How rampant are mass shootings?

Each time there is a shooting at a school, headlines blast the news across the nation. Attention is focused on the killers, the weapons used (especially if an assault weapon), and the youth of the victims. Each of these sad events create indelible images in the minds of the public, and it can seem like this has been a trend all too common and prolific. But how common is it really?

Without hesitation the average American can name Columbine, Sandy Hook, Colorado, and the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords as examples of the senseless gun violence plaguing the nation. Some might be able to recall Binghamton, San Antonio, Tampa, Lancaster, and Fort Hood. Those who are older might even recall Olivehurst, San Ysidro and Stockton. From coast to coast, North to South, covering more than half the States in the nation there have been shootings for over 30 years that have occurred.

In the 1980′s there were the shootings at post offices, which are the source of the term “going postal”. In the 1990′s it was schools and disturbed youth. Today there is a growing trend of mentally disturbed attention seekers, copycatting these prior events and sadly finding variations of their own. The problem is not new.

But to hear gun restriction advocates, the answer is just banning assault weapons. Those individuals focus on a select few of the cases of mass shootings, focusing attention on events post 2004 – when the 1994 assault weapons ban ended. An example can be found in the way these shootings are described, [emphasis added]

“Since 1982, there have been at least 62 mass shootings* across the country, with the killings unfolding in 30 states from Massachusetts to Hawaii. Twenty-five of these mass shootings have occurred since 2006, and seven of them took place in 2012. – Mark Follman, Gavin Aronsen, and Deanna Pan – MotherJones.com

The idea is to sink in the thought that the violence is escalating, and the lack of a gun restriction law is to blame. The disservice of this kind of obfuscation of the truth is that it results in conclusions seeking causes. Like Vice President Biden declaring that Executive Power must be used to enact gun control, then going out to speak with the NRA and other sources about gun control options. The decision has already been made, now it’s just finding the justification for that conclusion.

That wouldn’t be so bad, if the result was realistic in curtailing the problem. But it’s not. The problem existed well before 2006, when 37 of the shootings highlighted in the Mother Jones article took place. That includes the time that the much ballyhooed ’94 ban was in effect. But that doesn’t promote another gun restriction bans, so instead the emphasis is shifted. Which means the underlying problem is not being resolved.

Professor James Alan Fox has created an extensive charting of incidents of mass shootings, defined by the FBI as single events where 4 or more individuals were shot and killed. The data covers 3 decades, not just a focus since a partisan loved law expired. The result was the following graph:

Mass Shooting Chart from 1980 to 2010 by Prof. James Alan Fox, Northwestern University
Mass Shooting Chart from 1980 to 2010 by Prof. James Alan Fox, Northwestern University

The data, without edit or emphasis towards a predisposition, shows that

“Over the thirty-year time frame, an average of about 20 mass murders have occurred annually in the United States with an average death toll of about 100 per year.”

2 things can be derived from this conclusion:

  1. Mass murders via shootings are relatively consistent over time and quantity

  2. The number of deaths, while each is sad and unnecessary, are far from epidemic

But working from the data by Mother Jones, that includes more than just the mass shootings, 25% of all the tragic events they counted included the use or possession of an assault weapon. An average of 1.2 assault weapons per year over 30 years (a total of 35 assault weapons) in these horrific crimes.

Why is that important? Because if the movement for gun restrictions as the primary safeguard to the public are correct, 75% of these kinds of tragedies will continue relatively unabated. Is the battle being waged against the 2nd Amendment, as some claim, and opposition like the NRA worth potentially stopping 1 – 2 events per year? To the families that have lost a loved one, of course. But if we are trying to increase the safety of the nation, shouldn’t the focus be on what is motivating the majority of these hateful crimes? Shouldn’t the resources be poured in to finding the root cause and eliminating it?

Speaking to the bigger picture, 48% of these horrific mass shootings involved handguns. Proponents of gun restrictions as the primary focus are also targeting high capacity magazines. The theory is that in limiting the number of bullets available, more time is available for acts of heroism and defensive reaction. Which sounds excellent on paper.

An example provided to us by one restriction advocate, was the case of the Binghamton American Civic Center shooter. They noted that had the shooter not had a 30-round magazine, and limited to just the 8-round standard magazines, he may have been able to be stopped via heroic action.

Given is the point that 30-round magazines are excessive. Given too is the point that during a magazine change an act of heroism is possible. But then there is reality as well.

It takes 2-3 seconds to change a magazine, of any size. Many of the sad events have had shooters with multiple weapons, often 2 or more handguns and occasionally knives as well. Even with standard capacity magazines, multiple innocents can be injured and killed. Thus, restricting high capacity magazines does not confer real safety from maniacs and criminals. The margin of extra time for heroic action is not something that allows for even a low percentage of improved safety – unless someone else has a gun and can engage the shooter – which is not what restriction advocates suggest.

Lest this sound like no action should be taken, we pause to correct that impression. Yes, an argument can be made to restrict certain types of weapons. Just as bazookas and hand grenades are restricted so might other weapons be. Equally, 20- and 30-round magazines are unnecessary and provide too much incentive to the mentally unbalanced and criminal. Restriction is not implausible as a deterrent.

But restriction of any particular weapon class, or magazine type, by itself, is not the key to safety. The 30 year chart by Professor Fox, and the 37 incidents highlighted at Mother Jones before and during the assault weapons ban proves this. The numbers make it clear, focus on a symptom – as painful as it may be – does not confer safety nor infer prevention. It only deludes the masses into a false sense of security.

IF there is a need for proof of how inadequate a gun restriction may be, by itself or as a primary focus above all else, on need only look at yet another headline, from today – Taft Union High School evacuated after shooting; 2 reported injured. The incident was with a shotgun, no magazine involved and not on the list of restrictive bans. Restriction is not enough if true safety and prevention is desired.

Thus it must be stated that other avenues must be sought. Microstamping ammunition, tougher mental health standards, identification of potential dangers to society, stricter gun laws for the use of a gun in a violent crime, less media hype about the shooter in these incidents and far less national coverage, and a protracted non-partisan research into the motivation and causes that create these kinds of godforsaken events, to name a few.

Mass shootings have been a sad part of the national history for more than 30 years. In that time neither the major media, the government, nor the public have figured out that addressing the symptoms can only comfort the minds of the masses for brief interludes. Conclusions in search of causes may win elections, but have not made anyone better off – that is the reality and it cannot be escaped.

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