History of School Shootings in the United States: Trends and Conclusions
As stated in our opening article on the History of School Shootings in the United States, the patterns that emerge from the study of the full history of school shootings in the United States do not support the popular media narrative that shootings of children with assault rifles have become an epidemic. In fact, most mass shootings are committed with handguns, and don’t involve children.
According to the FBI, in over 90% of all shooting incidents involving a known shooter, the shooter and victim was a male over the age of 18. In 12% of shootings, gunmen used both a handgun and a rifle, but in a full 56% they only used a handgun. Rifles were only used in 13% of these incidents. It is a myth that high body counts rely on high capacity magazines from “assault weapons.”
At Virginia Tech University in 2007, the 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 brought 19 extra magazines with him, all 10 or 15-round.
“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 showed.
“In fact, some of the largest mass shootings in U.S. history were carried out with low-capacity weapons.”
In the chapter of The Wiley Handbook on Violence in Education titled “Learning to Be a Mass Shooter,” which is a case study on Elliot Rodger, Ralph Larkin writes “The model rampage shooter is an American male under the age of 30… What is it in American culture that prompts young men with real or imagined grievances to rampage and kill innocent people that they do not know?”
It is a myth that mass shootings happen only or mostly in the United States. Lots of places, many of which have ostensibly banned gun ownership, have had recent mass shootings, including France, the UK, Australia, Norway, and Japan.
The five mass shootings with the highest number of victims in history all took place outside of the US. So did eight out of ten and eleven out of 15. The American school shooting with the highest number of victims, Virginia Tech, comes in at #12 as the lists third for America.
One study that looked at a snapshot of shootings between 2009 and 2015 found that when adjusted for population, the US ranked 12th in mass shootings. Two years later, the same researchers looked at mass shootings 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 1.4% of mass shooters and 2.1% of the people killed in mass shooting incidents.
In “Learning to Be a Mass Shooter,” Wiley uses spurious reasoning and claims that,
…before the 1970s school rampage shootings were extremely rare. They doubled from 3 to 6 from the 1960s, nearly redoubling from 6 to 11 in the 1980s, more than tripling to 36 in the 1990s, and increasing by half again to 57 in the first decade of the twenty‐first century.
For one thing, he got the number of mass shootings wrong, assuming he’s using any of the standard definitions, and not his own special definition, which he may very well be as he’s using the unusual term “school rampage shootings.”
According to our History of School Shootings in the United States, there were 2 school shootings in the 60s that fit the definition of a mass shooting; the same number as the 1970s. There were 5 in the 1980s, one of which was committed by a 30 year old woman and another by a 14 year old girl, which I note here because Larkin also claims that these shootings are a male phenomenon.
The overwhelming prevalence of mass shootings by men in the United States is due to hypocrisy related to the crisis of masculinity. Certain right‐wing hate groups tacitly encourage rampage shootings by vilifying their political opposition, promulgating racist, sexist, anti‐Semitic, and antigovernment views and suggesting that violence is the answer to conflict (Gibson 1994; Ridgeway 1995).
To a man, they believe in unrestricted access to guns. They have been able successfully to obstruct any form of meaningful gun control. Therefore, every few weeks Americans are subjected to another horrific rampage shooting
Our analysis suggests that female mass shooters are relatively proportional to the rate at which women commit murder by firearm in the first place.
A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law in 2014 found that between 1900 and 2013, there were 10 times more male mass murderers in the United States than female mass murderers. This study also found that female mass murderers were much more likely to use poison or other weapons instead of firearms.
According to a study published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence in 2018, just over half of female mass killers used firearms.
The FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting program found that in 2019, the ratio of male to female homicide offenders was nearly 9 to 1. Of these, just over half of female homicide suspects used a firearm, whereas the vast majority of male homicide suspects used a firearm, with only 21% using other means.
According to these studies, the proportional rate of female mass shooters who used a firearm is only about 10% lower than the proportion of female homicide suspects who used a firearm.
The ratio of male shooters to female shooters based on the Uniform Crime Report was nearly 20 to 1, suggesting relative parity with our calculation that the ratio of male school shooters to female school shooters in the United States is approximately 32:1.
It is true that the frequency of mass shootings has increased since the 1980s, even as states have implemented stricter and stricter gun laws. There were just 25 mass shootings in the 50 years prior to the infamous Texas bell tower massacre. There were 187 in the 50 after. How can this be? States and the federal government alike have implemented tougher and tougher gun laws, yet the death toll keeps rising. Why?
One factor in the increases in absolute numbers is that the population of the United States more than tripled in the 20th century, from 76 million in 1900 to 281 million by the year 2000 (330 million as of the 2020 Census).
Fatalities in mass shootings have continued to increase despite even the toughest regulations put in place, perhaps as a result of video games acting as a kind of training simulator for proficiency in firearms and tactical engagement.
The main reason that incidence seem to be rising in a dramatic fashion is that there is no standard definition for the phrase “mass shooting,” and the definitions used in statistical analysis do not necessarily line up with public perceptions of the phrase.
These already questionable statistics are also often manipulated, such as the graph below where fatalities have been arranged cumulatively, meaning combined, in order to make the arc of the curve more dramatic “in proportion to the steepness of the graph.” For the sake of comparison, it is presented side by side with another graph with a less manipulative presentation of what is largely the same data, followed by several additional graphs of the same information.
Created for Rachel Maddow on MSNBC by Dr. Anthony Charles Catania, a behavioral psychologist who received his doctorate from Harvard where he was also a postdoctoral researcher in the laboratory of the father of behavioral conditioning, B. F. Skinner. He confirms the manipulative intent himself, explaining in his own words that:
The advantage of this kind of display is that the steepness of the line gives a rate, so if one portion is fairly flat and another is fairly steep, the rate for the first part is low and the rate for the second part is high.
The steepness of the line does not in fact give “a rate” and the design of a graph matters a lot; data visualization is a form of communication and graphs are designed to make it easy to compare data and use it to tell a story.
One graph suggests a pattern where deaths slow during the assault weapons ban; the other suggests an on-going long term pattern that began as early as 1985, perhaps earlier.
Here’s yet another graph of the same data from the Cato institute. In this graph, the pattern appears to begin in 1984, nearly but not quite doubling every 14 years.
Here’s another, this one from the Center for Homeland Defense and Security’s modification of a NYT graph. In this graph, the pattern is less clear and appears to have started in the 1970s.
This line graph from the Wikimedia Commons most closely resembles the bar graph from Cato Institute, a conservative think-tank, but the data is sourced from Mother Jones, an extremely left leaning news outlet.
Mother Jones publishes articles on guns like this one that I’ve excerpted here:
Fact-check: People with access to more guns tend to kill more people—with guns. States with higher gun ownership rates have higher gun murder rates—as much as 114 percent higher than states with lower gun ownership rates.
• A recent study looking at 30 years of homicide data found that for every one percent increase in a state’s gun ownership rate, there is a nearly one percent increase in its firearm homicide rate.
The graph contradicts the whole premise of the text, which is fallacious anyway; cum hoc ergo propter hoc. Correlation can infer causation but in this case it doesn’t even do that.
Alaska, which has the most gun deaths, has lower gun ownership than Montana, Wyoming, West Virginia, and Idaho. Alabama has more murders but less guns than North Dakota, which has about the same amount of guns as Oklahoma, which has as many murders as Alabama. Illinois has one of the lowest rates of gun ownership but a gun death rate just slightly under South Dakota which has one of the highest rates of gun ownership.
Florida has one of the lowest gun ownership rates but more deaths than Illinois, South Dakota, or North Dakota. Hawaii has less gun deaths than any other state by far, even coming in under Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and California, which are known as the hardest states to buy guns in… but Hawaii has almost as many guns as North Dakota and South Dakota. New Hampshire is 19th in gun ownership but has about the same number of gun deaths as Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts which has close to the same number has Hawaii.
Getting back to how there is no standard definition for the phrase “mass shooting,” the FBI 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 the 1980s. In 2013, Congress decreed “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 its own definition where the phrase “mass shooting” referred to “any incident in which four or more people were killed, usually by a lone shooter.” This Washington Post 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.”
The most commonly used definition of “mass shooting” in the popular media is the definition provided by the Gun Violence Archive, which defines mass shootings “based only on the numeric value of four or more shot or killed, not including the shooter.” Gang violence commonly falls under these definitions, as could some of the true crime stories we’ve written about here in Murder Pop Magazine, increasing reportable statistical instances, and obscuring what is meant by the term mass shooter.
A Brookings report on gun violence found that recent increases in gun homicides have largely been concentrated in structurally disadvantaged neighborhoods that had high rates of gun violence to begin with, driven predominantly by systemic disinvestment, segregation, and economic inequality.
The common public perception of a “mass shooting” in America is one in which a gunman bursts into a public assembly of some kind and begins killing indiscriminately, but domestic violence and other criminal activity accounts for nearly 90% of mass shooting incidents.
These kinds of statistical manipulations are common in the media in general but even so, stand out in the statistical analysis of gun crimes in particular, where outlets like CNN claim “Guns are the leading cause of death for US children and teens, surpassing car accidents as a cause of childhood deaths,” …if you only look at “children” aged 1-19, a demographic cohort that includes adults aged 18 and 19, and discludes children under the age of 1, the children most likely to die of the actual most common cause in children- unintentional injuries and developmental and genetic conditions, which together are, by far, the leading cause of death for both young children and teens, according to the CDC.
Despite having published this data itself, CDC uses similar statistical manipulations in claims about firearm-related injuries being “among the 5 leading causes of death for people ages 1-44” in the United States, just before they also claim that “[Adult] Men account for 86% of all victims of firearm death and 87% of nonfatal firearm injuries.”
This kind of manipulation to mediate meaning is sometimes called framing and sometimes agenda setting, and is an important topic in fields such as journalism, statistical analysis, polling, psychology, and the like.
Negative media coverage framed on anger and fear, like the kind about “assault rifles” and “mass shootings” in America, have risen by over 100%, far more dramatically than any kind of increase in mass shootings.
Studies also indicate that the more media attention a shooter gets, particularly attention that is glamorizing, the more likely the event will inspire a future mass shooter.
A 2015 study found that after a mass shooting, there was an increased chance of another one occurring in the next two weeks; a 2017 study found that media coverage following a mass shooting increases both the frequency and lethality of future shootings for much longer than two weeks.
In addition to attention from popular media coverage, communities have developed on the web and other social media platforms that treat the shooters as heroes and allow “fans and followers” to gather- people who obsess about the shooters, wanting to imitate them in terms of how they dress, expressions they use, and in some cases, how many people they kill.
These internet communities are where Elliot Rodger is thought to have been radicalized as an incel prior to his misogynistic terror attacks in Isla Vista, California, when the 22-year-old killed six people and injured fourteen others—by gunshot, stabbing and vehicle ramming near the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara, before killing himself which he should have done first. Only 14% of school shootings are shootings in which the school is specifically targeted.
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News networks limited the use of video posted by Rodger for fear of triggering copycat crimes; the New Statesman suggested that his manifesto could influence a "new generation of 'involuntary celibates'".
Two weeks after the Parkland school shooting in 2018, over 600 copycat threats targeted schools nationwide. Dr. Adam Lankford of the University of Alabama found that between 2010 and 2017, mass shooters got more media attention in the month following the attack than the most famous celebrities. In the months following a shooting, the shooters continued to get more attention than professional athletes and only slightly less than film and TV stars.
“The United States has approximately 31 percent of the world’s offenders,” Lankford wrote in an article that was published in Aggression and Violent Behavior; 75 percent of mass shooters who are explicitly seeking fame are from the United States.
“To say that the culture in the United States creates a breeding ground for fame-seeking mass shooters is too strong,” Lankford explained, “because these shootings are still such rare events.”
Other researchers have found that the more people who are killed in mass shootings, the more media coverage of the shooters and the event, in terms of front-page coverage, photos and information about the shooters, size of the photos of the shooters, and number and length of the articles about the shootings.
Lankford studied 24 mass shooters who openly admitted they wanted fame or contacted the media directly to get it. Studies of mass shooters that are based on available documentation and interviews found that many had narcissistic personalities that crave fame and attention.
Along these lines of narcissism and increasing media coverage, the rise in mass shootings also roughly mirrors the rise in social media adoption, if you harken back to bulletin board systems. The first public dial-up BBS was developed by members of the Chicago Area Computer Hobbyists' Exchange (CACHE), CBBS, which officially went online on February 16, 1978.et al published a paper recently in the journal Comprehensive Psychiatry exploring the idea of “Social media as an incubator of personality and behavioral psychopathology.”
The gist is a trend of child and adolescent social media users to present with or claim psychiatric impairment that is inconsistent with or distinct from classic psychiatry.
The paper looks at:
a well-documented uprise in popular content creators with self-described tics or Tourette's Syndrome (TS) and other self-diagnosed mental health symptomatology” that “has coincided with increasing numbers of youth who have presented to clinical providers or psychiatric services during the COVID-19 pandemic with what have been termed functional tic-like behaviors.
They also note that “Similar phenomenon has also been recently chronicled with respect to dissociative identity disorder… individual self-diagnosis, including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, autism, and gender identity-related conditions on social media platforms.”
The paper suggests that psychosomatic social contagion may be more common in the still developing adolescent brain; the brain does not fully develop, it is believed, until the mid to late 20s.
Incel is another of these identities; Elliott Rodger is believed to have been “radicalized” as an “incel” on social media. And the webpage that Eric Harris ran, where he posted threats aimed at his friend Barrett Brown, and also the world, was a kind of proto social media though his obsession was with violent video games and not a prior mass shooter but a terrorist, Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing.
Psychosis does greatly increase the risk of homicide; in particular, the first psychotic event, in which the homicide rate is 14.45 times greater than after treatment. Chart courtesy of the excellent.
Of course, the studies on which the chart is based do not differentiate between genuine psychosis and psychosis acquired via psychosomatic social contagion.
Several other interesting trends emerge from the individual stories; many mass shooters share a lack of emotional self regulation and poor self image, and many also share a history of bullying or abuse. These things seem like items of some importance that our society might do well to address if we’re serious about reducing the number of these events, based on suggestions made by Ralph Larkin.
On the other hand, in the same chapter of The Wiley Handbook on Violence in Education, Larkin also warns in “Learning to Be a Mass Shooter,” about the influence on school shooters from “Certain right‐wing hate groups [that] tacitly encourage rampage shootings by vilifying their political opposition, promulgating racist, sexist, anti‐Semitic, and anti-government views and suggesting that violence is the answer to conflict… right‐wing terror organizations, neo‐Nazi groups, skinhead and motorcycle gangs, which have engaged in more terrorism than Muslim jihadist groups.”
In spite of decades of ineffective anti bullying programs, and “zero tolerance” policies that punish the bullied as often as the bully, bullying in school remains a common experience. It might be worth exploring why relentless bullying remains so common, in light of the 30-40 year attempt to solve it.
An FBI threat assessment notes that “news coverage magnifies a number of widespread but wrong or unverified impressions of school shooters.”
The FBI threat assessment, the result of a 1999 symposium on school shootings, goes on to list common personality traits and behaviors shared by mass shooters. The threat assessment goes on to state…
It should be strongly emphasized that this list is not intended as a checklist to predict future violent behavior by a student who has not acted violently or threatened violence. Rather, the list should be considered only after a student has made some type of threat and an assessment has been developed using the four-pronged model.
If the assessment shows evidence of these characteristics, behaviors and consistent problems in all four areas or prongs, it can indicate that the student may be fantasizing about acting on the threat, has the motivation to carry out the violent act, or has actually taken steps to carry out a threat.
The “four prongs” are the personality dynamics of the student, their family dynamics, school dynamics, and social dynamics.
The following cautions should also be emphasized:
No one or two traits or characteristics should be considered in isolation or given more weight than the others. Any of these traits, or several, can be seen in students who are not contemplating a school shooting or other act of violence…
However, a practical and common sense application of this model indicates that the more problems which are identified in each of the four prongs, the greater the level of concern…
One of the most common shared traits is something the FBI refers to as leakage, which is the accidental or intentional leaking of plans, including specific threats, strange comments explained away as jokes, and attempts to recruit others into their schemes.
Other common traits and behaviors include:
alienated, manipulative and untrusting,
rigid, opinionated, and intolerant,
closed social group,
poor coping skills,
failed love relationships,
signs of depression and narcissism,
habitual dehumanization of others,
pathological need for attention,
low tolerance for frustration,
lack of emotional resiliency,
anger management problems,
collection of injustices,
behavior consistent with carrying out a threat (such as training to the exclusion of normal everyday activities).
fascination with sensational violence,
fascination with violent entertainment,
One study by The Violence Project found that all mass shooters have 4 things in common:
Early childhood trauma and exposure to violence at a young age, including parental suicide, physical, sexual and emotional abuse, neglect, domestic violence, and/or severe bullying.
trauma was often a precursor to many mental health issues including depression, anxiety, thought disorders, and suicidal ideation, and is also believed to have some relationship with the development of Polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS, a hormonal issue that affects millions
of women globally.
The prevalence of schizoid, avoidant, antisocial, depressive, sadistic, negativistic, schizotypal, borderline, and paranoid personality disorders appears to be higher in infertile women with PCOS than in infertile women without PCOS.
Identifiable crisis points in the weeks/months leading up to the shooting, often angry or despondent because of a specific grievance.
For workplace shooters, a change in job status was frequently a factor. For shooters in other contexts, relationship rejection or loss often played a role.
Crises were communicated to others through a marked change in behavior, an expression of suicidal thoughts or plans, or specific threats of violence.
Most of the shooters had studied the actions of other shooters and sought validation for their motives.
Mass shootings tend to come in clusters. They are socially contagious; perpetrators study other perpetrators and model their acts after previous shootings. Many are radicalized online in their search for validation from others that their will to murder is justified.
All had the means to carry out their plans.
Workplace shooters tended to use handguns they legally owned, whereas other public shooters were more likely to acquire them illegally. In 80% of school shootings, perpetrators got their weapons from family members.
In closing, if our government won’t take action when repeated and obvious signals of danger flash, and won’t even be honest with us about the issue, and if we won’t deal with the mentally ill, but pawn them off on their ill prepared parents, and if we won’t equip children to be healthy and whole individuals capable of managing the ebb and flow of their struggles and emotional tides, what result can we expect but more of the same wanton slaughter?
Freedom will always come at a cost, but that cost doesn’t have to be so high. We can lower it. We just have to address the root causes of this violence instead of endlessly restricting the natural right to own and carry the tools of our own self defense.
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