2015 US mass shootings: 'The sky is not falling'

There have been 22 mass shootings in 2015 in which four or more victims were killed, slightly above average for the past 15 years.

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
Muslim women and children attend a vigil and prayer service at the Chino Valley Islamic Center to honor the victims of the San Bernardino shooting rampage, Friday, Dec. 4, 2015, in Chino, Calif.

While the attack at the holiday party in San Bernardino, Calif., and the June shooting at the Emanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston, S.C., will remain seared in public consciousness, in 2015, mass public shootings remain the least common form of gun violence in America.

Focusing on the widely accepted FBI definition – an incident in which four or more victims are shot and killed – there have been 22 mass shootings this year, according to a Monitor analysis of two crowdsourced databases that rely on news reports.

In these 22 incidents – which averaged about one every 16 days – 133 people were killed and 52 were wounded. The shooters were usually white men acting alone, and they typically were motivated by personal disputes, rather than politics or ideology.

The incidents shook communities across the country, from the deep-red towns of Roseburg, Ore., and Waco, Texas, to the liberal enclaves of Barre, Vt., and Minneapolis. But barring further shootings before the end of the year, 2015 should end up being just slightly above average when compared with the past 15 years.

“There should be concern, but not alarm and not panic, and not knee-jerk reactions and quick fixes,” says James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston. “The sky is not falling; it’s just gray, and it's been gray for a while.”

Professor Fox singled out the San Bernardino and Charleston killings, because of the terrorism of one and the racism of the other, as the ones that “had a strong impact on people’s consciousness.” And of course, for the victims’ families and hometowns, the aftershocks of the tragedies are profound and lasting.

“But in terms of the number of cases,” he adds, “they're not out of the ordinary at all."

A report published by the Congressional Research Service in July found that, using the same definition, between 1999 and 2013 there were an average of 21 mass shootings per year, killing 1,554 people in total and wounding 441. During that 15-year period, the CRS found that about four incidents per year could be defined as “public mass shootings.” According to the CRS, there were 4.1 mass public shootings a year in the 2000s and 4.5 from 2010 through 2013.

This year, there have been five or six public mass shootings (depending on how an incident between rival biker gangs in Texas is classified), including the three with the highest death tolls: the attack in San Bernardino, which is being investigated as terrorism by the Federal Bureau of Investigation; the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore.; and the massacre in Charleston, S.C., which the FBI classified as a hate crime. The other two include Chattanooga, Tenn., where Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez killed four Marines and a sailor before being shot to death by police; and Tyrone, Mo., where Joseph Jesse Aldridge killed seven people and then himself after finding his mother dead of apparent natural causes.

Islamic extremism

This year was unusual in that two of the public mass shootings were committed by three apparently radicalized Islamic extremists. Tashfeen Malik reportedly left a Facebook post pledging allegiance to the Islamic State before she and her husband, Syed Farook, killed 14 people in San Bernardino. Mr. Abdulazeez’s motives remain murkier.

Prior to this year, the last public US mass shooting by an Islamist extremist was in 2009 at Fort Hood, Texas. The most recent previous Islamist terror attacks on US soil were the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, which were committed by the Tsarnaev brothers.

In 2015, the most common type of mass shooting was a “familicide” mass killing, in which a family member or former intimate partner shoots four or more victims. There were nine such cases. Jody Herring is accused of going on a shooting rampage in Barre, Vt., in August after losing custody of her daughter, with three relatives and a social worker killed. (Ms. Herring was the only other woman involved in a mass shooting in 2015, besides Ms. Malik in San Bernardino.)

Fox, who has argued for years that mass shootings have plateaued after increasing in the 1970s and ’80s, is in favor of a broader definition that would include familicides and gang violence.

“If you and three other people are murdered, does it matter if it’s your brother or father or a stranger? You're just as dead,” he says.

One anomaly found in 2015 mass shootings is the decline in the number of “felony mass shootings,” a subcategory that the CRS defined as “attributable to an underlying criminal activity or commonplace circumstance.”

The landmark felony mass shooting of 2015 was the biker gang shootout at a restaurant in Waco, Texas, which killed nine and wounded 18 (though some classify it as a public mass shooting). There have been only three others this year. Between 1999 and 2013, there was an average of eight per year.

Fixing ‘an intractable problem’

These subcategories are important, researchers say, because different kinds of mass shootings require different policy responses.

"The guy who goes home to his family [and shoots them], that’s a different event than someone who goes out and shoots someone in public," says Deborah Azrael, associate director of the Harvard Youth Violence Prevention Center.

"I don't rank one as being more important than the other. I think they have really different policy implications," she adds. 

Several researchers have called for consensus definitions of mass shootings to help guide the funding of research, instead of contributing to the confusion that persists at the moment, according to the CRS report.

"Different definitions of 'mass killing,' 'mass murder,' and 'mass shooting' [contribute] to a welter of claims and counter-claims about the prevalence and deadliness of mass shootings," wrote the report’s authors. "With improved data, policymakers would arguably have additional vantage points from which to assess the legislative proposals that are inevitably made in the wake of these tragedies."

Dr. Azrael argues that subdividing different kinds of mass shootings and improving data collection on them will help researchers detect trends to better direct policy responses. She was part of a team of Harvard researchers last year who, analyzing 33 years of mass shooting data compiled by Mother Jones, found that the rate of public mass shootings tripled from 2011 through 2014.

State legislation

Noticing how prevalent familicides are, some states have enacted laws to remove firearms from the homes of persons with histories of domestic violence. 

Such laws are unlikely to totally eliminate such tragedies. There were no apparent warning signs before Scott Westerhuis shot his wife, their four children, and himself in their South Dakota home in September, for example. In one of the deadlier mass shootings of the year, Valerie Jackson had just changed the locks on her house when her ex-boyfriend, David Conley, climbed through a window and shot her, her husband, and their six children.

And proactive measures may not be enough to prevent other kinds of mass shootings, experts say. Since mass shooters are unlikely to be deterred by gun control laws, it may be more helpful to focus on guidelines for emergency responders. Azrael cited as one example a high school shooting in Oregon last year.

The shooter had already killed two students but officers arrived within minutes, at which point he fled to a bathroom and committed suicide. The local police chief said the quick response “saved many of our students’ lives.”

"Maybe we should be following that. We should be seeing what happens in active shooter situations in which police actively engage the shooter rather than waiting," adds Azrael. "That has different policy implications than guns in households, that are often wielded by people who are distraught and angry, who can kill five people, and the police never even get called because there’s no time to call the police."

Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California at Davis, describes gun violence and mass shootings as “an intractable problem.”

“We’ve taken a long time to develop it,” he says, “and it’s going to take a long time to fix it.”

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