Jack McDevitt in News@Northeastern: The Myths and Realities of Mass Shootings in the U.S.
by Tanner Stening, News@Northeastern
In the United States, mass shootings have never garnered as much attention as they have over the last decade. From the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012 to the Atlanta spa shootings this past March, incidents of gun violence involving multiple casualties are now accompanied by endless media coverage and analysis, suggesting that such violence is occurring more frequently than ever before.
But are mass shootings involving four or more fatalities on the rise in America?
James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University and an international expert on mass murder, says there’s been little change in frequency over the last few decades, with about two dozen occurring per year on average.
Polling and survey data shows that people in the U.S. are increasingly fearful of mass shootings—a perception that Fox, through his research and writings, has been trying to counter for years. Three-quarters of U.S. adults in one recent survey, for example, said they are stressed out by mass shootings, with one-third saying their fear of such shootings causes them to avoid certain public places and events. Another survey found that nearly half of U.S. residents fear being the victim of a mass shooting.
This widespread fear has far outgrown the actual threat posed by public mass killings, Fox says. While these public killings are, by their very nature, terrifying—particularly when they involve the indiscriminate slaughter of people in places like supermarkets, movie theaters, concerts or restaurants—they are still quite rare, Fox says.
“There’s no epidemic of mass shootings in my mind,” Fox says. “Really there is an epidemic of fear.”
The problem, he says, is the confusion generated over “mass shootings,” which may not involve fatalities, with “mass killings,” where there are deaths, but not necessarily by guns. In the wake of a deadly shooting with four or more deaths, reporters have sometimes cited statistics on mass shootings, of which there are typically hundreds per year; but only one person dies on average during a mass shooting, and nearly half are family massacres in private homes, Fox says.
“Another significant share are gang-related shootings, drug-related, or armed robberies,” Fox says. “Very few are the random indiscriminate public slaughters that everyone is afraid of.”
For example, there were 610 mass shootings in 2020—and 21 “mass murders”—but only 20 percent occurred in public settings, according to Fox. And as it relates to mass killings, which are tracked by the AP/USATODAY/Northeastern University Mass Killing database, about one-quarter don’t even involve guns, Fox says.
But researchers at Northeastern have been tracking a trend in mass shooting events that lends itself to this discussion—that is, the use of guns in hate crimes. Historically, fewer than 1 percent of hate crimes are committed with guns, but that appears to be changing, according to Jack McDevitt, who directs the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern.
“There have been a series of shooting incidents lately that are bias-motivated,” McDevitt says.