Mass shootings are not unique to America, yet there is something exceptionally American about mass shootings. They happen with greater frequency in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world, and they’ve become so ingrained in American society that our response has turned into a national ritual.
For a variety of reasons, public mass shootings also attract media coverage and captivate the nation’s attention in a way that other types of gun violence fail to do. In many ways, mass shootings have become the lens through which Americans view gun violence. Consequently, our national debate about guns and gun laws is shaped by an understanding of gun violence that centers on the most extreme manifestation of the problem, rather than the everyday incidents of gun violence that account for the vast majority of annual firearm injuries and deaths.
And that’s a problem. Mass shootings are both qualitatively and quantitatively different than other types of gun violence. Deaths from mass shootings make up a small fraction of America’s gun violence problem—accounting for less than four percent of all firearm homicides and just over one percent of all gun deaths—and the characteristics of mass shooting incidents tell us very little about gun violence more broadly. As a result, when we use mass shootings as a proxy for gun violence, we come away with a skewed perception of the problem and a poor understanding of the policies that would most effectively address it.
It’s problematic to use public mass shootings as a lens for understanding other types of gun violence. When we allow them to shape our gun debate, we end up with a skewed perception of risk and a distorted view of the problem.
More than half of mass shootings are related to domestic violence, meaning that an intimate partner and/or family member is one of the victims killed in the shooting. In many cases, these incidents are murder-suicides. The majority of mass shooters are white men, while women and children make up the majority of victims. According to one analysis, women and children accounted for 64 percent of those killed in mass shooting incidents between 2009 and 2015, while they make up just 22 percent of all firearm homicide victims.
These findings tell us something important about the nature of mass shootings: Most are not, in fact, the random events they are often made out to be. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that we can predict who is likely to become a mass shooter or when a mass shooting is likely to happen, it does point to warning signs that can help us identify high-risk situations. For example, about one in five mass shootings between 2006 and 2016 were committed by individuals with a documented history of domestic violence, and an estimated 40 percent of mass shooters have at least one known warning sign of future violence — and more often than not, this includes violence and/or threats of violence against a family member or intimate partner.
These findings also highlight why it’s problematic to use public mass shootings as a lens for understanding other types of gun violence. Public mass shootings represent only one manifestation of gun violence, and they don’t reflect broader trends in firearm injuries and deaths. When we allow them to shape our gun debate, we end up with a skewed perception of risk and a distorted view of the problem that ultimately fuels a misguided understanding of how to solve it. As a result, instead of talking about the everyday incidents of gun violence that leave tens of thousands of Americans dead or wounded each year, we end up spending an exceptional amount of time debating solutions to an exceptionally small part of the problem.
For example, in the aftermath of high-profile mass shootings, the issue of mental illness often takes center stage in both news coverage and public discourse. These incidents are horrific, irrational, and terrifying, and people want an explanation that helps make sense of a senseless act. We want to believe that the people who are capable of carrying out such unthinkable acts of mass violence are somehow different from the rest of us —that there must be something about these killers that explains why they killed.
But having a history of mental illness doesn’t tell us what motivated these shooters, nor does it tell us whether mental illness actually caused (or even contributed to) their violent behavior. More importantly, invoking anecdotal incidents to illustrate a systemic problem paints a skewed picture of gun violence and allows mental illness to be used as a scapegoat by those who want to avoid talking about guns. Studies examining the link between mental illness and violence show that less than three percent to five percent of violent crimes in the U.S. are perpetrated by people with mental illness. Looking at gun-related crimes, specifically, individuals with mental illness are far less likely to commit acts of violence than those without mental illness. Of all firearm homicides in the U.S., less than one percent are attributed to people diagnosed with psychiatric disorders. And on the whole, persons with mental illness are far more likely to be victims—not perpetrators—of violence.
Still, the mental illness myth continues to hijack our national debate, providing a convenient diversion from inconvenient truths. The National Rifle Association (NRA) loves to talk about mental illness in the aftermath of mass shootings, and it’s easy to see why; after all, if we’re talking about mental illness, then we’re not talking about guns or gun control. NRA Vice President Wayne LaPierre, who has blamed “delusional killers” for gun violence, vehemently rejects any and all policies to regulate guns, yet has repeatedly called for establishing a “national registry” of Americans diagnosed with mental illness. Politicians also lean on mental illness as an explanation for violence, using it as a shield to avoid having to confront the complex and politically inconvenient reality of gun violence. This not only stigmatizes mental illness, but also has the potential to result in dangerously misguided policies. For instance, after the shooting in Parkland, Florida, Trump said his administration would be “talking seriously” about reopening mental institutions and reverting back to the dark period in American history when people with mental illness were inhumanely locked up and often abused, neglected, and denied treatment. Far from helping those with mental illness, such a move would almost certainly backfire and end up scaring people away from the treatment they need.
Attributing gun violence to mental illness also has important implications when it comes to public support for gun control policies. Research shows that people are less likely to support policy solutions when individuals, as opposed to society, are seen as responsible for the issue the policy is designed to address. By focusing on mental illness as a cause of gun violence, people tend to see the problem as a series of isolated and unpredictable incidents carried out by a specific group of people. Survey data from the past several years suggest that a growing proportion of Americans view mass shootings as “just the isolated acts of individuals” rather than a reflection of “broader problems in society"—a trend that appears to be associated with reduced support for gun control measures.
Mass shootings may open up “policy windows”—finite periods of time during which politicians and the public become more receptive to changes in existing gun laws—but this doesn’t necessarily result in the implementation of effective policies.
By focusing on mental illness as a cause of gun violence, people tend to see the problem as a series of isolated and unpredictable incidents carried out by a specific group of people.
However, looking at the laws that are actually enacted, a mass shooting increases the number of laws that loosen gun restrictions by 75 percent in states with Republican-controlled legislatures. There is no significant effect of mass shootings on laws enacted in states with Democratic-controlled legislatures. In other words, mass shootings produce a surge of gun legislation, but ultimately, the laws passed in the aftermath of mass shootings are more likely to make it easier to own or carry guns than to impose new restrictions on firearms.
Furthermore, most of the gun control bills that are introduced in the aftermath of mass shootings are designed to address acts of mass violence in public places — but not the larger problem of gun violence. Take, for instance, assault weapons bans, which emerged as one of the central policy proposals in the weeks following the Parkland shooting. While banning high capacity firearms may seem like a sensible solution, there is little evidence that doing so would significantly reduce the toll of gun violence.
According to FBI data, about 20 times more people are killed each year by handguns than by all types of rifles combined, including assault rifles. In 2016, there were more than 7,100 homicides committed with handguns, compared to 374 with rifles. On average, fewer than 300 people annually are murdered with rifles in the U.S. — a number that is dwarfed by the 6,000+ murdered with handguns. And since the FBI doesn’t differentiate between assault rifles and other types of rifles, it’s reasonable to assume that the number of homicides committed by assault rifles is lower than the average of 300 total rifle-related murders.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t a case to be made for keeping military-grade weapons out of the hands of civilians. If we’re having a debate about the best ways to reduce fatalities during public mass shootings, then assault weapons have a place in that debate. Assault rifles inflict far more serious wounds than the typical handgun, and they greatly increase the capacity to kill a large number of people in a very short period of time. But public mass shootings are a poor barometer of gun violence, and even the most expansive ban on assault weapons — one that not only prevents future sales, but also removes all such weapons from circulation — would, at best, prevent less than 1 percent of annual firearm deaths.
Meanwhile, other policies aimed at addressing public mass shootings — like putting armed security guards or police officers in schools — have the potential to backfire and harm those most at risk from gun violence in the first place. Research shows that black Americans, who account for a disproportionate number of gun homicide victims, are far more likely than their white peers to be shot and killed during encounters with police. So although placing police officers in schools may seem like a commonsense step to make schoolchildren safer, the results of such a move could be deadly for black students. Given that gun violence, especially fatal gun violence, is extremely rare in schools, it’s not at all unlikely that increasing the number of armed officers in our nation’s schools could result in a net increase in fatal firearm incidents, with students of color bearing a disproportionate burden of the violence.
When we allow mass shootings to define our gun debate, we overlook everyday incidents of gun violence and ignore solutions that could save lives.
But when we allow mass shootings to define our gun debate, we overlook everyday incidents of gun violence and ignore solutions that could save lives from the types of gun violence that are killing the most Americans. We know, for example, that states with lax gun laws have higher rates of suicide due to the availability of firearms, and that suicide rates drop substantially when states pass laws requiring gun owners to undergo background checks and obtain permits before purchasing firearms. Given that suicides—which already make up more than half of annual gun deaths in the U.S.—are increasing at a faster rate than any other type of gun violence, even marginally effective policies aimed at reducing firearm suicides would prevent far more deaths than the most effective assault weapons ban.
Using anecdotal incidents of mass violence to guide our response to gun violence also stymies progress by inviting logical fallacies into the debate. While an expansive body of research confirms that stronger gun laws and lower rates of gun ownership are associated with fewer gun deaths (and vice versa), the relative infrequency of mass shootings leaves us with very little data to work with—but that doesn’t stop groups like the NRA from cynically exploiting the circumstances of mass shootings to argue that gun laws are ineffective. If a mass shooter purchases his weapon legally, the NRA will use that as “proof” that background checks don’t work, even though research strongly suggests just the opposite. If a mass shooting takes place in the absence of armed citizens, the NRA will blame the shooting on so-called “gun-free zones,” even though there is no evidence that gunmen target locations based on the likelihood of encountering armed bystanders. If an assailant has ever displayed a symptom of mental illness, the NRA will seize upon that detail to argue that mental illness is the real problem, even though evidence tells us that the availability of guns — not the prevalence of mental illness — is the primary factor driving gun violence in America.
Tragically, we know it won’t be long before another mass shooting pierces our hardened national conscience and thrusts us back into the cycle that has become such a sickeningly routine part of American life. And when that happens, we will be drawn toward the same rituals that we’ve gone through so many times before—dissecting the details of the killer, analyzing the circumstances of the killing, and running through endless counterfactuals about how the incident might have been prevented. But as long as we continue to let mass shootings serve as a symbol of American gun violence, we will continue to overlook the deaths that don’t make national headlines — and the solutions that could prevent them.