Debunking the hysteria about mass shootings

Summary: Hysteria about mass killings serves both left and right – so we have a crisis! How can we govern ourselves when bombarded with propaganda which we uncritically believe? Meanwhile, experts’ reports are ignored. So we tumble from fake crisis to fake crisis, unable to face the real perils which threaten us.

Vigil for the victims of a 2015 mass shooting at Umpqua Community College, Roseburg, OR. 

Vigil for mass murder
By Steve Dipaola/Reuters.

Are Mass Shootings Becoming More Frequent?

By Alan Reynolds from Cato at Liberty, 15 February 2018.

Terrible mass shootings like the one at a Parkland, Florida high school are so shocking that it is easy to get the impression that mass shootings are increasingly common. The number of deaths from mass shootings has been unusually high since 2007, because of five horrific incidents – Las Vegas (58), the Orlando nightclub (49), Virginia Tech (32), Sandy Hook (27), and the Texas First Baptist Church (26). Statisticians would never try to fabricate a trend from such a small sample, even though the untrained eye may want to.

Last November, however, a Wall Street Journal essay – “How Not to Cover Mass Shootings” by Ari Schulman (“The often sensationalistic media attention given to perpetrators is central to why massacres are happening more”) – claimed …

“It isn’t your imagination: Mass shootings are getting deadlier and more frequent. A recent FBI report on “active shooters” from 2000 to 2015 found that the number of incidents more than doubled from the first to the second half of the period. Four of the five deadliest shootings in American history happened in the past five years, and 2017 already far exceeds any previous year for the number of casualties.”

Editor’s note, a correction: that report is “A Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States Between 2000 and 2013” by J. Pete Blair and Katherine W. Schweit (2014). The FBI did updates for 2014-15, 2016-17, and 2018. They did a follow-up study “A Study of the Pre-Attack Behaviors of Active Shooters in the United States Between 2000 – 2013” by James Silver et al. (2018). See all their reports here.

That FBI report “identified 160 active shooter incidents that occurred in the United States between 2000 and 2013,” with 486 people killed. The authors literally drew a straight line between just one incident in 2000 (after many in 1999) and 13 incidents in 2013, and called that a “rising trend.”

It is interesting, however, that schools have been the second-highest risk location. The FBI data show that the largest number of active shooting incidents from 2000 to 20016 were in workplaces and other commercial buildings (43%), followed by education facilities (22%), then open spaces (13%), government buildings (11%), residences (5%), health care facilities (3%) and houses of worship (4%).

Editor’s note: School shootings are not becoming more frequent. See this analysis, and articles at NY Magazine and at NPR.

The cited FBI data from 2000 to 2015 omit the two biggest mass shootings after 2015 and others before 2000. In addition to Columbine, there were four other mass shootings in 1999, bringing yearly fatalities to 42 fatalities. We can’t be sure which mass shootings were “the worst in American history,” because (1) history didn’t begin with 2000, and (2) Congress didn’t define mass shootings as 3 killed until 2013, and (3) systematic data about such incidents were not collected until 2012.

Schulman mentioned a longer time series from Mother Jones, but not any data from it, so I created the graph below {click to enlarge} from the Mother Jones data. This project began in 2012 and attempted to recreate earlier years from news records going back to 1982. Early years report at most one or two incidents per year, which may indicate “headline bias” – finding only those incidents that were sufficiently sensational to attract national news coverage.

Mass shootings by year: 1982-2018

Importantly, the Mother Jones figures define mass shootings as public attacks in which the shooter and victims were generally unknown to each other, and four or more people were killed. Unlike the FBI’s “active shooting incidents,” where gangs and drugs are frequently involved, Mother Jones excludes all multiple murders related to drugs, gangs or domestic violence. They do include mass shootings by jihadist terrorists, however, which accounted for only 4 of their 98 incidents by my count.

The Mother Jones writers claim that “A recent analysis of this [Mother Jones] database by researchers at Harvard University, further corroborated by a recent FBI study, determined that mass shootings have been on the rise.” We already questioned the FBI trend. What about those “researchers at Harvard University”? Unlike the FBI, who compared the number of incidents between 2000 and 2013 to suggest such a rise, the trio of Harvard and Northeastern University researchers settled for only three years. Rather than counting annual changes in a small number of mass shootings as the FBI did, the Harvard-Northeastern team instead counted the average period of time between incidents, and found them more frequent from 2011 to 2013 than the average from 1982 to 2010 (although the journalists’ count before 2012 is doubtful). …

Editor’s note: This refers to “Rate of Mass Shootings Has Tripled Since 2011,” an article in Mother Jones by Amy Cohen, Deborah Azrael, and Matthew Miller (15 October 2014). They are affiliated with Harvard’s School of Public Health and Northeastern University. They used Mother Jones’ database. It does not appear to have been published in a peer-reviewed journal. It is absurd to rely on internet searches by the Leftist advocacy magazine Mother Jones, whose methods are not stated – and whose results have not been published in a peer-reviewed journal. The obvious problem is that data on recent shootings – in the age of national digital databases – is easier to find than reports from 37 years ago (the recency effect).

It seems more transparent to simply examine annual estimates from the graph. Adding a preliminary estimate of 17 deaths from Parkland to the Mother Jones list brings the total number of deaths up to 816 from 98 mass shootings between 1982 and early 2018 – or just 23 deaths per year. That makes this sort of random mass shooting one of the rarest mortality risks imaginable. Falling or the flu are far more dangerous. Even when it comes to guns, 23 deaths a year pales next to the number of homicides by firearms in 2014 alone, which was 11,208 (69% of all homicides) and the number of suicides by firearms, which was 21,386 (50% of all suicides).

Every time one of these random mass shootings occurs, journalists and legislators (like these) invariably seize on the tragedy to lecture about the need for artfully unspecific changes in federal gun control laws. Of all the risks posed by guns or knives, however, random mass shootings are among the least likely.


Editor’s afterword

“Mass shootings are the health of the media.”
Comment by Colinsky.

Exaggeration of the mass shooting threat helps both Left and Right. The Left: we need stronger controls on guns. Right: we need more armed citizens (even armed teachers in classrooms). Journalists ignore contrary evidence that would ruin the narrative. Both benefit from our hysteria.

These studies use a variety of databases (none peer-reviewed, so far as I can see) and not even the simplest of statistical tools. Meaningful conclusions about trends based on 20 or 30 data points would give giant error bars, even if the data from earlier years was as reliable as the more recent data (which it is not). Data from earlier is even less reliable (garbage in, garbage out). Take this volatile data series – small numbers of mass murders – subdivide them into small categories (family murders, murders in public spaces, etc) – and crunch them various ways. Ignore population growth (+18% since 1999). You will find a crisis somewhere in that pile.

Based on this weak information, America is taking a wide range of extreme measure to fight a minor threat. For example, see the expensive and psychologically stressful preparations in grade schools against the very rare threat described in this USA Today op-ed.

Better evidence – and graphs that tell the story

(1)  The first major work about this subject was Mass Murder in the United States: A History by Grant Duwe (2007). He found that “mass public shootings,” as a pattern of homicidal behavior, increased in frequency during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.

(2)  There have been quite a few articles such as “Mass Shootings in America: Anatomy of a Hyped Statistic” by Carl M. Cannon at Real Clear Politics (although few of this caliber).

(3)  RAND does some high quality research.

It is grossly unprofessional of journalists to ignore even high quality research by authoritative sources. Such as “Mass Shootings: Definitions and Trends” by RAND. It is typically RAND: a deep collection of data and incisive analysis.

“The FBI study (Blair and Schweit, 2014) highlighted several key issues in determining trends in mass shootings. First, the absence of a systematic definition of mass shootings can lead to misinterpretation of reported evidence. While the study explicitly stated, “This is not a study of mass killings or mass shootings” (p. 5), extensive media coverage cited the study as evidence of a sharp rise in mass shootings and mass shooting fatalities (Lott, ACJS Today, 2015). …

“For example, the Stanford Mass Shootings in America database, which relies solely on online media sources to identify mass shooting events, cautions its users, ‘Data in the [database] spans a time period that includes the transition from traditional media to digital media in reporting. Numbers of incidents per year should at least in part be assumed to reflect this collection methodology and not just changes in incident frequency.’ …

“Thus, different choices about how to define a mass shooting result in different findings for both the prevalence of these events at a given time and whether their frequency has changed over time.”

See these graphs adapted from data in Krouse and Richardson, 2015. {Click to enlarge.}

Trends in Mass Shooting Incidents, by type of incident.

Trends in Mass Shooting Incidents

Trends in Mass Shooting Fatalities, by type of incident.

Trends in Mass Shooting Fatalities.

(4)  Essential reading: research by the Congressional Research Service

Mass Murder with Firearms: Incidents and Victims, 1999–2013” by William J. Krouse and Daniel J. Richardson of the Congressional Research Service, July 2015.

“Despite the public trauma and outcry generated by mass public shootings, there is a dearth of comprehensive, authoritative data on multiple-victim homicide incidents, either committed wholly or partially with firearms. A handful of criminologists, statisticians, sociologists, and other researchers have analyzed the principal source of national homicide statistics that is compiled by the Department of Justice (DOJ) annually, as part of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports and Supplementary Homicide Reports (UCR-SHR).”

Graphs by the CRS show the bottom line.

CRS - Mass shootings: incidents & victims

CRS - Mass public shootings: incidents & victims

(5)  The Mother Jones database.

US Mass Shootings, 1982-2019” – Data From Mother Jones’ Investigation. See the Guide to their data. It is a flagrant example of the “looking under the streetlight fallacy”, the bias created by looking at the most available data, but popular because it shows increasing levels of gun violence. Reports of these incidents are easier to find in the modern digital databases than in the past, and especially since the press became interested in them during the past few years. See analysis based on this data.

(6) About school shootings.

For More Information

Ideas! For some shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about gun violence and regulation, and especially these…

  1. Guns do not make us safer. Why is this not obvious?
  2. Myth-busting about gun use in the Wild West.
  3. Do guns make us more safe, or less? Let’s look at the research.
  4. The number of children killed by guns in America makes us exceptional, not better.
  5. Debunking the myth: “An armed society is a polite society.”
  6. Cut thru the lies and myths to understand guns in America.

Books rich with insights about this uniquely American problem.

"Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America" by Adam Winkler
Available at Amazon.
"Gun Guys: A Road Trip" by Dan Baum.
Available at Amazon.


30 thoughts on “Debunking the hysteria about mass shootings”

  1. Pingback: Debunk the mass shooter crisis so we see real problems - Fabius Maximus website - Mass Shooting News

  2. Gary Ivan Wilson

    Brings data into focus rather than headlines about things (guns, knives, ramming cars) used to kill, thus, hyping the threat.

      1. Gary Ivan Wilson

        Exactly right hyping the threat is the threat but the hype sells and gets the clicks….does makes one wonder if with the immense “propaganda” lay down if the goal is normalize violence/political violence is people can use it against ones political opponents…armed and/or violent-opposition research ?

  3. Why is it important to debunk these exaggerated threats?

    Because we face a large number of problems and threats. We can’t address them all. We need a clear sight of each’s probability and potential magnitude. As Sun Tzu said in The Art of War:

    “And when he prepares everywhere he will be weak everywhere.”

    Frederick the Great echoed this insight, in “Des marches d’armée et de ce qu’il faut observer a cet egard” (“The army on campaign”, 1777):

    “He who attempts to defend too much defends nothing.”

    1. Gary Ivan Wilson

      Right you are !!!!!!!!!!!!!! Sadly the media has become fixated on “things” that kill ( guns, knives, ramming cars, explosives, etc.) but not the pre-incident and attack related behavior thus, real solutions/courses of action to miigate violence are not implements like the Congressional bipartisan legislation, TAPS ACT of 2019

      1. Gary,

        “Sadly the media has become fixated on “things” that kill ( guns, knives, ramming cars, explosives, etc.) but not the pre-incident and attack related behavior”

        That’s true, but of both Left and Right. The Left wants guns forbidden.

        The Right responds to the fake crisis by wanting everybody armed. Like this at Quora: “Would the M1A1 Carbine make a good home defense weapon?” The odds of a home invasion are microscopic. The odds of being hurt by one are beyond microscopic. But gun nuts would rather you risk death to prevent your home insurance company having to lose a dollar (this happened to a rich friend of mine, who died defending his art collection).

      2. Gary Ivan Wilson

        Yes, agree but than pandering politicos and gun control activists end working the wrong problem while hyping the threat. End result NOTHING gets done save Congress gets paid to do nothing.

  4. Wonder how the recent stabbing attack on school kids in Japan will get evaluated.
    No guns, just casualties does not fit the narrative perhaps.

    1. Gary Ivan Wilson

      Good point…..suspect media will be energized for one news cycle by use of the narrative “Mass Stabbibng” as contrasted to “Mass Shooting”…. “if it bleeds it leads”

  5. Off-topic, but interesting information.

    The odds of you needing a pistol to defend your home are tiny, unless you are a criminal or have some special risk circumstances. Look at the numbers.

    There were 942 thousand burglaries of homes in 2016. There were 125 million households in the US. The rate of these varies greatly across the nation and within communities. Crime is highly concentrated, geographically.

    2016 crime data – Table 15.

    Based on the FBI’s 2010 study, in 28% of those burglaries, a member of the household was present. In 7.2% of them this resulted in a violent crime. That is roughly 68 thousand cases – or 0.05% of all households. In 63% of those violent incidents, the offender was unarmed; in 12% the offender had a firearm.

    DOJ report on Home Invasions.

    So decisions about keeping a weapon for defense – and the kind of weapon – depend on the odds of this happening in your community. You must balance the odds of your weapon injuring yourself, a family member, or neighbor vs. the odds of needing it for self-defense. Nobody keeps records on the number of deaths and injuries from accidental firings, but what exists suggest there are a lot of them.

    See a GAO report from 1991: Accidental Shootings: Many Deaths and Injuries Caused by Firearms Could Be Prevented.

    There is no free lunch from gun ownership (or anything else).

      1. Gary,

        “All against a decreasing crime rate”

        True, but aggregates are misleading. Like the “feet in over, head in the fridge, average temp is fine.”

        We have police and armies not for the average conditions, but for the unusual ones. The areas with high crime are not comforted by those without. The damage done in periods of large scale rioting is not repaired by the long periods before with few riots. The people experiencing natural disasters are not comforted by the money saved by not have large-scale infrastructure to respond.

        A militia would allow us to respond to the unusual circumstances at modest cost – far cheaper than boosting the professional police, emergency response, and National Guard.

      2. Gary Ivan Wilson

        Question: Are you referring tot he tails of the bell shaped curve and/or “Black Swans” events/behavior for that is what so many in leadership forget to look at opting rather to go with the averages and stay with 2 standard deviations, play it safe….again too many forget to consider the least likely thing that has a probability of happening….low frequency high impact. We may be talking past each other. the challenge is the ‘Black Swan” events for seeing the feet in freezer while everyone is lying on the beach.

      3. Are you referring as to mass shooters, or to the post about militia?

        My comment assumed you were talking about the latter. It makes no sense in response to your actual intent. – about mass shooters. (It’s an easy error to make using the Administrator’s screen.)

      4. Gary Ivan Wilson

        Sorry you lost me on what you are saying. Guess I lost the context…stream of thought. Still think you pretty much have it right just some other behavior aspects to think about.

    1. Gary Ivan Wilson

      This hyping/stoking of hysteria leads to a broad issue for law enforcement and threat and violence risk professionals: the differentiation of delusions/delusional thinking from the radicalization of extreme belief systems (e.g. ideological, religious,political, etc).


      Also watching for the shit from fixation on a particular topic/agenda ( (e.g. ideological, religious,political, etc).) to identify with as warrior/crusader/advocate for that cause one is fixated on. Shifting from fixation pathway warning behavior (e.g. increasing pathological preoccupation (e.g. a psychological desire to be a “pseudo-commando” or warrior mentality” with a person or a cause) to identification pathway warning warning.

      This shift may signal a mobilization for violence (e.g. thought to action)

      See: “A typology of eight warning behaviors for assessing the threat of intended violence is proposed: pathway, fixation, identification, novel aggression, energy burst, leakage, directly communicated threat, and last resort warning behaviors. Previous research on risk factors associated with such warning behaviors is reviewed, “

      1. Gary Ivan Wilson

        Sir, at times we have to remind ourselves we are still human and fallible…today is day and always the chance it will be mine too. “Sxxt Happens”

  6. Question: Would it be a potential solution enforce the gun laws that we already have put in place, and then attempt to formulate a plan from there?
    This would definitely require reforming the police and justice system, with more transparency from the justice system and more training and better pay for officers; this probably would not be received well by either side.


    Found this Data and Society report recently that claims to track internet radicalization on YouTube. Is this a solid study, or simply a piece of agitprop?

    1. Isaac,

      (1) Nations have instituted strict gun controls after mass shootings, with some success. I do not know if that would work for America.

      (2) Here’s an indicator I rely on to sort real research from propaganda: do they look at both Left and Right, or just the bad guys (usually described as demons in human form)? It’s pretty obvious which category that report falls under.

      1. Sorry if I am being obtuse. Online communication is difficult for me.

        To clarify, the report is , in your analysis, agitprop?

      2. Isaac,

        IMO people with such strong biases seldom produce useful research. They find what is useful to find.

        Since we cannot replicate their work, we have to take its accuracy on faith. Which is, imo, unwise.

        In brief, I believe life is too short to bother with such stuff. There is more good research about vital topics than anyone could read in ten lifetimes. Focus on that.

  7. The Man Who Laughs

    Upfront disclosure statement: I’m a gun owner and concealed carry permit holder.

    Well, one reason for stoking hysteria about mass shootings is that the stokers are hoping to ride the issue to gun control. That raises the question of whether this is the best way to go about it. It would seem to me that if I wanted to make a case for gun control, I would build that case around something that was happening all the time rather than something that happened only once in a while at totally unpredictable intervals. That observation comes from a conversation I had a while back with a fellow gun owner about what the gun control people are doing wrong, because it seemed to me at the time that for the amount of effort they put into their issue they ought to have more to show for it. I wondered what, if anything they should be doing differently.

    I guess fear mongering becomes the default setting for persuasion in this country because it’s easy to do, and it works enough of the time that people think it will work all the time every time. Some countries have enacted draconian gun controls following a single mass shooting. Why that hasn’t happened here (Yet) is an interesting question (At least to me) but it’s a little outside the scope of this post.

    Regarding the link furnished by Isaac Gaston, I found it interesting. The gun channels on YouTube are being hassled to an increasing degree, and have not been allowed to monetize their content for some time, which is why a lot of those guys are having to set up Patreons. I think that YouTube wants the gun channels gone altogether. They haven’t outright banned them yet, but if you told me that was coming down the road I wouldn’t say you were wrong.

    1. The Man,

      “one reason for stoking hysteria about mass shootings is that the stokers are hoping to ride the issue to gun control.”

      The other is that the Right uses mass shootings to stoke hysteria, to build their mad vision of an armed society. Hysteria in America often results from implicit collusion of Left and Right (each for their own reasons).

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