Assault Weapons, Bill Clinton, Chris Buskirk, Christopher J Ferguson, Defensive Gun Uses, FiveThirtyEight, Gun-Free Zones, James T Hodgkinson, John Lott, Leah Libresco, Mark Overstreet, Mass Shootings, Nate Silver, Second Amendment, Steve Scalese, War on Drugs
The drumbeat for gun control from Leftist authoritarians never stops, and the recent mass shootings in Dayton OH, El Paso TX, and Gilroy CA, have been greeted with so much political agitation that the victims have become mere footnotes. Attempting to marshal facts in this debate can be quite confusing due to the variety of definitions of “mass shootings”. This variety contributes to certain myths about guns and gun violence that are often repeated by the media to a brow-beaten public. The confusion also motivates anti-gun policy prescriptions that are likely to be ineffective at best, and in all likelihood, counter-productive.
What constitutes a “mass shooting”? The traditional FBI definition counted an incident as a mass killling if four or more people were killed, not including the perpetrator. Broader definitions include cases in which 4 or more people are killed or injured, including the perpetrator. Gun rights opponents seem to prefer expansive definitions, including those that count gang-related killings, domestic shootings, or those occurring in the commission of another criminal act. Criminologist John Lott contends that these kinds of killings are driven by fundamentally different social forces than the mass public shootings that are at the center of this debate. For example, with respect to gang killings, Lott says:
“... the causes and solutions to drug gang violence are dramatically different than for the vast majority of mass public shootings, where attacks are designed to kill or wound as many people as possible. Padding the numbers by lumping the two together doesn’t make much sense.”
The more expansive definitions give rise to the notion that mass shootings have been trending-up dramatically in America. In fact, as Christopher J. Ferguson reports, data from show that the rate of mass shooting incidents per year has been flat since the early 1990s and are not much higher than the averages of the 1970s.
Another prominent distortion often accepted uncritically is that the U.S. leads the world in mass shootings. The U.S. totals are often inflated, but part of the reason for this misperception is that it’s easy to undercount foreign mass shootings. They do not always receive the same intensity of news coverage as mass shootings in the U.S., and tracking reports published in other languages is inherently more difficult for researchers. Lott says the following:
“Of the 86 countries where we have identified mass public shootings, the US ranks 56th per capita in its rate of attacks and 61st in mass public shooting murder rate. Norway, Finland, Switzerland and Russia all have at least 45 percent higher rates of murder from mass public shootings than the United States.”
The tragic nature of mass shootings should not prevent us from keeping the magnitude of these events in perspective, as Chris Buskirk explains in “Everything They’re Telling You About Mass Shootings Is Wrong“. For example, almost three-quarters of U.S. mass shootings in 2018 (four or more killed or injured) were associated with criminal activity, bar fights, and the like. And of course other social problems dwarf public mass shootings, such as the 70,000 opioid deaths that occurred in 2018, a phenomenon not coincidentally associated with the War on Drugs. And as Buskirk reminds us, the number of fatalities in public mass shootings is infinitesimal relative to the total number of defensive gun uses.
The Left’s reaction to these events is wrongheaded and their policy prescriptions are dangerous. A simple example is the widespread designation of buildings and public spaces as “gun-free zones”. However, it is highly likely that ending these designations would be an effective preventative against mass public shootings. John Lott writes in “How gun-free zones invite mass shootings” that 98% of the mass public shootings since 1950 occurred in areas where guns were prohibited. And we know that mass shootings are indeed prevented by armed citizens. Yet the Left staunchly opposes such a change and promotes the futile and foolish elimination of gun rights in general (also see this).
Leah Libresco, a statistician and former news writer at Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, was highly disillusioned after devoting considerable effort to researching gun deaths. She expected to find that broad gun control measures were the answer. Instead, she says:
“… the case for the policies I’d lobbied for crumbled when I examined the evidence. The best ideas left standing were narrowly tailored interventions to protect subtypes of potential victims, not broad attempts to limit the lethality of guns.
I researched the strictly tightened gun laws in Britain and Australia and concluded that they didn’t prove much about what America’s policy should be. Neither nation experienced drops in mass shootings or other gun related-crime that could be attributed to their buybacks and bans.”
Then there are the continuing, uninformed calls to ban “assault weapons”. As Libresco explains:
“… no gunowner walks into the store to buy an ‘assault weapon.’ It’s an invented classification that includes any semi-automatic that has two or more features, such as a bayonet mount, arocket-propelled grenade-launcher mount, a folding stock or a pistol grip. But guns are modular, and any hobbyist can easily add these features at home, just as if they were snapping together Legos.”
Bill Clinton weighed into the debate last week by claiming that his assault weapons “ban”, which began in 1994, was so effective that we should be eager to accede to plans recently put forward by Democrats. Mark Overstreet quickly called him out as a liar, and on no less than six counts. Not only were existing “assault weapons” exempted under Clinton’s “ban”, but Americans actually added to their private stocks of weapons that met the law’s criteria during its enforcement. Existing large ammunition magazines were exempted, as well as imports of such magazines. Thus, Clinton’s so-called ban did not even approach the draconian measures now being proposed, which range from manufacturing and import prohibitions all the way up to confiscation.
Also preposterous are the Left’s routine characterizations of mass shooters as “right-wing extremists”. The truth is hardly clear cut. For example, despite expressing strong anti-immigrant sentiment, the shooters in El Paso and Christchurch, New Zealand were both environmental radicals or “eco-fascists”, in the Christchurch shooter’s words. The Dayton shooter was a self-described socialist and a supporter of Bernie Sanders, as was James T. Hodgkinson, the gunman who attacked a group of Republican legislators at a baseball practice, seriously injuring Congressman Steve Scalese. These madmen clearly weren’t crazed right-wing zealots. If anything, their profiles usually reflect severe psychological as well as ideological confusion.
Even one public mass shooting is too many, but their prevalence in the U.S. has been exaggerated in several ways. The hyperbole is often politically-motivated, intended to create negative public sentiment toward Second Amendment rights. But you can’t stop public mass shootings by foolishly disarming or criminalizing the very law-abiding citizens who are often the only force capable of providing an immediate defensive response.