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Mass Shootings Are A Bad Way To Understand Gun Violence

It’s impossible to say when the first mass shooting in America took place. Plant your shovel in the internet and you’ll find one event described that way, and then another. Deeper and deeper. Back and back. The 13 residents of Camden, New Jersey, killed by a neighbor in 1949. The eight Winfield, Kansas, concertgoers murdered when a man fired into a crowded intersection in 1903. The 60 to 150 African-Americans shot and hanged by a mob of white men in Colfax, Louisiana, in 1873.

There is something distinctly American about this way of death. Mass shootings1 happen in other countries, but they are far more common here. Between 1966 and 2012, there were 90 such incidents in the U.S. The next four countries with the most mass shootings had 54 combined. There is also something distinctly American about how we respond to these events, the way they become tangled up in the national debate about guns — this question of how to reduce deaths attributable to a weapon protected in the founding documents of our land. No other country has that particular challenge. So mass shootings become a symbol of gun violence in general. The deaths of dozens become a window into the death of one, and a separate one, and a different one over there.

This, of course, happened with the mass shooting in Las Vegas that left at least 58 people dead and hundreds more injured.

And this is a problem. What we know about mass shootings suggests that they are different from the everyday deaths that happen at the end of a gun. The weapon is the same. So much else is different. And the distorted image we get by using one as a lens through which to view the other has consequences for our understanding of the problem and the policies that might address it.

Last year, we produced a series of stories on American gun deaths and the people behind the statistics. From that reporting, and other sources, we know mass shootings are different from other kinds of gun deaths in several ways.

First, they’re rare, and the people doing the shooting are different. The majority of gun deaths in America aren’t even homicides, let alone caused by mass shootings. Two-thirds of the more than 33,000 gun deaths that take place in the U.S. every year are suicides (click through the graphic below to see how gun deaths break down):

And while people who commit suicide and people who commit mass shootings both tend to be white and male, suicide victims tend to be older. The median age of a mass shooter, according to one report, is 34, with very few over 50. Suicide, however, plagues the elderly as much as it does the middle-aged.

Second, the people killed in mass shootings are different from the majority of homicides. Most gun murder victims are men between the ages of 15 and 34. Sixty-six percent are black. Women — of any race and any age — are far less likely to be murdered by a gun. Unless that gun is part of a mass shooting. There, 50 percent of the people who die are women. And at least 54 percent of mass shootings involve domestic or family violence — with the perpetrator shooting a current or former partner or a relative.

The historical trends for different kinds of gun deaths don’t all follow the same course. While data suggests that the number of mass shootings similar to the Las Vegas event has gone up, particularly since 2000,2 homicide rates have fallen significantly from their 1980 peak and continued on a generally downward trajectory for most of the 21st century. Meanwhile, suicides are way up, with the biggest increases among women. The trends are different because the situations are different and the people are different. Maybe different solutions are warranted, as well.

You could, theoretically, cut down on all these deaths with a blanket removal of guns from the U.S. entirely — something that is as politically unlikely as it is legally untenable. Barring that, though, policies aimed at reducing gun deaths will likely need to be targeted at the specific people who commit or are victimized by those incidents. And mass shootings just aren’t a good proxy for the diversity of gun violence. Policies that reduce the number of homicides among young black men — such as programs that build trust between community members, police and at-risk youth and offer people a way out of crime — probably won’t have the same effect on suicides among elderly white men. Background checks and laws aimed at preventing a young white man with a history of domestic violence from obtaining a gun and using it in a mass shooting might not prevent a similar shooting by an older white male with no criminal record.

If we focus on mass shootings as a means of understanding how to reduce the number of people killed by guns in this country, we’re likely to implement laws that don’t do what we want them to do — and miss opportunities to make changes that really work. Gun violence isn’t one problem, it’s many. And it probably won’t have a single solution, either.

Interactive by Ben Casselman, Matthew Conlen and Reuben Fischer-Baum.


  1. Defined by the FBI as a single incident in which four or more people are killed.

  2. This is a tough thing to measure, partly because definitions of what counts as a “mass shooting” vary widely. Some counts have the numbers holding fairly stable over time, however these include a lot of shootings that aren’t very similar to what happened in Las Vegas — for instance, someone killing their direct nuclear family members in their home.

Maggie Koerth was a senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.