The 6 Most Important Questions About Gun Violence and Mass Shootings In America

Last Wednesday (Dec. 2), Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik opened fired at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California, killing 14 and injuring 21 others.

The shooting came just five days after Robert Lewis Dear, Jr. gunned down three people (including one police officer) at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. Dear left nine others wounded in the shooting spree.

In the wake of these two tragedies, the debate over gun violence and gun regulation in America has once again taken center stage. With passionate opinions flying from all sides, this piece is an attempt to make sense of the issue by looking at some of the hard data available.

1. Are mass shootings actually on the rise?

A: It’s hard to say for sure, but they definitely seem to be.

One of the biggest problems with this debate is the fact that different people often use different definitions of the term “mass shooting”.

The most common definition being used today defines a mass shooting as any incident in which at least four people are shot in a public place and the motive of the attack appears to be indiscriminate killing.

By this definition, the shootings sprees in Colorado Springs and San Bernardino were mass shootings number 351 and 353 this year, according to The Mass Shooting Tracker. A total of 462 people have been killed in these incidents, with another 1,312 left wounded. Unfortunately, the Mass Shooting Tracker project has only been around since 2013, so it’s not very useful in terms of gauging trends.

The FBI’s definition of “mass shooting” refers to any incident in which at least four people were killed in a public place, again with a motive of indiscriminate killing (incidents of gang violence, armed robbery and domestic violence are excluded). Using this definition, investigative news outlet Mother Jones conducted its own analysis of mass shootings last year, gathering decades of records from as far back as 1982.

By the time the investigators finished poring through all the data, the trend was clear: mass shootings were definitely on the rise. In fact, of the 72 incidents that met Mother Jones’ criteria, almost half (35) occurred within in the last nine years.

mother jones mass shootings

Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health recently conducted their own study on mass shootings, using the Mother Jones data as a reference. They found that the rate of mass shootings in America has tripled since 2011:

In the last three years, there have been 14 mass shootings… occurring on average every 64 days. During the previous 29 years, mass shootings occurred on average every 200 days.

Another way to determine if mass shootings are actually happening more often is to look at the data on “active shooter” situations, which the FBI defines as any incident in which one or more people are, “actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.”

An FBI report published last year found that these types of incidents have also been happening more often in recent years:

fbi active shooters

So why is there is still a debate over whether or not mass shootings are becoming more common? The answer is simple: we didn’t track mass shootings as well in the past as we do today, which makes it difficult to compare statistics over long periods of time.

However, the data available suggests that mass shootings are indeed on the rise, especially in the last 5-10 years.

2. Is gun violence on the rise?

A: NO, it’s actually on the decline.

With all of the media coverage on mass shootings, many people are under the impression that gun violence is at an all-time high in the United States.

A recent survey from the Pew Research Center, for example, found that 56 percent of Americans believe that gun-related homicides are more common today than they were was 20 years ago.

In reality, the opposite is true. According to Pew,

Between 1993 and 2000, the gun homicide rate dropped by nearly half, from 7.0 homicides to 3.8 homicides per 100,000 people. Since then, the gun homicide rate has remained relatively flat.

gun homicide rate pew

Only 12 percent of the people polled by Pew accurately stated that the rate of gun-related homicides is lower today than it was 20 years ago (26 percent believed that the rate had remained about the same).

Clearly, our fears about gun violence in America have become completely disconnected from the actual facts and figures.

3. Is gun ownership on the rise?

A: NO, it’s actually on the decline.

Despite the tireless efforts of the NRA and other gun lobbyist groups, there’s no avoiding the fact that gun ownership has been steadily falling over the past 40 years.

At the peak of gun ownership in 1977, approximately 50.4 percent of American households reported having at least one gun; by 2014, that number had dropped to just 31 percent.

gun ownership

You may have noted that gun ownership and gun violence seem to have declined alongside one another over the past few decades — that’s no coincidence…

4. Is there a correlation between gun ownership and gun violence in a country?


According to the 2007 Small Arms Survey, there are roughly 88.8 civilian-owned guns for every 100 people in the United States — by far the highest rate among the 178 countries included in the survey. Yemen came in a distant second with 54.8 civilian-owned guns per 100 people, and Switzerland rounded out the top three at 45.7 guns per 100 people.

In 2012, University of Washington professor Joshua Tewksbury published data examining the connection between gun ownership and gun violence in highly developed countries.

The correlation was impossible to miss: countries with more civilian-owned guns tend to have more gun-related deaths.

guns and gun violence correlation

Courtesy of Tewksbury Lab, University of Washington

The chart above includes gun-related suicides, which are nearly twice as common as gun-related homicides in the United States. But even when you exclude suicides and look at murders alone, America is still at the top of the list among developed countries:

gun homicides developed world

Courtesy of the Washington Post

5. Would tougher gun regulations – like universal background checks for criminal history and mental health issues – help prevent mass shootings?


Not long ago, I wrote about how both gun owners and non- gun owners in America are overwhelmingly in favor of basic gun control regulations (as long as you ask specific questions).

For example, 85 percent of gun owners and 83 percent of non- gun owners are in favor of requiring universal background checks to, “make sure a purchaser is not legally prohibited from having a gun.”

When asked whether people should be prevented from purchasing a gun because of, “commitment to a hospital for psychiatric treatment or because of being declared mentally incompetent by a court of law,” 86 percent of gun owners said yes, as did 81 percent of non- gun owners.

Of course, it’s important to note that even the strictest gun control laws won’t stop every single mass shooting; if a person is truly determined to carry out such an attack, they will likely figure out how to get their hands on a weapon, one way or another.

That being said, tighter gun regulations could have helped prevent gun purchases in 8 of 15 recent mass shootings, including the cases of…

  • Dylann Roof: Roof killed nine people at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C. in February 2015. Two months before the shooting, Roof was charged with possession of a controlled substance — the charge should have prevented him from purchasing a firearm, but the FBI examiner responsible for his background check failed to obtain the police report from the incident;
  • Aaron Alexis: Alexis killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard in September 2013. According to The New York Times, Alexis, “twice sought treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs for psychiatric issues” in the month before the shooting; and
  • James Holmes: Holmes killed 12 and wounded 70 others at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. in July 2012. Holmes had been seeing a psychiatrist in the months before the shooting, but as the NYT notes, “seeing a psychiatrist, even for a serious mental illness, would not disqualify him from buying a gun.”

6. Do mass shootings account for a significant portion of the gun-related deaths in America?

A: NO.

According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 12,397 gun-related deaths in the United States so far this year. Even using the broadest definition of the term (four or more people shot), mass shootings have accounted for less than four percent of gun-related deaths in America this year.

If you use the FBI’s definition (four or more people killed, excluding gang violence, armed robbery and domestic violence), only 37 people have died in mass shootings so far this year — about 0.3% of total gun-related deaths.

As The New York Times points out, mass shootings, “are not the typical face of gun violence in America”:

Each day, some 30 people are victims of gun homicides, slain by rival gang members, drug dealers, trigger-happy robbers, drunken men after bar fights, frenzied family members or abusive partners. An additional 60 people a day kill themselves with guns.

And that’s the most important point of this whole debate: yes, stricter gun regulations could help prevent some of the mass shootings we’ve seen lately, but the real goal is to reduce the amount of deaths caused by everyday gun violence in America — the type that doesn’t make national headlines.


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