Leading criminologist told Guns & Patriots that studies show mass murders in the United States are not increasing despite numerous reports to the contrary.
“Mass shootings have not increased over the last three decades,” said James Alan Fox, professor of criminology, law and public policy at Boston’s Northeastern University.
Although some media outlets are suggesting an increase in mass shootings, sheer data collected from 1976 through 2011 shows that mass shootings are not on-the-rise, he said.
The Washington Times, for example, who recently reported that mass shootings are increasing, are playing ‘fast and loose’ with terminology, he said. “The problem is that their data compiles active shooters with mass murders when active shooters and mass murders are not the same.”
Mass shootings involve a minimum of four victims killed, whereas an active shooter suggests two victims, he said. “Most active shooters are not mass murderers.”
To a large extent, the notion that mass shootings are trending is based on the often-cited reporting by February Mother Jones, said Fox, who is known as ‘The Dean of Death’ for his research on mass murders.
“Mother Jones assembled a tally of ‘random’ mass shootings over the past couple of decades derived from news reports and collective memories of events, and concluded that mass shootings are indeed on the increase.”
This report is incorrect because it uses selective criteria, he said.
Unlike the Mother Jones’ approach, Fox’ data does not exclude cases based on motive, location, or victim-offender relationship.
They only exclude incidents in which fewer than four victims, other than the assailant, were killed, murders committed with a weapon other than a firearm, or isolated cases that may have occurred in jurisdictions that did not report homicide data to the FBI, he said. “The data we collected reflect all mass shootings in which at least four victims were killed that had been reported to the bureau by local law enforcement authorities as part of the routine collection of crime statistics.”
Fox said, there have been, on average, nearly 20 mass shootings a year in the United States. “Most were nowhere as deadly as the recent massacres in Colorado and Connecticut that have countless Americans believing that a new epidemic is upon us.”
Despite the recent tragedies that have occurred, there has been no upward trend in mass shootings, he said. “What is abundantly clear from the full array of mass shootings, besides the lack of any trend upward or downward, is the largely random variability in the annual counts.”
When a flurry of tragedies occur the public responds by speculating a possible epidemic, yet subsequent years of moderate levels reveal fixed numbers, he said.
While gun control laws can have a marginal effect on gun crime, it cannot deter mass murders, he said.
“Mass murderers are very determined,” said Fox, the author of 15 books, including Violence and Security on Campus: From Preschool Through College. “If they need a weapon but do not have one, they will find one.”
Most mass murderers are angry, frustrated or even depressed, but they are not mentally ill to the point that they would be committed for mental health treatment, he said. “Very few mass murderers have had official histories of involuntary mental health treatment.”
Laws that prevent dangerously mentally ill patients from having access to guns are positive, he said. “I do not think we are at the point that people are discouraged from seeing a mental health specialist for fear of losing their ability to own a gun.”
While Fox generally supports gun control legislation including the 10-year federal ‘assault weapons’ ban that expired in 2004, he does not see it as a remedy for mass murder. “We have to be realistic – only a small percentage of gun crimes involve assault weapons – it doesn’t mean we cannot have an impact, it’s just not going to be a huge impact.”
If the public’s expectation is to eliminate mass murders, then the public will be disappointed, he said. “It is almost impossible to eliminate the risk without taking steps we are not prepared to take.”