The Real Story: Mass Shootings in the United States
The Real Story:Mass Shootings in the United States Mass shootings are some of the most publicized, most talked about events in the United States. It seems that almost every other week, there is another horrific national tragedy that reignites the debate about mental health, gun control, and many other related issues. However, are mass shootings really, exactly like politician’s description of them? Are the few specific instances of mass shootings that the media chooses to highlight really representative of the problem as a whole? In this paper, I will attempt to answer these questions, as well as highlight the major debates that surround mass shootings and the real data that explain them. Before we start talking about mass shootings, it is important to define what a mass shooting is. Unfortunately, there is no clear, universally agreed upon definition.
Depending on your definition of what a mass shooting is, the number of mass shootings can range from hundreds over the course of a decade to almost one a day. The closest thing to an official definition is the definition set forth by the FBI, which describes a mass shooting as a single, time-bound event, in which 4 or more people are killed, not including the perpetrator. However, this definition is not accepted by every data collection organization, which results in data that is sometimes incompatible. For this essay, I took data from a number of sources, some that may very well have different definitions of the term “mass shooting;therefore please remember, not all data in this paper can necessarily be compared. (Nichols) It is important to establish how often mass shootings occur, and how large of an issue they are.
According to the FBI, using the previously described definition, there have been approximately 176 mass shooting from 2006 to 2011. It is important to note that while it may seem as if mass shootings are a massive epidemic, they still only account for less than 1% of all homicides in the United States. It is also important to note that there are other types of mass murder other than shootings. Shootings only account for 77% of all mass murder, the other 33% being mass murders in which weapons like baseball bats, etc. are used.
While mass shooters are often generalized by the news media as young, troubled adolescent males out for revenge on a society that mocked them, that simply isn’t representative of mass shootings as a whole. The average age of a mass shooter is 34, quite demonstrably not an age associated with adolescence. As well, mass shooters aren’t, for the most part, out to get revenge on society through means of indiscriminate murder. The majority of mass shootings are family killings, accounting for about 53% of total mass shootings. In addition, 1 in 4 victims of mass shootings were close family members of the perpetrator, and a larger 57% of victims knew their killer in some other way. Many of these take place in homes, or other private or domestic buildings.
In fact, only about 1 in 6 mass shootings take place in public spaces. Surprisingly, a very small, but not insignificant portion of mass shootings occur as part of a robbery or a burglary. Our stereotype of a mass shooter comes closest to being correct when we consider the gender of mass shooters. The overwhelming majority of mass shooters are male. However, there are some female mass shooters, accounting for about 6% of all mass shooters as opposed to males’ 94%. (Thomassie) In addition, while many would like to say that mass shootings are on a massive upward spike, this simply isn’t true.
Mass shootings have stayed a fairly steady level throughout the 2000’s, only occasionally making small dips and spikes. However, it is surprising that mass shooting rates have stayed the same while homicides rates overall are on a sharp decline, reaching their lowest level since the 1960’s. (Rocheleau) Unfortunately, much of the data that I have shared with you isn’t 100% accurate. Researchers and data collectors face many, many problems when looking at data on mass shootings. One of which is the varying definitions, which I previously mentioned. Another problem is the difficulty in getting data from places whose government do not report their data.
Several counties and municipalities, as well as the entire state of Florida, do not report annual mass shooting and mass killing data. While we can attempt to gain data from these places the population samples and various surveys, these are not always accurate methods of gaining data. By some estimates, inaccuracy rates in reports about mass shootings are as high as 57%. (Thomassie) One of the most discussed issues surrounding mass shootings is the issue of mental health, or, more specifically the issue of whether the United States mental health care system is doing as much as can be done to stop mass shootings. While many people point to instances where the mental health care system allegedly made an error, and as a result, mass shootings happened, some mental health professionals disagree with the characterizations.
They bring up the point that there are many times in which the system can do nothing, as people who need psychological help, even those predisposed toward violence, cannot legally be forced to go to a psychologist of psychiatrist if they do not desire.While this could be changed, many question whether it is morally correct to do so, or whether the government should be given so much control over the life of a sovereign person. In addition, there are many cases in which the patient and future shooter went through therapy, showed no signs of violence, and was diagnosed as no longer needing care. Only later did they commit a shooting, which many professional argue couldn’t be accurately predicted by the extent of our knowledge of psychology. In other cases, several warning signs were present, but the professional responsible for the patient could not report their findings to the police.
As a patient didn’t explicitly threaten to kill anyone, reporting these private medical records to the police would be a breach of physician-patient confidentiality. As well, there are many cases in which the patient’s physician did notify the police, who either did not take action, or briefly took action for a time, after which it was determined the threat held no water. This is a mistake, as mass shootings are rarely crimes of passion. Many are planned in advance, sometimes even months, or years in advance. It is also important to note that even if the mental health care system had been able to evaluate, detect the warnings signs, and report every future mass shooter, this would still not resolve the issue entirely. A surprisingly large amount of mass shooters are completely sane or have no detectable signs of mental illness.
Estimates on what percentage of mass shooters are sane vary, but many are within the 78% to 88% range. Many people have actually condemned the focus on mental health care as a solution to mass shootings, claiming that it unfairly stigmatizes people with mental illnesses, who are no more likely than the general population to commit violent crime. Again, figures vary, but one estimate puts both groups, the mentally ill and not mentally ill, as having a 2% chance of committing violent crime. (Hall) One of the most controversial issues surrounding mass shootings is the issue of access to guns. One of the central debates that is revived whenever an incident of a mass shooting gains nationwide attention is what gun control measures should be implemented to stop mass shootings from happening, or whether we should implement them at all. Unfortunately, this is another case of conflicting data, where there is no clear answer.
We can look at examples of other countries who have implemented various gun control measures, and find very little consistency. On one hand, there are countries such as Australia, which have massive gun control measures, and on the other, there are countries such as Finland, which have similarly low rates but very low amounts of gun control measures in place. Looking just at the United States, many studies have shown that gun accessibility is one of the biggest factors that contributes to the occurrence of mass shootings. However, gun accessibility does not just include legal, retail sales of guns, which are easy to regulate. It also includes things like the illegal arms trade, as well as private transactions that take place outside of stores, and consist of individuals trading their own private property between one another. Illegal or unofficial trade are very difficult to regulate, as they do not by nature happen under the watch or at least permission of government authority.
Even if someone can’t get a gun through official, legal means, there are other ways to get one. These ways, however, can be more dangerous, much more difficult, and often times illegal. While there is definitely a need to decrease gun accessibility for those who might commit mass shootings, it is difficult to ascertain what regulations to put in. (Lemieux) Banning assault weapons and other military-style weapons would be a start, but that wouldn’t help stop the 72.9% of mass shootings that are perpetrated using handguns, nor indeed the 8.
6% perpetrated using shotguns. (Thomassie) As well, keep in mind the facts stated earlier, that only 11%-22% of shooters are insane, and the majority have no history of violence. In many cases, background checks can catch those with violent histories or mental illnesses, but it is not a catch-all solution to the problem of gun accessibility, as many future mass shooters cannot be identified as such before their crimes. Many have suggested that mandatory waiting periods be introduced for those who wish to purchase weapon. While this may help reduce the rate of suicide, it is not particularly helpful to the cause of preventing mass shootings, because, as previously stated, most mass shootings are planned far in advance.
Many people have suggested that the United States move from a gun inclusive system (you are by default able to own a gun, and must demonstrate irresponsibility to have that right revoked) to a gun exclusive (you are by default unable to own a gun, and must demonstrate responsibility in order to gain that right). However, others have expressed concern that such a move may conflict with the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution. (Lemieux) One of the major reasons why there is so little consensus on issues of gun accessibility is because there is a lack of official government research. For years, the Centers for Disease Control was unable to conduct research into gun violence due to fears that its funding might be pulled. This was due to a bill, which was passed partially due to the efforts of National Rifle Association (NRA) lobbyists, which states that the CDC could not advocate a position on gun control. While not explicitly banning gun research, it was worded vaguely enough that many at the CDC were not willing to risk funding to continue research.
Many people feel that the NRA’s power over United States legislators has prevented meaningful legislation to occur. (Jamieson) It has been suggested that mass shootings be prevented by providing more armed guards for vulnerable areas. However, there is little evidence to show that guards successfully stop mass shootings. One meta-analysis of mass shooting data found that in hundreds of cases analyzed, only in a few were guards able to make any sort of difference in the outcome of events. (Lemieux) One entity that is commonly blamed whenever a mass shooting gains national attention is the media. More specifically, people often blame violent movies and video games for causing shooters to become violent.
Unfortunately, this is another area in which there is conflicting research. While some research has shown that violent media increases aggression, many have criticized such research for failing to control for other factors, such as family relationships. As well, many studies measure aggression in ways that aren’t applicable to violent crime, such as seeing whether someone picks up a dropped pen for another person. Still others point out that among school shooters, the supposed demographic most susceptible to the influence of violent media, only about 12% exhibited an interest in violent games, and only 27% exhibited an interest in violent movies. Long term research that measures aggression in ways applicable to both real life and violent crime are still sorely lacking.
(Vossekuil) Another charge levied against the media has to do with the way the media covers instances of mass shootings. Rather than focusing on the victims, or important policy decisions that should be made, media critics say, news outlets focus on the killer, telling his life story, what drove him to commit his crime, how he carried it out, etc. Critics say that covering mass shootings in this way causes more mass shootings, as it inspires people to commit shootings because of a narcissistic desire to be on national news. Critics draw comparisons to the teen suicide epidemic, and how rates dropped when news outlets stopped covering teen suicide case with as much detail, trying as much to appeal to the emotions of viewers in order to get viewers, and therefore ad revenue. They argue that similar to the case of mass shooters, teens may have considered suicide as a way to have their story told. (Schulman) Opponents have countered this criticism, pointing out that while media “covering the killer” stories have increased, mass shootings have not.
(Robison) However, proponents of the idea respond, pointing out that while overall homicide rates have gone down, mass shooting rates have not, suggesting that something is keeping them from falling, namely, media coverage. (Schulman) Ultimately, as stated numerous times in this paper, there is no one clear answer. There is very little consensus on most issues surrounding mass shootings, and finding solutions is further complicated by the inaccuracies in our current available data. However, the national debate around mass shootings could still be moved forward by informing all involved of the real nature of shootings. By showing evidence that contradicts the stereotypes, and by combating the notion that mass shootings are a huge, scary epidemic, we can hopefully diffuse the emotional nature of discussions, and find clarity in all the madness. Bibliography: Nichols, Chris.
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