After the attack by a 28 year old on a Christian elementary school in Nashville Tennessee, one that left three staff members and three nine year old students dead, an attack that was thankfully responded to and thwarted swiftly by very competent law enforcement responders, mass shootings are once again all the media rage.
The hot takes are flying. You can immediately guess the spin based on the source. Everything is being blamed. Our President took a minute prior to his address on the attack to say that he had come down because he was told there was ice cream and that he had a fridge full upstairs. No, seriously. He said that. The attempt at humor, likely a swipe at the stream of ice cream memes about Biden, was (at best) poorly placed.
It conveys complete tone deafness on the issue and lends credence to theories that the president actually doesn’t give a damn about these shootings beyond their use as a talking point to batter at congress with. If you wanted evidence that this is all just politics to them, you got plenty in that clip.
Conspiracy theorists are crying false flag and fake. Gun controllers are blaming guns. The right is blaming leftist antagonization and inflammatory rhetoric. The left is blaming right wing antagonization and inflammatory rhetoric. Both are antagonizing the other further and continuing to use inflammatory rhetoric. There is, as the phrase goes, zero chill at the moment.
Just another wonderful day in the 21st century where, if we’d just take a breath and take stock of our situation for a few seconds, we should recognize that things have literally never been better and we’ve never had more potential to continue improving things. We just had energy gain fusion three months ago, do you even understand how cool that is!? Sure, there is a land war in eastern Europe but that seems to be a tradition at this point. Sure, crime is still around, people still have problems, not everyone lives at a first world tech level, etc. But more people than ever do. We need to focus on continuing that uplift.
We won’t though. We’ll continue to compete in shortsighted victimhood bingo, one-upmanship of one form or another, and the hot take culture wars of all varieties.
Lamenting on our societal and species based shortcomings isn’t the point of this post though.
Instead, I wanted to take a look at the history of extreme violence in the nation. This delve was started by the an honest question from someone outside the ‘informed’ space. That question, paraphrased: ‘Do reporting sources automatically attribute mass casualty violence causes based on their perpetrator demographics?’
She didn’t ask it in those exact terms but it was the crux of her inquiry. In short, is a ‘mass shooting’ a ‘gang violence event’ if the participant(s) are Black but a mass ‘murder/mass shooting’ if the shooter(s) end up being of the white male persuasion?
For someone like me who dips into this information regularly, it’s almost an absurd inquiry. The data sources from the CDC, FBI, ATF, and Secret Service are detail heavy. They’re good about sorting the data and you can find the answers. However you can also filter it, like GVA, and Giffords, and Moms Demand do, to project a perceived result through some obfuscation if you want. You can do so without outright lying by grouping things. ‘Gun violence’ including suicides is one of the most common such stat stacking tactics, including the perpetrators in death tolls if they died is another. When you read the data in depth it is obvious the reporting agencies are making the honest attempts to look at this data and collect it objectively. I can find things to poke at here and there, like the ATF not combining revolvers and semi-auto pistols in certain reporting categories which can lend a severely undercounted bias to certain modes of inquiry. IE: How often are handguns (use as a general term for a small gun used in one or two hands) used in crime?
But for someone mostly consuming titles and headlines, because this data has zero relevance on their daily life, this perception of motive bias and reporting bias absolutely makes sense. It is the reason that the deeply pro-gun side of the internet clowns on, and with some justification, the fact that a shooting like this one in Tennessee will ‘disappear’ because it doesn’t ‘fit the narrative(s)’. It, of course, won’t disappear. But the traditional media will steer away from some of their more common tropes of white male rage and are less likely to parade the shooter’s identity. We saw this with the Walmart mass shooting too when it turned out the shooter was A.) a management level employee, and B.) of minority ethnicity. The event didn’t ‘disappear’ but the narrative shifted to generalizations like ‘preventing workplace violence’ and ‘Walmart’s liability’ with rapid pace. This, combined with the rapidity of event entropy in general, makes the stories fade away.
The Tennessee event is in danger of taking that same media route. Shooters are rarely female, regardless of how they identify. Because the shooter was Trans, female to male, and that is a highly divisive social topic and seen as a victim status classification for a myriad of reasons, and because a favored stereotype of the left towards the right is the ‘unhinged MAGA hat wearer white male mass shooter’, when a shooter isn’t that stereotype, and instead falls into leftist held thought camps, the elements on the right will quickly point out all their available leftist tendencies and habits.
It’s a multitude of political camps trying to imply that the minuscule number of individuals or small groups that turn spree-killer or attempted spree-killer can be categorized by 6 to 10 of the accounts they follow on Instagram. It’s more overgeneralization and stereotyping in response to overgeneralization and stereotyping.
That isn’t to say extremist categories on all edges of the political compass shouldn’t be red flags for observation (yes I know that’s a charged term, idgaf right now), they should and that is an obvious starting point to try and intercede pre-event. We don’t call things ‘pre-attack’ or ‘pre-violence’ indicators for nothing. But it is also to say that tracking those rare individuals that will actually rise and act out violently isn’t as simple as a game of connect 4, predicting human behavior is more at the complexity level of getting fusion power to work.
Now, what does our actual history of violence look like? Is it as matching of the stereotypes as headlines make it out to be?
Lone Wolf Mass Casualty Violence
We hear about hundreds of ‘mass shootings’ in the United States each year. We’ve been told repeatedly over the last few weeks that we’ve already passed 100 for the year 2023. I’ve gone into detail about how that title, ‘Mass Shooting’, and the factors defining it are rather meaningless in filtering information by event cause. Motive matters far more for preventative plans than method of injury.
So let’s narrow from the overly broad ‘Mass Shooting’ and let’s look at how many spree or rampage killing events have happened. Not this year, let’s look at history.
Wikipedia cited 1,979 total incidents worldwide that met the definition(s) of rampage killing.
When looking at something specific, like school massacres, the largest of those were perpetrated by governments and organized near-state level terror forces, the IRA, Al-Qaeda, etc. . In fact, of the deadliest 15 school massacres worldwide only one was perpetrated by a non-governmental or non-terrorist force. It was an arson by students and it killed 67, it occurred in Kenya.
We will largely omit government and large terror organizations from the discussion minus using them for scale. Large state or quasi-state actors/organizations are not pertinent when we are talking about what individuals or very small groups do and the prevention or intervention in their attacks.
The United States doesn’t make the school massacre list until 16th, the Bath Michigan bombing in 1927. There were 103 school massacres listed worldwide, 104 once the most recent attack was added. The highest death toll was 2,000, in 1907, perpetrated by the Chilean Army.
Rampage Killing, the Lone Assailant (or Small Group) Perpetrated Massacre
What we actually fear when we hear of a ‘mass shooting’ is a rampage killer. Not that a driveby or a group on group gunfight at a gas station, by gangs or just a rivalry of some form, is inherently safe by any stretch. But the real visceral fear is reserved for the killers looking for pure body counts on a planned attack.
The criteria laid out for rampage killers are three possible, based on casualty counts.
- 6 or more killed
- 4 or more killed with 10 or more total injured
- 2 or more killed with 12 or more total injured
These killers use more than just firearms in their slaughters, but firearms are predominant. However, if we take and combine all public rampages in the United States (105), home invasive massacres (51), all school attacks (24), all workplace attacks both domestic (26) and military (3), religious/political/racial motivated attacks (19), and attacks exclusively using a vehicle (9) We come up with 237 spree-killer incidents in total between 1843 and today (If I checked all the dates right).
Compare that with the annual reported number of ‘mass shootings‘ from various sources (over 600 for 2020, 2021, and 2022). I will give GVA credit with reporting both mass shootings and mass murders on their site, but we don’t talk about both of those in headlines we just say ‘mass shootings’.
How do we reconcile more than 1,800 ‘mass shootings’ in the last three years with only 237 spree-killings of various types in roughly a 180 year span?
Again, we are excluding government or large organization perpetrated incidents, they would dominate the casualty counts. We will also focus in on domestic and foreign incidents that involved firearms to provide certain comparisons. A common claim is our near limitless access to firearms is the primary reason our violence is as it is. We will examine that.
The first US massacre was, as posted, in 1843. It was a home invasion in Pennsylvania, 6 killed and 2 injured. It did not involved a firearm. The first time we see a recorded massacre in consecutive years is 1897 and 1898, both were shootings and one involved explosives, 5 killed and 5 wounded in the first and 7 and 2 respectively at the second. The first year we see more than one mass shooting massacre in the same year is 1903, 9 were killed in one incident and 3 in the other, with 25 and 11 wounded respectively.
The first recorded workplace massacre listed was in 1909, it was not a shooting, and killed 5-7. The first workplace shooting massacre was in 1935 and killed 6 people.
The first school massacre was the infamous Bath Michigan bombing, if we don’t count the colonial era mass shooting in Pennsylvania that killed 11 in 1764, and it is still the worst school massacre in US History, and the first shooting massacre was in 1966 at University of Texas, also infamous and unique in that Whitman (the shooter) hoped his brain would be examined and a cause of his compulsion found. A hostage situation that year at a college resulted in the execution style killing of 5, the shooter alleged admiration of Whitman and shows us the copycat effect. That killing was just under the spree-killing/massacre thresholds. A firearm was used in every school attack hence, sometimes accompanied by arson or other weapons. Notable in Bath, the perpetrator was an official of the town and schoolboard.
1998 began the era of what we could consider ‘modern’ school shootings, with one perpetrated by a pair of students, 11 and 13 years old, who killed 4 fellow students and a teacher and wounded 10 others, and in the second a 15 year old student who was about to be expelled killed 4 and wounded 25 others. It was also the first year more than one such mass killing would take place in a year. 1999 saw Columbine, the first time more than 10 were killed since 1966. 2012 would be the next occurrence of multiple in a year with Newtown and Oikos University. 2018
Only 6 in the US years have seen two or more school massacres (4 or more dead, or 2 dead with 14 rounded in one incident) within the year, the earliest is 1966. 2018 saw three rampage killings at a K-12 school, one resulted in only 2 dead. All perpetrators were students or recent former students.
Since 1989 no more than 6 years have passed between a shooting that left more than 4 dead, since 1998 no more than 4 years between occurrences. In 2012 that dropped to a near annual massacre only with one three year span, 2018 until 2021, that didn’t have a shooting. Every other year had one or two school shootings with more than four dead.
Yes, they’ve dramatically increased in frequency in conjunction with their visibility nationally and internationally. The last decade averaged one a year, the two decades prior to that was one every other year. If we go from 1991 back to 1764, there are only 14 in total combining rampages and 4+ casualty lists
Countries or regions that have had school massacres on rampage scale, involving firearms, and since the year 2000, include Azerbaijan, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Finland, Gaza, Germany, Russia, and Thailand. If we want to expand to non-firearm causes with the same casualty threshold we can add China and Japan to the list too. The US has experienced 14 school massacres since 2001, all firearm related. China has had 9 comparable school massacres, none of which involved firearms. China and Russia both have multiple massacres in a single year. Thailand has the deadliest school massacre not involving explosives, it occurred in 2022. Finland, Germany, Brazil, Thailand, Azerbaijan, China, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Russia all have at least one school massacre involving 10 or more dead.
The deadliest mass shooting in the US is Las Vegas with 60 dead. Norway had a deadlier mass shooting in 2011, Utoya, with 69 killed by gunfire and 8 with a VBIED. Nice, France has the highest death toll firearm related massacre, although the method of injury was a truck. The killer was shot by police before actually shooting anyone. 86 were killed in that incident in and 434 injured. Oklahoma City, 1995, remains the worst lone wolf massacre attack in the US, with nearly three times the death toll of Las Vegas, and it is still behind an arson in South Korea in 2003 that killed 192 and injured 150. An EgyptAir plane crashed by the first officer killed all 216 aboard when he flew into the ocean deliberately. Another deliberate crash of a German operated plane over France killed 149, again dwarfing shooting deaths.
No nation, regardless of law or development level, is immune from massacre level violence. Smaller, wealthy, and more societally homogenous nations have lower instances, but they aren’t immune. The US is the third largest nation on the planet and is socioeconomically diverse.
We cannot call the violence uniquely American while also trying to compare it to nations that are not comparable to the United States beyond their vague wealth metrics (“developed”). The US has a dramatic mix of socioeconomic realities.
And yes, we have more guns.
LOTS more guns.
Like so many more guns, that if it were guns that were the problem, and not the complex mix of socioeconomic pressure points and crazy folk that exists next to that conveniently accessible method of injury that firearms do represent, it would be so so so much worse than it is.
Let’s pull some fast numbers.
It isn’t even close. The next runner up that matters statistically, Yemen, only has 44% of our firearms per capita. By the time we get out of the top 10 gun owning countries, Finland, we are down to 27% of the United States. By our 2020 rate, the US is 60th worldwide for intentional homicide. By our firearm related death rate, we are 8th. Recall, the US is number one in ownership by a multiple of 2.27. We have 120+% per capita firearm ownership and we are only 8th in deaths. By firearm homicide we are 18th in the world.
Now, how many more guns do we have than the 17 countries who are deadlier than we are by firearm homicide rate per capita?
- Uruguay, the US has 379% of their guns per capita. Their murder by firearm rate is 5% higher.
- Paraguay, the US has 709% of their guns per capita. Their murder by firearm rate is 34.5% higher.
- Nicaragua, the US has 1,565% of their guns per capita. Their murder by firearm rate is 39.5% higher.
- Costa Rica, the US has 1,205% of their guns per capita. Their murder by firearm rate is 44.8% higher.
- Barbados, the US has 3,443% of their guns per capita. Their murder by firearm rate is 50% higher.
- Philippines, the US has 2,565% of their guns per capita. Their murder by firearm rate is 71% higher.
- Panama, the US has 555% of their guns per capita. Their murder by firearm rate is 108% higher.
- South Africa, the US has 949% of their guns per capita. Their murder by firearm rate is 190% higher.
- Mexico, the US has 803% of their guns per capita. Their murder by firearm rate is 270% higher.
- Colombia, the US has 1,193% of their guns per capita. Their murder by firearm rate is 308% higher.
- Guatemala, the US has 920% of their guns per capita. Their murder by firearm rate is 358% higher.
- Brazil, the US has 803% of their guns per capita. Their murder by firearm rate is 413% higher.
- Venezuela, the US has 651% of their guns per capita. Their murder by firearm rate is 493% higher. If we distribute in the ‘undetermined’ causes evenly based on their listed homicide, suicide, and unintentional death rates the murder rate in Venezuela is 991% higher.
- Honduas, the US has 1,072-1,217% of their guns per capita. Their murder by firearm rate is 559% higher.
- Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), the US has 1,883% of their guns per capita. Their murder by firearm rate is 733% higher.
- Jamaica, the US has 1,488% of their guns per capita. Their murder by firearm rate is 756% higher.
- El Salvador, the US has 2,078% of their guns per capita. Their murder by firearm rate is 1,505% higher.
But Keith! Surely we can’t consider El Salvador “developed” right?
Well their Human Developmental Index (HDI) is .675, considered okay/medium and ours in the US is .921, considered very high (21st worldwide). High starts at .700 and very high starts at .800. So they aren’t the US but they aren’t in the stone age. The El Salvador HDI is only 27% lower than our national average. If you take and compare it to just Puerto Rico, El Salvador is lagging behind only 20% on HDI.
The US is approximately 21 times more heavily armed than El Salvador while having 16 times less firearm homicide. Are we attributing a 27% less but still borderline high HDI with absolute savagery and lawlessness? Is murder just not illegal in El Salvador? Did they forget to check that box on the things to make illegal checklist?
Costa Rica, Uruguay, and Panama all rank above a .800 HDI. Panama has double our homicide by firearm rate with 1/5th as many guns.
Our societal access to firearms in the US is effectively limitless yet our unique mixture of current societal strains, often regional and localized, result in an overall violence level that is suboptimal but not unexpected or out of control given socioeconomic realities. Countries with far fewer firearms have far more homicide by firearm We also cannot ignore that other nations with dramatically different social structures and controls, like China, are far from immune to massacre level violence, even deprived of firearms.
Gun control is the answer, right?
Let’s put it like this.
Leading State for public rampage massacres: California (19)
Leading State for public rampage massacres since 2002: California (6)
The California assault weapon ban went into effect in 1989, they had 9 public massacres after that date.
Leading State for school massacres: California (4, three after their AWB was in effect)
Leading State for school massacres since 2000: California & Texas (2 each)
Leading State for workplace massacres: California (6)
Leading location for military workplace massacres: Fort Hood (2) Note: Firearms are strictly controlled on military installations.
Leading State for politically, racially, or ethnically motivated massacres: New York (3)
State with the deadliest home invasion massacre: California (11 dead, 1928). Second deadliest: New York (10 dead, 1984).
So… how is that gun control working out, California? New York? What gun control policy is preventing a repeat of any such massacre? Which one?
What can we do?
We can stop being naïve, reactionary, and childish about violence and our responses to violence. We can stop using hyperbole about ‘mass shootings’ and overly broad entirely irrelevant definitions in order to make numbers look scary. Trying to one up the other team and get our legislative ways and with short term ultimately ineffectual victories erodes the trust in any promise to come after. We can stop demonizing large swaths of the population for something they own. We can stop promising government can ‘do it’ when we’ve proven time after time they cannot (and are sometimes the aggressor themselves).
We can stop pretending that minutely changing the definition or feature sets of the nearly limitless supply of firearms the United States citizenry has access to will materially influence instances of extreme violence. We can stop pretending that the incidents are somehow causally linked by method of injury when their motivations are so varied. We can stop pretending that 10 rounds is safe but 11+ is dangerous. We can stop bullshitting that if truly intelligent, evil, motivated people are hindered by having to reload, or need more magazines, or don’t get to have a flashhider or adjustable stock on their rifle that we’ll save lives. We can cut the crap about pretending most politicians have a clue, or that polls of the general public who couldn’t be bothered to recite how you actually buy a firearm in any sort of detail should be given weight.
If we consider the 20 deadliest shootings in US History, Las Vegas to Aurora, we have no commonality in anything but the most broad and useless demographic information. Sure all used guns and all but one of the shooters were male, neat. Not helpful. That timeframe goes from 1949 to 2022. The perpetrator ages range from 18 to 64. Their backgrounds vary wildly, and include a decorated WWII veteran with a stellar service record and a former prison guard. Their ethnicities touch on everything. Their motives, when known, are all over the spectrum. Their locations are a variety of common everyday spaces. What law would outlaw any or all of the specific extremes in any of those cases and prevent the slaughters? What law will be no real hinderance to the general public, their rights, and their sensibilities but an extremist of any persuasion shall be blocked and thwarted?
We keep trying to pass laws to stop the next shooting because “enough is enough” yet they wouldn’t stop nor even seriously hinder any of the previous shootings with any of the laws we’ve passed.
So we can stop all that.
We can start working to rebuild the public trust. We can rebuild the sense of community and stop the cheap and shallow practices that make people feel lied to and cheated by their officials. We can stop lying about the virtues, infallibilities, or degeneracies of broad groups of people to dehumanize them and again build on the strengths and uniqueness of the individuals and the universal human traits. We can stop taking the cheap easy wins that cost others, we can stop playing victim when we aren’t and we can take charge of our fates even if we are.
ETA: While I was finishing this an attack occurred in Brazil, 4 dead kids and at least 4 injured at a daycare. Method of injury, axe. Uniquely American though, right?