Are Mass Public Shootings Declining in America?

A brief (for me) follow-up on yesterday’s post on mass public shootings: In 2012, 68 people were killed in 7 mass public shootings, including 26 at Sandy Hook Elementary School alone. Many individuals and new media outlets were quick to proclaim a rise in mass shootings. In previous posts I have raised some doubts about whether the situation is getting worse.

mass shootings us
AP Photo

Midway through 2013, sociologist Joel Best – author, most famously, of the 2001 book Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists – wrote the following in a posting on the politics of gun violence:

“Last year was an unusually bad year, with 68 people killed in seven mass shootings—a terrible toll, to be sure. But in the context of some 2.5 million deaths from all causes last year, mass shootings, while dramatic, are simply not a major cause of death. And because these events are quite rare, and their number fluctuates from year to year, it is difficult to determine a clear trend. The horrors of 2012 made it easy from some commentators to claim that mass shootings were on the rise, but should there be fewer cases in 2013, it is unlikely that people will note that the problem is growing smaller.”

A month into 2014, I thought I would do a brief foray into the World Wide Web to see if his prediction was accurate. Here is what I found: NOT MUCH.

An exceptional article on mass killings published in USA Today toward the end of 2013 smartly distinguishes between mass killings in public and those that are essentially family disputes and those that are in connection with some other crime like robbery or a drug deal.

The USA Today story identifies 5 mass public killings with 31 dead victims in 2013. This represents a nearly 30% decline in incidents and more than 50% decline in victims compared to 2012.

And, yet, I was not able to find a single story that commented on the declining problem of mass public killings in America – as Best predicted. If I have missed any coverage of this “story,” please let me know.

I put “story” in quotation marks, of course, to highlight the fact that a decline to 5 mass public killings in 2013 is no more newsworthy than an increase to 7 mass public killings in 2012.

Mass public killings are sad but rare events. Excessive focus on them and the proposal of laws that seek to prevent them detract our attention away from much greater risks we all face – from criminals and ourselves, not to mention from the living of life.

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