In the wake of the tragedy in Uvalde, Texas, Dan O’Donnell debunks every major myth and misconception about mass shootings in America.
May 27, 2022
Perspective by Dan O’Donnell
Note: A version of this article was first published on April 21, 2021. It has been updated to include current statistics
After a gunman opened fire inside an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, America was forced to once again confront the horror of mass murder. Just days after another shooter killed ten people at a grocery store in Buffalo, the massacre in Uvalde reinforced the idea that these sorts of incidents have become commonplace.
While they do have a tendency to cluster together, mass shootings are exceedingly rare and, contrary to the predominant media narrative about them, they are not easily preventable through more gun control legislation. These are just two of the most frequent myths about mass shootings that have arisen.
In order to have a productive debate an issue as complex as why mass shootings occur, it is imperative to dispel those myths and expose the truth.
Myth 1: There is a standard definition of “mass shooting”
The first myth is that there is a standard definition for the phrase “mass shooting.” The FBI in the 1980s began defining a “mass murderer” as someone who kills “four or more people in a single incident (not including himself), typically in a single location.” In 2013, Congress decreed that “the term ‘mass killings’ means three or more killings in a single incident,” often in a “place of public use.”
Several years later, The Washington Post established a database of every mass shooting in the United States since the Texas bell tower shooting in 1966 in which it defined the phrase “mass shooting” as any incident “in which four or more people were killed, usually by a lone shooter.” This definition “does not include shootings tied to robberies that went awry, and it does not include domestic shootings that took place exclusively in private homes.”
This is the commonly understood definition of a “mass shooting” or “mass murder” in America—a lone gunman bursts into a public place such as a school or house of worship and begins killing indiscriminately.
However, the most commonly cited definition of “mass shooting” in the media is that of the Gun Violence Archive, which uses a “purely statistical threshold to define mass shooting based only on the numeric value of four or more shot or killed, not including the shooter.”
Myth 2: Mass shootings happen all the time in America
As a result of the Gun Violence Archive’s running count, the public is led to believe that random incidents of mass murder happen all the time in America. So far in 2022, the Gun Violence Archive has recorded 213 incidents that it defines as “mass shootings.”
Just nine, though, meet the FBI’s definition of a “mass murder.” And seven of those were domestic violence incidents or gangland shootouts.
In 78 of the Gun Violence Archive’s 213 alleged mass shootings this year, a full 37%, no one was killed. In 156 of them (73%), either no one or one person was killed. Less than one percent of them (two out of 213) meet the commonly understood definition of a “mass killing.”
The Gun Violence Archive’s database is valuable as a tool for statistical analysis, but when politicians or members of the media cite it to make the point that “mass shootings happen every day in America,” they confuse the public into believing that the overwhelming majority of these incidents are not domestic violence or gang-related shootouts that kill or injure innocent bystanders as well as the intended targets.
In reality, most are. This is not to say that any of them are in any way acceptable, but it is simply not true to suggest that one might die simply by going to the mall. Researchers in 2015 examined each one of the 358 mass shooting incidents in the Gun Violence Archive’s database that year and found that two-thirds of them were either gang-related or resulted from arguments between groups of people—many of whom were drunk or high.
Another 11% of the mass shooting incidents were domestic violence-related, resulting in a full 31% of all deaths in mass shootings in 2015. A substantial number of the remaining 24% of mass shooting incidents were robbery-related or committed in the commission of some other crime in high-crime areas of major or mid-sized cities. A staggering 90% of all mass shootings occurred in areas with higher-than-average poverty rates.
Myth 3: Mass shootings are responsible for a high percentage of gun deaths
Beginning with the infamous Texas bell tower massacre in 1966 and ending on May 12, 2021, The Washington Post logged a total of 189 mass murders in the United States—an average of just 3.4 per year. Those 189 incidents killed a total of 1,322 people—an average of 24 per year.
Since 1981, the United States has averaged 12,900 gun homicides per year. This means that an infinitesimal 0.18% of all gun homicides were committed during a mass shooting. Even the Gun Violence Archive, which has the most liberal definition of “mass shooting,” recorded 513 deaths in mass shooting incidents out of 19,395 total gun homicides in 2020—just 2.6%.
Gun homicides themselves are far outpaced by gun suicides as the primary driver of gun deaths in America per year. In 2020, the most recent year for which complete FBI data is available, there were 19,384 gun homicides, but 24,292 gun suicides. Every year since 1981, suicides have outpaced homicides, often by a wide margin. In fact, as a percentage of all deaths, gun homicides are incredibly rare in the United States, accounting for just 0.41% of all deaths over the past 25 years.
Myth 4: Most mass shootings involve assault rifles and high capacity magazines
Gun homicides do happen, though, and when they do they almost invariably involve a handgun.
From 2015 to 2020, the most recent years for which FBI data is available, there was an average of 10,200 guns used in homicides per year. Nearly two-thirds—64% (an average of 6,500 per year)—were handguns. Just 314.6 per year were rifles—an average of just 3%. Obviously, not all of those rifles are “assault rifles,” meaning that such weapons were only used in a tiny fraction of gun homicides.
In mass shootings, they are used quite a bit more frequently, but rifles alone were still only used in 14% of these incidents since investigators began tracking statistics in 1988. In 13% of shootings, the gunmen used both a handgun and a rifle, but in a full 56% they used only a handgun.
Clearly the handgun, not the “assault rifle” is the weapon of choice for mass shooters. As a result, it should come as no surprise that “high-capacity magazines” are not often used in mass shooting events.
“Few mass public shooters have used high-capacity magazines, and there is no evidence that the lethality of such attacks would have been affected by delays of two to four seconds to switch magazines,” a Heritage Foundation investigation found in 2018. “In fact, some of the largest mass shootings in U.S. history were carried out with low-capacity weapons.”
Among those, the Heritage Foundation noted, was the third-deadliest mass shooting in American history at Virginia Tech University in 2007, during which the gunman shooter “killed 32 and injured 17 with two handguns, one of which had a 10-round magazine and the other a 15-round magazine. He simply brought 19 extra magazines.”
Myth 5: The United States is the only country where mass shootings happen
Just as it is untrue that mass shooters only use assault rifles and high-capacity magazines, it is also patently false to claim that the US is the only nation where mass shootings occur. The five deadliest mass shootings in world history all took place outside of the US. So did eight of the ten deadliest. So did 33 of the 50 deadliest mass shootings in world history.
What is often forgotten in the debate over mass shootings is that the United States has the third-highest population in the world. In 2016, the Crime Research Prevention Center found that when adjusted for population, the US actually ranked 12th in mass shootings per capita from 2009 to 2015.
Two years later, it analyzed data on mass shootings across the globe from 1966 to 2012 and found that while the US made up roughly 4.6% of the world’s population, it accounted for less than 1.43% of mass shooters and 2.11% of the people killed in mass shooting incidents.
Just as the United States is hardly alone in dealing with mass murders, it is also far from the worst country in the world when it comes to gun violence generally. The US actually ranks 83rd in the world in murders per capita (out of 193 UN-recognized countries), while its 5.35 murders per 100,000 residents is well below the world average of 7.03.
Myth 6: Strict gun control measures can stop mass shootings
Although gun murders don’t happen as often per capita in the US as they do in other countries, they do happen, and a common response to them—especially mass shootings—is to call for stricter gun laws. If guns are more difficult to obtain, the thinking goes, then people will no longer use guns to kill people.
It should here be pointed out that an estimated 94% of mass shootings occurred in places (schools, churches, stores) where guns are banned. Banning assault rifles outright would only stop the 14% of mass shootings in which the gunman used such a weapon, and even fewer mass shooters use high-capacity magazines.
According to the Giffords Center, an anti-gun advocacy group, California has the strongest gun laws in the nation and is one of only a handful of states to earn an A grade. It has also had 32 of the nation’s 187 mass shootings since 1966, a full 17% of the total and far more than any other state.
The idea of stronger gun laws is to reduce the number of guns on the street, which will thereby reduce the number of times that those guns are used to kill people, but this is a fundamentally false premise. Gun homicides in America peaked in the late 1980s to early 1990s and have actually been declining since then (with a few peaks in both 2014 and 2020).
In 1993, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that there were roughly nine gun murders for every 100,000 Americans. In 2013, that number declined by 40% to 3.6 per 100,000. At the same time, private gun ownership skyrocketed by an estimated 56%–from 0.93 guns per person in 1993 to 1.45 20 years later.
Since 2013, the number and frequency of mass murders has increased, even as states have implemented stricter and stricter gun laws. One would be hard pressed to claim that any state had stricter gun laws prior to 1966 than it does today, but researchers have determined that there were just 25 mass shootings in the 50 years prior to the infamous Texas bell tower massacre.
There were 189 in the 55 years after. How can this be? States and the federal government alike have implemented tougher and tougher gun laws, yet more and more mass shootings keep happening. Why?
Myth 7: Media coverage of mass shootings doesn’t inspire more of them
The answer, sadly, seems to lie in the American public’s fascination with them. Intense media coverage of each shooting appears to spark copycats. And there was no more seminal moment for these copycats than April 20, 1999. When two teenage gunmen burst into Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado and killed 15 classmates and teachers and injured 24 others, there had been 49 mass murders in the previous 22 years.
In the 22 years after, there were 118. That’s right, more than 63% of all mass shootings in the United States occurred after Columbine, and a significant percentage were directly or indirectly inspired by it. The so-called “Columbine Effect” began influencing copycats almost immediately. Eight days after the massacre in Littleton, a 14-year-old in Canada dressed in a dark trench coat similar to the ones the Columbine gunmen wore burst into his school and opened fire, killing a classmate.
He would hardly be the last. The gunmen in both the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 and Sandy Hook massacre five years later openly cited the Columbine gunmen as inspirations for their own crimes, but in a broader sense, most all mass shooters in the post-Columbine era have sought a similar level of perverse immortality as that attained by the two teenage gunmen in Littleton.
Sociologist Ralph Larkin examined the 12 mass shootings in America immediately following Columbine and found that eight of the gunmen explicitly referenced that massacre as an inspiration. So did six of the 11 school shootings outside of the United States. So did each one of the 11 thwarted school shootings that Lark studied.
Columbine, argued researcher Malcolm Gladwell in 2015, lowered the threshold for committing such a heinous act.
“Social processes are driven by our thresholds—which [sociologist Mark Granovetter] defined as the number of people who need to be doing some activity before we agree to join them,” Gladwell wrote. “In the elegant theoretical model Granovetter proposed, riots were started by people with a threshold of zero—instigators willing to throw a rock through a window at the slightest provocation. Then comes the person who will throw a rock if someone else goes first. He has a threshold of one. Next in is the person with the threshold of two. His qualms are overcome when he sees the instigator and the instigator’s accomplice.
“Next to him is someone with a threshold of three, who would never break windows and loot stores unless there were three people right in front of him who were already doing that—and so on up to the hundredth person, a righteous upstanding citizen who nonetheless could set his beliefs aside and grab a camera from the broken window of the electronics store if everyone around him was grabbing cameras from the electronics store.”
Columbine, Gladwell explained, lowered the threshold for mass shootings. Virginia Tech lowered it some more. Sandy Hook lowered it even more. Ditto with San Bernardino, the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Las Vegas, and Parkland, Florida.
“In the day of [the Columbine gunmen], we could try to console ourselves with the thought that there was nothing we could do, that no law or intervention or restrictions on guns could make a difference in the face of someone so evil,” Gladwell noted. “But the riot has now engulfed the boys who were once content to play with chemistry sets in the basement. The problem is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men who are willing to contemplate horrific acts. It’s worse. It’s that young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts.”
In other words, grievance culture has produced several generations of young men obsessed with getting even and settling scores for real or imagined slights, and each new group has seen the media obsess over the last and becomes fixated on achieving an even greater level of infamy.
A study published in the National Institutes of Health in 2017 concluded that “the way that the media report an event can play a role in increasing the probability of imitation.
“When a mass shooting event occurs, there is generally extensive media coverage. This coverage often repeatedly presents the shooter’s image, manifesto, and life story and the details of the event, and doing so can directly influence imitation,” researchers found. “Social status is conferred when the mass shooter obtains a significant level of notoriety from news reports. Images displaying shooters aiming guns at the camera project an air of danger and toughness.
“Similarities between the shooter and others are brought to the surface through detailed accounts of the life of the shooter, with which others may identify. Fulfilled manifestos and repeated reports of body counts heap rewards on the violent act and display competence. Detailed play-by-play accounts of the event provide feedback on the performance of the shooter. All of these instances serve to create a model with sufficient detail to promote imitated mass shootings for some individuals.”
Notoriety, which serves as a form of both revenge and immortality, is thus a powerful motivator and a primary reason why mass shootings are often clustered. There are both direct copycats and a more generalized lowered threshold that makes future mass shootings more likely.
The truth about these events is that while they are very rare, they do tend to happen in waves that cannot be easily stopped with stricter gun laws. The belief that they can is, like much of what America thinks it knows about mass shootings, a myth.
And it must first recognize and debunk those myths before it can ever hope to solve a problem as deep and complex as gun violence.