Criminology Professor: Mass Shootings Are Not Common

Mass shootings get lots of publicity but they are not a growing problem.

Since I have just written about a real action hero who faced a mass shooter, I suppose I should point out that such heroes are not often needed, thankfully.

The truth is that mass shooters are rare. Nor do they represent a growing trend that we must fear. James Alan Fox, professor of criminology at Northeastern University, writes at USA Today:

Further adding to the state of alarm and confusion, headlines featured scary yet conflicting statistics from various sources. By reducing the standard threshold in defining a mass shooting (four or more killed by gunfire, not including the perpetrator), the incidence can reach incredible proportions. For example, the “Mass Shooting Tracker” website redefines a mass shooting as an incident in which at least four people (including the assailant) are shot, but not necessarily killed. By this criterion, there have been nearly 300 thus far this year.

Notwithstanding the sadness caused by each of these tragedies, nothing has really changed in term of risk. One can take virtually any period of months or years during the past few decades and find a series of shootings that seemed at the time to signal a new epidemic. The ‘80s were marked by a flurry of deadly postal shootings, which gave rise to the term “going postal.” The ‘90s witnessed a string of mass shootings in middle and high schools carried out by alienated adolescents with access to borrowed guns, prompting the venerable Dan Rather to declare an epidemic of school violence.

More recently, the “active shooter” has become the new boogeyman armed with a gun. Of course, there were shootings in public places long before this frightening catchphrase was created. Nowadays, any time someone shows up with a gun in a school, a church, a movie theater, a shopping mall or a restaurant, twitter becomes alive with messages of alarm.

I certainly don’t mean to minimize the suffering of the Oregon victims and their families, but the shooting spree is not a reflection of more deadly times.

Using a stable definition of “mass shooter,” there have been about 20 a year and that number has been relatively unchanged over the last few decades.

My suspicion is that we will see fewer such shootings in the future. Why? Because, after Sandy Hook, the media managed to create a fear of gun confiscation as well as a fear of mass shooters. As a result, gun purchases went way up. The more guns we have, the less likely it is a mass shooter will be able to accomplish a murder spree.