Are There Really ‘More Mass Shootings Than Days in the Year’?

Advocates of gun control cite figures that conflate Las Vegas with gang crime and domestic violence.

 
 

Sen. Dianne Feinstein discusses gun-control legislation during a press conference in the Capitol, Oct. 4.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein discusses gun-control legislation during a press conference in the Capitol, Oct. 4. PHOTO: THEW/EPA-EFE/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK/EPA/SHUTTERSTOCK
 

Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut responded to last week’s Las Vegas massacre by issuing a statement in which he claimed: “Already this year there have been more mass shootings than days in the year.” That was last Monday, the 275th day of 2017. Can Mr. Murphy possibly be right?

Certainly not by the ordinary definition of “mass shootings,” which includes attacks such as the one in Las Vegas this month, at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., in 2016, and at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999. Of late such infamous crimes have hit the national news several times a year—nowhere near a daily basis. Gun-control advocates like Mr. Murphy seek to alarm the public by exaggerating the scale of the problem.

The FBI defines “mass murder” as “four or more victims slain, in one event, in one location.” Starting with the FBI’s definition of four or more fatalities, the Congressional Research Service reported that from 1999 through 2013 there were an average of 20 to 22 mass shootings in the U.S. annually. In an average year, four of these would be “mass public shootings”—the kind that often get national media attention. Of the rest, about half were “familicides”—killings within a family or estranged family, usually taking place in a private residence. The other half were “attributable to an underlying criminal activity or commonplace circumstance,” such as armed robbery, gang activity, insurance fraud or romantic triangles.

The website Mass Shooting Tracker, by contrast, counted 340 mass shootings in the U.S. between New Year’s Day and last Monday—consistent with Mr. Murphy’s claim of more than one a day. The site uses a much broader definition of mass shooting: “an incident where four or more people are shot in a single shooting spree. This may include the gunman himself, or police shootings of civilians around the gunman.” Under this definition, the shootings needn’t be fatal.

It’s not surprising that people who favor gun confiscation would prefer an indiscriminate methodology. But it’s not helpful in actually reducing violence. Different solutions are needed for different types of crimes.

Bump stocks, such as the one the Las Vegas shooter used, are irrelevant for ordinary crimes because they degrade a firearm’s accuracy. To reduce fatalities in mass public attacks, it would be sensible to require that anyone who buys a device that makes a normal gun fire as fast as a machine gun go through the same arduous federal process as those who buy an actual machine gun. Unfortunately, a bill introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein is so overbroad that it outlaws normal modifications to standard firearms—such as changing a spring to reduce the trigger pull weight from six pounds to five.

The good news is that for gun crime in general the U.S. has had a quarter-century of success. The robberies, domestic violence and other crimes that comprise nearly all “mass shootings” broadly defined are simply the worst examples of ordinary gun crime. Since peaking in the early 1990s, gun homicide has declined by half nationwide. Overall gun crime victimization is down by three-fourths. In this same period, the American gun supply grew by 80 million, so that there is now slightly more than one gun per person in the U.S.

Scholars suggest diverse causes for the crime decline. To the extent that gun policy has made a difference, Americans in the past quarter-century have made their gun laws both stricter and more permissive. Today, unlike in 1992, there are many laws against gun possession by persons with domestic-violence records, whether misdemeanor convictions or restraining orders. Extensive and uncontradicted social-science indicates that such persons are much likelier to commit gun crimes, especially domestic ones.

Improved interstate data-sharing has facilitated laws against gun possession by prohibited persons. Tougher sentencing for criminals who use firearms in a violent crime has been an important cause of mass incarceration, and those longer sentences have helped reduce gun violence of all types.

On the other hand, unlike in 1992, right-to-carry is now the national norm. In all but a few states, adults with safety training and a fingerprint background check have a legal right to bear a firearm for lawful defense. State pre-emption laws have eliminated many local antigun restrictions.

Although gun crime has been way down, 56% of Americans in a 2013 Pew Researchsurveythought gun crime was higher than 20 years earlier. Only 12% realized that such crime was lower, and fewer still realized how much lower it was. One cause of public misunderstanding is the widespread repetition of inflated figures about mass shootings.

Dubious statistics to terrify the American public are not new to the gun-control debate. The truth is that the U.S. has made tremendous gains in gun safety since the 1990s, and has done so without adopting the confiscatory and other extreme proposals some gun-control advocates demand.

Mr. Kopel is research director of the Independence Institute.

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