America has experienced yet another mass shooting, this time at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino on the strip in Las Vegas. It is reportedly the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. As a criminologist, I have reviewed recent research in hopes of debunking common misconceptions that spring up whenever a mass shooting occurs.
▪ More guns don’t make you safer.
A study I conducted indicated that mass shootings also took place in 25 other wealthy nations between 1983 and 2013, but the number in the U.S. far surpasses that of any other country.
The U.S. had 78 mass shootings during that 30-year period. The highest number experienced outside the United States was in Germany – where seven shootings occurred. In the other 24 industrialized countries taken together, 41 mass shootings took place. In other words, the U.S. had nearly double the number of mass shootings than all other 24 countries combined in the same period.
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Another finding is that mass shootings and gun ownership rates are highly correlated. The higher the gun ownership rate, the more a country is susceptible to experiencing incidents. Similar results have been found by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, which states that countries with higher levels of firearm ownership also have higher firearm homicide rates.
▪ Shootings are more frequent.
A recent study published by the Harvard Injury Control Research Center shows that the frequency of mass shooting is increasing. Researchers measured the increase by calculating the time between the occurrence of mass shootings; the days separating occurrences went from on average 200 days during the period of 1983 to 2011 to 64 days since 2011.
What is most alarming is the fact that this increasing trend is moving in the opposite direction of overall intentional homicide rates in the U.S., which decreased by almost 50 percent since 1993 and in Europe where intentional homicides decreased by 40 percent between 2003 and 2013.
▪ Restricting gun sales works.
Due to the Second Amendment, the United States has permissive gun licensing laws. This is in contrast to most developed countries, which have restrictive laws. According to criminologists George Newton and Franklin Zimring, permissive gun licensing laws refer to a system in which all but specially prohibited groups of persons can purchase a firearm. In such a system, an individual does not have to justify purchasing a weapon; rather, the licensing authority has the burden of proof to deny gun acquisition. By contrast, restrictive gun licensing laws refer to a system in which individuals must demonstrate to a licensing authority that they have valid reasons to get a gun — like using it on a shooting range or going hunting — and that they demonstrate “good character.” Countries with more restrictive gun licensing laws show fewer deaths by firearms and a lower gun ownership rate.
▪ Background checks work.
In most restrictive background checks performed in developed countries, citizens are required to train for gun handling, obtain a license for hunting or provide proof of membership to a shooting range. Individuals must prove that they do not belong to any “prohibited group,” such as the mentally ill, criminals, children or those at high risk of committing violent crime, such as individuals with a police record of threatening the life of another. With these provisions, most U.S. active shooters would have been denied the purchase of a firearm.
▪ Not all mass shootings are terrorism.
There is no doubt that mass shootings terrorize. However, not all active shooters in mass shooting have a political cause. For example, the church shooting in Charleston, S.C., in June 2015 was a hate crime but was not judged by the federal government to be a terrorist act. The majority of active shooters are linked to mental health issues, bullying and disgruntled employees. Active shooters may be motivated by a variety of personal or political motivations, usually not aimed at weakening government legitimacy. Frequent motivations are revenge or a quest for power.
▪ Historical comparisons may be flawed.
Beginning in 2008, the FBI limited mass shootings to incidents where an individual — or in rare circumstances, more than one — “kills four or more people in a single incident (not including the shooter), typically in a single location.” In 2013, the FBI changed its definition, moving away from “mass shootings” toward identifying an “active shooter” as “an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.” This change means the agency now includes incidents in which fewer than four people die, but in which several are injured. This change impacted the number of cases included in studies and affected the comparability of studies.
Frederic Lemieux is Georgetown University’s professor of the practice and faculty director of the master's in applied intelligence.