Frederic Lemieux: Myths of mass shootings exposed

At least 10 students were killed on May 18 at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas. Another in a long line of mass school shootings erupting in America, a disgruntled student opened fire with a shotgun and .38 revolver belonging to his dad.

The shooting happened just three months after a teen shooter killed 17 at a high school in Parkland, Florida, sparking nationwide youth-led protests over gun violence. That has renewed a  familiar debate over what changes could really make a difference.

As a criminologist, I often hear misconceptions creeping into that argument, however. Here’s what the research actually shows:

More guns don’t make you safer

A study I conducted on mass shootings indicated this phenomenon is not limited to the United States. Mass shootings also took place in 25 other wealthy nations between 1983 and 2013.

However, the number of such shootings in the United States far surpasses that of any other country included in the study over the same period of time.

The U.S. had 78 mass shootings during that 30-year period. The highest number of mass shootings experienced outside the United States was in Germany, where seven occurred. In the other 24 industrialized countries taken together, 41 were recorded.

Guest Writer

Frederic Lemieuxjoined the applied intelligence faculty at Georgetown University inf 2017. He spent the previous 10 years heading the Homeland Security, Law Enforcement and Cybersecurity program at George Washington University. He holds a Ph.D. in criminology from the University of Montreal. His research, documented in a series of scholarly books and papers, has focused on law enforcement, homeland security and cybersecurity.

In other words, the U.S. had nearly double the number of mass shootings taking place in all other 24 countries combined.

Another significant finding is mass shootings and gun ownership rates correlate strongly. The higher the gun ownership rate, the more a country is susceptible to experiencing mass shootings. And this association remains elevated even when the United States is withdrawn from the analysis.

Similar results have been found by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which states that countries with higher levels of firearm ownership also experience higher firearm homicide rates.

My study shows a strong correlation between mass shooting casualties and overall deaths by firearms.

However, in this last analysis, the relationship seems to be mainly driven by the very large number of deaths by firearms in the United States. It disappears when the United States is withdrawn from the analysis.

Incidents becoming more frequent

A recent study published by the Harvard Injury Control Research Center shows the frequency of mass shooting escalating in the United States.

The researchers measured the increase by calculating the time between acts. According to the research, the days separating mass shooting occurrences went from, on average, 200 days during the period of 1983 to 2011, to 64 days since 2011.

What is most alarming is the fact that this increasing trend is moving in the opposite direction of overall intentional homicide rates. Those have declined almost 50 percent since 1993 in the U.S.

Restricting gun sales actually works

Because of the Second Amendment, the United States has very permissive gun licensing laws. This is in contrast to most developed countries, which have more restrictive laws on their books.

According to a seminal work by criminologists George Newton and Franklin Zimring, permissive gun licensing laws refer to a system in which everyone except specially prohibited groups of persons can purchase a firearm. In such a system, an individual does not have to justify purchasing a weapon. Rather, the licensing authority has the burden of proof to deny gun acquisition.

By contrast, restrictive gun licensing laws refer to a system in which individuals who want to purchase firearms must demonstrate to a licensing authority they have valid reasons to get a gun, like using it on a shooting range or hunting, and that they are of “good character.”

The differences between these type of gun laws have important impacts. Countries with more restrictive gun licensing laws have a lower gun ownership rate and thus fewer deaths by firearm.

Background checks are also effective

In most of the restrictive background checks performed in developed countries like Canada and Australia, citizens are required to train for gun handling, obtain a license for hunting or provide proof of membership at a shooting range.

Individuals must prove they do not belong to any “prohibited group,” such as the mentally ill or criminally convicted. Ownership is denied to those deemed at high risk of committing crime, such as individuals with a record of threats or criminal acts.

Here’s the bottom line: With these provisions, the majority of U.S. active shooters would have been denied purchase of a firearm.

Most shootings aren’t acts of terrorism

Journalists sometimes describe mass shootings as a form of domestic terrorism. But this association may be misleading.

There is no doubt that mass shootings are “terrifying” and serve to “terrorize” the community in which they occur. However, not all active shooters involved in mass shooting have any political message or cause.

For example, the June 2015 church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, was judged a hate crime by the federal government, but not an act of terrorism.

The majority of active shooters suffer from mental health issues. Many claim to have been motivated by bullying or oppressive workplace conditions.

Active shooters may be prompted by a variety of personal or political triggers, usually not linked with challenges to government legitimacy. Frequent motivations are revenge or a quest for power.


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