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The two faces of mass shootings in America

Data on mass shootings for 2015 reveal that one kind of mass shooting gets all the attention, while the other is actually a much wider problem. 

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    An investigator works the site of the Dec. 2 mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, Calif. on Monday. The event, which left 14 people dead and 21 wounded, is only one part of a larger problem of gun violence pervading the US today, some experts say.
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To most Americans, last week’s massacre at a holiday party in San Bernardino, Calif., is emblematic of mass shootings in the United States today: violent, random, and perpetrated by radical individuals armed with assault weapons.

Yet many experts contend that such events are relatively rare in the broader scheme of gun violence in America. Indeed, the Monitor’s analysis of crowdsourced data from 2015 suggests that the savage incidents that often capture public imagination diverge from the reality of multiple shootings that take place across the nation every day.

That gap, some say, points to a culture that has developed a stratified sense of what kinds of violence merit attention.

“The way we talk about mass shootings, you’re almost creating two categories: shootings of people that matter a lot and shootings of people who don’t matter at all,” says Eugene O’Donnell, a lecturer at the City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “There’s this hierarchy of victims, and we should categorically reject that.”

The Monitor studied two online databases – Mass Shooting Tracker and the Gun Violence Archive – that employ perhaps the broadest popular definition of “mass shootings”: incidents that leave four or more people dead or wounded. Both sites rely on news reports and are unofficial, and are the source of expert dispute over what should constitute a mass shooting.

Still, the two databases together provide a glimpse into that victim hierarchy, and help paint a portrait of the face of gun violence in the US today.

Based on the definition the two sites use, and combining the incidents listed in each, there have been 367 mass shootings reported this year as of Dec. 7. More than 100 involved only one death, and nearly 160 involved no fatalities at all. The incidents occurred in 47 states and 221 cities.

Unlike San Bernardino, these cases rarely involved assault weapons or radicalized shooters, and many stemmed from trivial circumstances – such as arguments at bars or parties – that escalated into gunfights. Many of the wounded and killed were bystanders, and in many cases the shooter escaped, leaving police with few leads.

‘A sad state of affairs’

Such incidents rarely receive more than a few paragraphs and a follow-up story in a local news site or two. Take the case of Odell Branch, Sr., a 77-year-old man killed in March. Mr. Branch was watching television in his Chicago home when a stray bullet from an outdoor shootout between rival gangs came in through his window, striking him in the head. The shooting injured three others, including Branch’s two great-grandchildren, who were in the room with him.

"He's a Christian, he’s retired, a pillar of the neighborhood,” one of Branch’s neighbors told the local ABC affiliate at the time. “A good guy, always good guy, always trying to help.”

Detectives questioned a few “persons of interest” following the incident, but made no arrests.

The same is true of a children’s birthday party over Labor Day weekend. The celebration turned tragic when several men opened fire at the front yard of the Charlotte, N.C., residence following the breaking of a piñata. By the time the shooting stopped, 7-year-old Kevin Antonio Calderon Rodas was dead and three others were wounded.

Locals managed to raise more than $4,000 for Kevin’s funeral expenses, and police arrested nearly a hundred people following what turned out to be a particularly violent holiday weekend. But no one has answered for Kevin’s death, and the story went unnoticed by the rest of the nation.  

“It’s a sad state of affairs in the city and our country when a 7-year-old boy can’t be free to celebrate a birthday party without being murdered,” Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Deputy Chief Jeff Estes told The Associated Press.

Some cases do receive more attention than others. The shooting that killed 15-year-old basketball star Armoni Sexton in Paterson, N.J., in April, for instance, eventually earned coverage in The New York Times. Police even arrested local resident Gregory A. Oliver for the crime, charging him with one count of murder, two counts of attempted murder, and weapons possession.

But by and large such events remain only in the minds of neighbors, family, and friends. Despite receiving national coverage for its brutality, for instance, few remember Joseph Jesse Aldridge, the Missouri man who killed seven people, and then himself, after finding his mother dead of apparently natural causes. His door-to-door rampage, which took place in February, took out nearly 20 percent of the small, rural community of Tyrone.

Part of the reason these events – and hundreds of others – remain unrecognized except by locals is the tendency of the public to feel like such incidents could never happen to them.

“When the event is familial [or] … gang-related, the public can, if you will, put that event at a distance and pretend they’re not somehow involved because the event involved a group of people of which the public is not a part, like a family or a gang. ‘Oh, I don’t have to worry about this,’ ” says Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis.

On the other hand, he says, the randomness of mass shootings such as San Bernardino tend to unsettle people and force them to consider the possibility that it could happen to them.

“There’s no connection between the shooter’s and the victims, which means anyone could be a victim. I could be a victim,” Dr. Wintemute says. “It could happen to me. It could be my holiday party. They don’t happen ‘there,’ they happen ‘here.’ So the public has a direct personal stake.”

Tip of the iceberg

Yet such shootings are relatively anomalous events, says James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston.

In an op-ed for USA Today, Dr. Fox – who limits his definition of mass shootings to those that involve four people or more killed – writes: “Most people will live their entire life without personally knowing anyone gunned down in a mass killing. For most of us…  Mass slaughters, like last week’s shooting in San Bernardino, are tragedies we witness on television, not real life.”

What the media, policymakers, and the public should instead focus on is the issue of gun-related violence as a whole, Fox says.

Because although violent crime in the US has declined over the past two decades, America remains among the worst countries in the world for gun deaths outside of conflict zones: Gunfire fatalities in the US since 1968 outnumber American casualties in all the wars in the country’s history.

“There should be public concern over gun crime generally,” Fox says in an interview with the Monitor. “[Mass shootings are] the very smallest tip of a huge iceberg.”

That means discussing guns in a coherent, reasonable way, says Professor O’Donnell at John Jay College, who is also a retired New York City police officer and prosecutor.

“Let’s not have a war on legitimate gun owners,” he says. But “we have to stipulate that we have an ongoing gun-related, crime emergency that’s got to be mitigated.”

Some researchers say events such as San Bernardino could serve as leverage to tackle the broader problem of gun violence. New research, driven by concern over public mass shootings, could help find solutions for the more common – albeit less alarming – shootings that pockmark everyday American life, Wintemute says.

“My objective is to take tragedies like this, to take the public’s fear and sense of helplessness, and have the public transmute those things into action,” he says. “While not minimizing at all the tragedy that has the nation riveted at the moment, we’re trying to point out that these tragedies are part of a far larger problem about which we know far too little, and about which we do far too little.”

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