Study Finds US Has 31% of World

Study Finds US Has 31% of World's Mass Shootings

The United States is the global leader in mass shootings, claiming just 5 percent of the global population but an outsized share—31 percent—of the world's mass shooters since 1966.

According to a study by Adam Lankford, a criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama, several factors have conspired to create in the United States a potent medium for fostering large-scale murder, including a chronic and widespread gap between Americans' expectations for themselves and their actual achievement, Americans' adulation of fame, and the extent of gun ownership in the United States.

Lankford quantitatively analyzed various reports, from the New York Police Department’s 2012 active shooter report, the FBI’s 2014 active shooter report, and international sources including the United Nations and the World Health Organization. He focused on public mass shootings, defined as those that took place in a confined, populated space and resulted in the deaths of at least four people. 

"It’s a bigger problem today than it was a decade ago and it may be a bigger problem in the future," Lankford told Newsweek. "There are a lot of questions that people have posed in the past that we didn’t have statistics on or quantitative answers for," such as just how prevalent mass shootings are in American society compared with other countries, and whether there’s a statistically significant relationship between this and other numbers, like rates of firearm ownership, homicide and suicide.

Lankford, whose paper is among those being presented this week at the American Sociological Association's annual meeting, said that no single factor sets the United States apart as sharply as does gun ownership. Of 178 countries included in Lankford's analysis, the United States ranked first in per-capita gun ownership. A 2007 survey found 270 million firearms in U.S. civilian households—an ownership rate of  88.8 firearms per 100 people. Yemen followed, with 54.8 firearms per 100 people.

Across the world, countries' rates of homicides and suicides bore no clear relation to their likelihood of mass shootings in Lankford's analysis. In several countries with sky-high murder rates—Mexico, Venezuela and Nigeria for instance—mass shootings were extremely rare.

But the association between national firearm ownership rates and number of mass shooters per country showed clear statistical significance, he found. Behind the United States' top spot, Finland and Switzerland rank third and fourth, respectively, in per-capita gun ownership. While both countries enjoy vaunted reputations as safe places to live, both (along with No. 2 Yemen and No. 5 Serbia) ranked in the top 15 countries internationally for mass shooters per capita.

America's "gun culture," wrote Lankford, is deeply rooted in the idea that broad gun-ownership is a bulwark against the emergence of tyranny. And those roots continue to lie close to the surface, he wrote: A national survey conducted in 2013 found that 65 percent of Americans believe that the purpose of their right to bear arms remains "to make sure that people are able to protect themselves from tyranny."

American mass shooters were also 3.6 times more likely to arm themselves with multiple weapons than were those who perpetrated similar crimes elsewhere, Lankford found. His analysis found that more weapons used in a mass shooting translated into more people killed. (Curiously, however, American mass shooters who carried out attacks using multiple weapons tended to claim fewer lives than did armed shooters elsewhere who did so.)

At the same time, mass shootings that took place in commercial spaces or schools were much more likely to have been carried out by American shooters than by those elsewhere, the new research found.

He cites survey data showing that young Americans continue to embrace the "American dream" of soaring financial and educational achievement, of doing better than one's parents. When such dreams are frustrated, this bedrock belief in upward mobility predisposes some—especially those with a tenuous grasp on mental health—to psychological "strain." In rare instances, severe strain helps forge mass shooters, he wrote.

There’s a silver lining, however, reported Time magazine. Because the United States has a preponderance of public mass shootings, the country is more prepared than any other to deal with them, Lankford said. He points to Columbine and Sandy Hook as events that shaped enforcement procedure.

"When Columbine happened, it took three hours to respond, in part because we didn’t know how to respond," he said. "Do you prioritize helping people flee? Do you secure the perimeter? Do you go in and disable the active shooter? We now know you have to make sure the active shooter no longer is active," he said. "At least we know how to deal with this."

Posted on Aug 27, 2015

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