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The FAQs: What You Should Know About Mass Shootings

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What just happened?

This past weekend, dual massacres occurred in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. At least 31 people were killed, and dozens more were injured in these mass shootings.

What is a mass shooting?

Despite the common usage of the term, there is no universally accepted definition of what constitutes a mass shooting. Because media outlets, academic researchers, and law enforcement agencies use different criteria to determine what constitutes a mass shooting, the number of such incidents can range from less than 10 to more than 350 a year.

For the purposes of this article, the term mass shooter will be defined as an active-shooter incident in which a mass murderer used a firearm to indiscriminately target and kill at least four persons (excluding the shooter). The elements of this definition include:

Active-shooter incident — The Department of Homeland Security defines an active shooter as an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area; in most cases, active shooters use firearms(s), and there is no pattern or method to their selection of victims.

Mass murderer — The FBI defines mass murder as four or more murders occurring during the same incident, with no distinctive time period between the murders.

Use of a firearm — This element excludes killings where the firearm was included in the killing spree but was not the main cause of death.

Indiscriminate targeting — This element excludes crimes of armed robbery, gang violence, or domestic violence.

While this definition may be considered overly narrow (hundreds of shootings involve fewer than three deaths), I believe it most closely matches the common public perception of what constitutes a mass shooting while remaining precise enough to be accurately measured.

How many mass shootings occur each year?

According to the FBI, there were 277 active shooter incidents in the United States between 2000 and 2018. Of those, 64 meet our definition mass shootings.

In 2019, about five shootings—including the ones in El Paso and Dayton—fit this definition.

What weapons are most frequently used in mass shooting incidents?

Here is a breakdown of the weapons used in each of the 64 mass shootings from 2000 to 2018:

Handgun: 28

Rifle: 11

Rifle and handgun: 9

Shotgun and handgun: 6

Rifle, shotgun, and handgun: 5

Rifle and shotgun: 3

Shotgun: 2

How many deaths were involved in each shooting?

Of the mass shooting from 2000 to 2018:

4 deaths: 12

5 deaths: 11

6 deaths: 14

7 deaths: 5

8 deaths: 3

9 deaths: 3

10 deaths: 2

11 deaths: 1

12 deaths: 3

13 deaths: 2

14 deaths: 1

17 deaths: 1

26 deaths: 1

27 deaths: 1

32 deaths: 1

48 deaths: 1

49 deaths: 1

58 deaths: 1

What is the gender of mass shooters?

Of the 64 mass shootings from 2000 to 2018, 61 were by men, two were by women, and one incident included one man and one woman (a husband and wife).

Is the number of mass shooting increasing?

Based on a 44-year period (1970-2013), data show that there were on average:

  • one (1.1) incident per year during the 1970s (5.5 victims murdered, 2.0 wounded per incident),
  • nearly three (2.7) incidents per year during the 1980s (6.1 victims murdered, 5.3 wounded per incident),
  • four (4.0) incidents per year during the 1990s (5.6 victims murdered, 5.5 wounded per incident),
  • four (4.1) incidents per year during the 2000s (6.4 victims murdered, 4.0 wounded per incident), and
  • four (4.5) incidents per year from 2010 through 2013 (7.4 victims murdered, 6.3 wounded per incident).

According to the Congressional Research Service, “these decade-long averages suggest that the prevalence, if not the deadliness, of ‘mass public shootings’ increased in the 1970s and 1980s, and continued to increase, but not as steeply, during the 1990s, 2000s, and first four years of the 2010s.”

Do gun control policies increase or decrease mass shootings?

The Rand Corporation conducted a systematic review of seven broad classes of gun policies that have been implemented in some states (background checks; bans on sale of assault weapons and high capacity magazines; child-access prevention laws; concealed-carry laws; licensing and permitting requirements; minimum age requirements; and waiting periods) and the effects of those policies on mass shootings.

They found no qualifying studies showing that any of the policies either increased or decreased the prevalence of mass shootings.

Is mental illness a primary factor in mass shootings?

study of mass killers found the majority exhibited no evidence of a severe mental disorder, such as psychosis or hallucinations. The 2016 analysis of 71 lone-actor terrorists and 115 mass killers also found the rate of psychotic disorders to be roughly 20 percent.

The overall rate of any psychiatric history among mass killers—including such probable diagnoses as depression, learning disabilities, or ADHD—was 48 percent. However, about two-thirds of this group had faced long-term stress, and more than 40 percent had problems with alcohol, marijuana, or other drugs.

Yet as American Psychological Association president Rosie Phillips Davis noted after the recent shootings, “The rates of mental illness are roughly the same around the world, yet other countries are not experiencing these traumatic events as often as we face them.”

Why are there more mass shootings in America than in other countries?

America is no more divided than Afghanistan, nor do we have a higher rate of mentally ill people than Australia. What makes our nation distinctive is our access to firearms. Although we make up less than 5 percent of the global population, we own approximately 46 percent of the world’s guns.

Currently, out of the 857 million civilian-held firearms, American civilians own an estimated 393 million guns. There is approximately 120.5 guns per every 100 people in the country, or 1.2 guns per person.

If we repealed the Second Amendment and the government began confiscating guns at the rate of 1 million firearms a month, it would take 33 years before we removed all the firearms in circulation. That’s likely why gun policies have a negligible impact on mass shootings. The sheer number of guns in the United States makes it nearly impossible to prevent someone willing to die to commit mass murder from obtaining a firearm.

What can Christians do about mass shootings?

The Violence Project, a nonpartisan think tank, conducted a study and found four commonalities among the perpetrators of recent mass shootings.

1. The vast majority of mass shooters in their study experienced early childhood trauma and exposure to violence at a young age.

2. Almost every mass shooter had reached an identifiable crisis point in the weeks or months leading up to the shooting.

3. Most of the shooters had studied the actions of other shooters and sought validation for their motives.

4. The shooters all had the means to carry out their plans.

Christians should find ways to have an effect in each of these four areas. For example, churches can help by reaching out to young people suffering trauma. As researchers Jillian Peterson and James Densley say, churches contribute by “initiating conversations about mental health and establishing systems for identifying individuals in crisis, reporting concerns and reaching out—not with punitive measures but with resources and long-term intervention.” We can also, as individual Christians, reach out to those in our sphere of influence who might have reached an “identifiable crisis point” and offer them the hope that can only be found in Jesus.

Another way we can make a difference after such evil acts is to make it more difficult for potential perpetrators to find validation for their planned actions. “[W]e all can slow the spread of mass shootings by changing how we consume, produce, and distribute violent content on media and social media,” Peterson and Densley say. “Don’t like or share violent content. Don’t read or share killers’ manifestos and other hate screeds posted on the internet.”

Finally, we can support private and public actions that make it more difficult for would-be perpetrators to obtain firearms. For some people this may mean securing access to their own weapons. (In 80 percent of school shootings studied by the Violence Project, the murderers got their weapons from family members.) For other people this may mean supporting policies such as red-flag laws.

Christians can and will disagree about what public policy is most effective. But we must debate the issue in love by following the dictates of a biblically informed conscience that has been shaped by facts and evidence. Though we may be divided about policy solutions, we should be united in opposing the climate of hate and division that has allowed evil and violent ideology to flourish. Above all, we must continue to point our broken world to Jesus as the ultimate source of solace and salvation.

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