Are Mass Shootings Really On the Rise — Or Do We Just Think They Are?

Is our perception of rising rates of mass shootings really a product of our broader fear of random crime? (Photo: Nadeen Nakib for Yahoo Health/iStock)

Sandy Hook. Aurora. Virginia Tech. Fort Hood. Charleston. Umpqua Community College in Oregon.

President Obama said that mass shootings have become “routine.” It certainly seems that way. When a tragic news report about an active shooter pops up, you likely feel sad — but not surprised. From the shooting of two WDBJ journalists in August to the incident at Umpqua in early October, perpetrators are citing previous shootings as inspiration or motivation for their crimes.

These events are tragedies. The incidents are frightening.

And it feels like they’re on the rise.

However, criminologists, forensic psychologists, and other experts are not in agreement on that point. In recent months, there’s been a flurry of discussion about whether mass shootings are actually growing more common than in past decades, or whether we just think they are.

Prominent criminologist James Alan Fox called the Umpqua incident “tragic” but not a trend. “The Oregon shooting had countless news outlets flooding the airwaves and the Internet with questionable statistics on the incidence of mass shootings along with sidebar listings of the deadliest shooting sprees in U.S. history,” he wrote in USA Today. “In the usual rush to offer up some breaking information, news reports were embellished with unconfirmed details about the massacre and the assailant that did little but fuel a contagion of fear.”

Fox highlighted a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, which indicates the rise in mass shootings is negligible, if it exists at all. “I certainly don’t mean to minimize the suffering of the Oregon victims and their families,” Fox wrote in his column, “but the shooting spree is not a reflection of more deadly times.”

In fact, the FBI just released a report in late September noting that violent crime in the United States is down — which feels impossible amid news reports like Charleston and Oregon. Right now, it’s so easy to feel like we’re living in a world where it’s not safe to walk into a crowded building.

Defining ‘Mass Shooting’

There is no standard definition for what we’ve come to know as a “mass shooting,” which makes it hard to track and report numbers. Some liken the concept to mass murder, where four or more people are killed in a single episode. This would mean that, in a mass shooting, “four or more people are shot” in a single incident (see the oft-cited Mass Shooting Tracker).

But that is not the only way we’ve tried to track mass shootings. The 2014 FBI report on the prevalence of “active shooter incidents” in the United States was frequently cited as evidence of a rise, although the Bureau cautioned against it. The active-shooter report is not an accurate assessment of mass shooting prevalence, says Chris Ferguson, PhD, an associate professor and the chairman of psychology at Stetson University in Florida, and an expert on media, violent crimes and forensic psychology.

First, the term “active shooter incident” is not synonymous with “mass shooting,” Ferguson tells Yahoo Health. “It’s a bit of an ‘apples to oranges’ comparison, since ‘active shooter’ and ‘mass-homicide perpetrator’ aren’t exactly the same thing, despite the fact that there may be some overlap. An active shooter may not actually hit anyone.”

The FBI report also relied fairly heavily on newspaper data and other “open sources” of information. “If you just rely on newspaper headlines, this methodology only really gets at how much newspapers pay attention to a crime, not how much it actually happens,” says Ferguson.

Criminologist Grant Duwe, PhD, the director of research and evaluation at the Minnesota Department of Corrections and author of Mass Murder in the United States: A History, has analyzed data on more than 1,300 mass shootings and mass murders since 1900. He wrote a piece about the actual prevalence of mass public shootings for Reason last year, where he points out the flaws in recent data.

To compile his stats, Duwe used resources like the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Reports, not the news media; he says analyses using primarily headlines (like this one from Mother Jones) have missed up to 40 percent of older mass public shootings, leading to inflated numbers in more recent years.

Duwe also refers to the events he’s researched and classified, like Sandy Hook and Aurora, as “mass public shootings.” That way, there’s more clarity. “While virtually all mass killings are newsworthy, the ones that capture the most attention, fear, and concern are what I’ve referred to as mass public shootings,” he says. “Mass shooting’ is too imprecise, because it could include ones that occur in the home. And most mass murders — including those committed with guns — take place in a residential setting.”

Duwe defines mass public shootings as “incidents that occur in the absence of other criminal activity, like robberies, drug deals, or gang ‘turf wars,’ in which a gun was used to kill four or more victims at a public location within a 24-hour period.”

Here’s what Duwe has found: “There is some truth to the idea that there has been an increase, because there has been an uptick in the mass public shooting rate, per 100 million in the U.S. population, since the mid-2000s,” he tells Yahoo Health. “But what we see when we look back farther in time, [is] that the rate we’ve observed since the mid-2000s is similar to what we saw in the U.S. in the 1980s and early 1990s.” So, according to Duwe’s data, the mass public shooting rate today closely mirrors what we saw in the 80s and 90s.

According to his data set, Duwe says mass public shootings are on the rise only if you look at the years between 1996 and 2013. But if you expand outward to the last 32 years, the rate of recent mass shootings is fairly typical.

Why It Seems Like Mass Shootings Are Increasing

The trends in mass shootings have not always run parallel to the trends in mass murder or general homicide. “Of the more than 160 mass public shootings I’ve studied, relatively few occurred prior to the mid-1960s,” Duwe explains. “But the mass public shooting carried out by Charles Whitman at the University of Texas in 1966 has proved to be a bellwether for the overall increase over the last 50 years.”

Before the 1966 Whitman shooting, there had been 24 mass public shootings. In the 50 years since Whitman, there have been 135. “More specifically, the mass public shooting rate increased from the mid-1960s through the mid-1990s,” Duwe says. “Following a dip in the rate from the mid-90s through the mid-2000s, it has increased over the last decade and returned to levels that we observed during the 1980s and early 1990s.”

Since mass shootings are rare, Duwe has calculated odds at per 100 million of the U.S. population. Between the years of 1982 and 2013, the average was 1.31 mass public shootings per 100 million. Since the mid-2000s, the rate has risen slightly to 1.51 — but this mimics the period from 1982 to 1995 when the rate was 1.50 per 100 million. Of the 11 years when mass shootings have been highest, only two have fallen within the past eight years; six of the highest incidence rates occurred between 1988 and 1995.

Except for 2012 when there was a brief spike — the year of Aurora and Sandy Hook —the rate of mass public shootings has stayed relatively consistent from year to year since the mid-90s, according to Duwe’s research. But the higher prevalence of shootings in the last decade, especially in the era of social media, has likely given rise to the widespread perception that mass public shootings have become incredibly “routine.”

Related: Texas Murders Expose Fatal Link Between Gun Sales Loopholes and Domestic Violence

In actuality, it may feel as though mass public shootings are astronomically high now, because we saw a decline in the mid-90s and early 2000s.

Another reason? While these crimes aren’t new, terms like “mass shooting” and “active shooter” are fairly recent classifications, which might also be part of the reason these crimes feel like of-the-moment events, says Art Markman, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin.

According to some pop-psych theories, crimes also tend to trend whenever they tap into a larger social narrative or ongoing social debate. They become “evidence” for a particular narrative — and mass public shootings contribute to several current (and important) cultural discussions, most notably gun control and mental illness.

Crime Trends and ‘Moral Panic’

Today, publicizing a mass shooting spurs us to to talk about the underlying cause — and most of us immediately think of gun control and mental illness. In the past, different crimes fueled different social debates of the time.

Take serial murder in the 1970s and 1980s, for instance. “Serial murder tapped into social concerns about pornography, as serial murder then was often perceived as a sex crime exclusively — it often is a sex crime, but not always,” says Ferguson. “So when we were debating porn effects in the ‘70s and ‘80s, news media created serial murder superstars like Ted Bundy, who claimed to have been influenced by exposure to porn. Once we got used to porn in the 90s, suddenly little attention was paid to serial murder in news media.”

Related: Does Media Coverage After a Mass Shooting Do More Harm Than Good?

But that doesn’t mean serial murderers disappeared altogether. John Douglas, the former Chief of the FBI’s Serial Elite Serial Crime Unit and author of the book Mind Hunter, estimates (conservatively) that there are between 25 and 50 active serial killers in the United States at any one time.

Ferguson also points to increased paranoia about child kidnappings in the 80s and early ‘90s, when abducted children began appearing on the back of milk cartons. “This created the impression that child abduction was imminent, when, in fact, the vast majority of those kids were either runaways or had been taken by non-custodial family members,” he says.

Often, the crimes we pay most attention to tend to play into the “moral panics” of the public — or in other words, a population’s fears about an emerging problem that has the potential to threaten social order. For ‘80s and ‘90s kidnappings, for instance, Ferguson says there were fears about Satanic cults abducting children to use as part of their rituals.

Other moral panics have included waves of “juvenile superpredators” and “female juvenile delinquents” in the ‘90s (that didn’t come), and even Halloween candy-tampering fears dating as far back as the first half of the 20th century, says Ferguson. “Many crime-related moral panics focus on new media, as well,” he explains. “Video games currently, but also rap music in the ‘90s, rock in the ‘80s, rock again in the ‘50s, comic books in the ‘50s, and even movies and jazz in the ‘20s and ‘30s.” Emerging media promotes dark culture of sex, violence, delinquency and the like — or so were our past fears, especially as they related to the youth of the time.

If we loop back to mass public shootings, Markman says that perhaps the seeming randomness is what’s spurring our heightened fear right now. “The probability of being shot randomly in an active shooter incident is quite low, especially compared to the number of suicides by gun and the number of other gun deaths that happen each day,” he says. (CDC data estimates there are roughly 57 gun suicides and 30 other gun deaths each day in America.) “The media is publicizing these active shooter incidents, in part, because they tap into a broad fear we have about random crime.”

Looking Ahead

“Why are mass shootings on the rise?”

Perhaps the question on everyone’s lips is the wrong one, Duwe argues. Shootings and mass murder were growing fears in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, finally resulting in the Federal Assault Weapons Ban in 1994 — and a key dip in mass public shootings through the mid-2000s, which have otherwise held steady before and after that brief period.

So why did we see a drop in shootings at this moment in history? “The late-1990s and early-2000s coincided with a bustling economy, the ban on assault weapons, a rising prison population, increases in the number of police, a fading crack epidemic, and the aging of the baby boomers beyond their peak crime years,” he writes in his Reason analysis. “It’s currently unknown whether these factors (or any others) were responsible for the decline in mass public shootings. Still, determining why the mass public shooting rate dropped, which is much easier said than done, may shed light on whether it’s possible to curb this type of violence in the future.”

Statistically, mass public shootings are rare, Duwe says: “Even when we focus on the last 50 years, during which mass public shootings have been more common, we see an average of less than three cases per year. The average increases to four per year when we focus on the last 25 years — but the point remains that mass public shootings occur infrequently.”

But of course, rarity is no consolation in the aftermath of tragedies like Oregon, Charleston, Newtown or Columbine. One mass public shooting is still one too many, and we still haven't resolved the issues surrounding them, like availability of resources for the mentally ill or just how accessible guns should be to all.

Looking at the actual numbers might help reduce some major fears — but looking at reasons for the decline in shootings might also provide key insights into stopping such tragedies on a national level.

As Duwe points out, “it’s easier said than done.” But it’s a place to start. At least the attention given to these events is a constant reminder that we need to continue the discussion, because we’ve yet to find real solutions.

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