With mass shootings (such as the high school massacre in Oxford, Mich.) soaring and mass murders (such as the murder-by-car at the Christmas Parade in Waukesha, Wis.) back in the headlines, a new study by two Northeastern U. criminologists sheds needed light on this often confused set of topics.
In “Mass Murder in America: Trends, Characteristics, Explanations, and Policy Response” in Homicide Studies, James Alan Fox and Jack Levin analyze all 448 mass murders from 2006 to 2020 and dispel some of the stereotypes that have clouded thinking upon these gruesome subjects.
They define a mass murder as an event that kills four or more (not including the assailant if he winds up dead), and by any method. Fox and Levin note:
We also include mass killings involving weapons other than firearms. Not invoking debate over gun control, these cases are relatively obscure.
About 27 percent of mass murders don’t involve guns, while only 16 percent of mass murders are carried out with the rifles that obsess Democrats. Fox and Levin note:
Finally, defying the popular conception about the role of assault weapons, it was handguns and not rifles or shotguns that were most likely to be used as a weapon of mass murder destruction.
For example, the press has been trying to shut down public discussion of the Waukesha onslaught since the suspect is black and he didn’t use a gun, much less an AR-15.
Yet, the association of mass murders and rifles is not wholly misguided. From 2006 to 2020, rifles were used in 29 percent of Columbine-like public mass murders, the ones where the murderers attempt to kill fairly random victims. And they tend to be deadlier.
Still, mass murders with rifles make up less than one half of one percent of all murders.
Fox and Levin divide mass murders into three main types. Domestic mass murders account for a plurality of murder victims, followed by public killings (such as notorious school and post office shootings), and then felony-related mass murders involving gangs, home invasions, funerals shootings, and the like.
In contrast, a mass shooting is usually defined as a gunfire incident with four or more people wounded and/or killed.
Thus, the recent school shooting was both a mass murder (four dead) and a mass shooting (eleven struck), while the Waukesha attack was a mass murder (six dead and 62 hurt) but not a mass shooting.
Keep in mind that luck plays a role in whether mass shootings turn into mass murders: If somebody opens fire on the guy who dissed him in a crowded club, whether four people die or not depends largely upon chance. These days, emergency medical responders are so skillful that most mass shooting victims are saved, no thanks to the shooter, although some will be crippled for life.
Mass shootings are much more common than mass murders (two dozen times more so in 2021), but individual mass murders get far more publicity, especially if the shooter is white and uses a long gun.
Mass shootings are up about 150% since Black Lives Matter emerged at Ferguson in August 2014. According to Gun Violence Archive, there were 272 mass shootings in 2014 compared with 657 so far in 2021, which has already broken bloody 2020’s 611 mark.
Heckuva job, BLM!
According to Fox and Levin, mass murder fatalities in public places were generally flat since 2006, before killings peaked in 2016–2019, largely due to four horrific slaughters:
49 in the 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando; 60 at a Las Vegas concert shooting and 25 in the Sutherland Springs, Texas church rampage, both in 2017; and 23 in the 2019 massacre at an El Paso Walmart.
Were these four massacres due to trends or chance? Hard to say…
Public mass murders then dropped sharply in 2020, even though total murders rose a record 29 percent.
What about this year? According to Gun Violence Archive’s running tab, gun mass murders appear to be back to roughly the 21st-century average so far in 2021 with 27 incidents leaving 147 killed and 32 injured. (Only two have been in schools or churches.) That compares to, say, 2015’s 27 mass murders that killed 155 and injured 58 and pre-BLM 2014’s 21 mass murders with 100 killed and 38 wounded.
Keep in mind that the majority of mass murders are not Columbine-like attacks on random people in public settings. Those, fortunately, are still fairly rare. Fox and Levin point out:
The number of mass shootings in public settings, the type of event that scares people the most, has ranged from 3 in 2020 up to 10 in 2018, with an average of fewer than a half-dozen annually.
Fox and Levin feel the media focus on mass murders is overblown:
Despite the extensive media focus and public debate about mass murder, these crimes represent a very small percentage of the nation’s homicide problem. Even during the 2016 to 2019 surge in victimization, the share of homicide deaths linked to mass killings was only 1.2%, up from 0.9% over the prior decade. Whatever the future holds, it is doubtful, or at least premature, to describe the carnage from mass killing as anything close to an epidemic.
On the other hand, public mass murders are particularly horrific crimes that we rightly abhor.
And we seem to have more mass murders over the last generation than before, roughly, the 1979 “I Don’t Like Mondays” shooting at a San Diego elementary school, which appears to have given some people the idea that it would be cool to shoot strangers. (Similarly, but earlier, serial killers may have increased over the course of the ’60s, perhaps in the wake of Alfred Hitchcock’s slasher film Psycho.)
If I had to guess, I’d say a declining fear of going to hell is behind the growth over the past forty years in performative public mass murders. But as Fox and Levin point out, they are uncommon enough and their motivations tend to be so extreme that it’s hard to be sure of a cause for any trend.
In contrast to public mass murders, family mass murders, though, have probably always been with us. And we don’t have good data on crime-related mass murders, although Daniel Patrick Moynihan suggested in “Defining Deviancy Down” that the immense notoriety of the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago, in which Al Capone’s gang rubbed out seven rivals with tommy guns, suggests that they were fairly rare in the past.
As I may have mentioned once or twice before, mass shootings in the United States are basically a black problem. Sailer’s Law of Mass Shootings says that in a gunplay with more wounded than dead, there’s a very high chance that the shooter or shooters are black, as well as most of the victims. A New York Times analysis of every mass shooting in the U.S. in 2015 concluded:
Over all, though, nearly three-fourths of victims and suspected assailants whose race could be identified were black.
Thus, blacks are about fifteen to twenty times more likely per capita than the rest of the population to carry out mass shootings. That’s rather a lot, and the fact that we aren’t allowed to mention it in respectable outlets accounts for much of the madness of our times.
So the strikingly high percentage of black mass shooters is not just due to blacks having a higher murder rate, but also to having an even higher wounding rate due to a cultural predilection for opening fire into crowded black social events with an indifference toward the fate of bystanders.
I found that of the fifteen mass shootings in 2020 that wounded the most people, thirteen took place at black social events, and the race of attendees at the other two parties were left unspecified by local news reports. (Mass shootings without a high death count receive little national coverage.)
These kinds of mass shooters generally don’t stick around to finish off random people they happened to wound, so they disappear before the police can arrive.
On the other hand, Sailer’s Law says that mass murderers are more likely to be not black.
According to Fox and Levin, the black share of mass murderers is only about half as bad as the black share of mass shooters: 38 percent black versus 42 percent white, 12 percent Hispanic, and 6 percent Asian.
But that’s still pretty bad: The black mass murder rate is more than four times the white rate, according to an analysis of Fox and Levin’s data by @BostonTea84.
Hispanics, despite having a higher overall murder rate than non-Hispanic whites, have the same mass murder rate as whites. And, as close observers would expect, Asians have a modestly worse mass murder rate than whites and Hispanics, although please note that the sample size of fourteen Asian mass murderers over the last fifteen years is tiny.
The racial ratio of percent of mass murders to percent of all murders seems to correlate somewhat with how tightly wound each race is, with Asians at the top of that list followed by whites, with more easygoing groups like blacks and Hispanics ranking lower.
In Fox and Levin’s three specific types of mass murders, whites outnumber blacks 52 to 29 percent among domestics, 54 percent to 27 percent among publics, but trail 17 percent to 57 percent among felonies.
The racial differences among the types correlate with the suicide rates: 43 percent of family mass murderers kill themselves, as do 38 percent of public killers, compared with less than 1 percent of felony killers.
The reason Sailer’s Law works so often (although by no means always: For example, it failed in Oxford, Mich.) is because black mass shooters usually expect to get away, so they eventually stop firing and skedaddle to avoid the cops.
Fox and Levin aren’t confident that gun control measures could do much to stop mass murder:
Many of these worthy proposals can potentially reduce the prevalence of homicide and suicide in this country, but whether they would affect the most extreme forms of gun violence is questionable, at best. Mass killers are typically quite determined to carry out their intended attack. Certain changes in gun laws may make it more challenging for them to acquire deadly weapons, but most would likely find a way.
To paraphrase Michael Crichton: “Murder finds a way.”
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