatively, the United States’ mass shooting problem is actually less drastic. The results weaken the argument that the United States has more mass shootings because of more guns. Though the latter is true, the replicable data suggests that the former is not.

Further Evidence Supports Lott

Professor Carl Moody of the College of William and Mary has suggested Lott’s figures are accurate. He cites the Global Terrorism Database as evidence. It has recorded 58,445 mass shooting attacks across the world since 1970, but can only attribute 402 of them to the United States. This comes out to less than one percent, which is near but even lower than Lott’s calculations, which Moody claims are “much more carefully done“. The estimate is nowhere near Lankford’s.

Despite this evidence, Lankford has still not released any information on how he collected his data. When numerous outlets asked him about the disparity, he discredited Lott without evidence.

“I am not interested in giving any serious thought to John Lott or his claims” -Adam Lankford, in response to an email that requested comment.

Lott has since agreed that his own study still overrepresents America’s share of the world’s gun problem. He further stated that the country has the 58th most common rate of mass shootings. This falls behind some Nordic countries, including Norway and Finland.

Thus, it appears that both claims on gun violence and mass shootings miss critical information. As a result, many Americans who accepted these data may not know the true scope of the country’s gun problem. Though still serious, it clearly is neither unique nor to the degree that some estimates have claimed.


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