Mass Shootings Are Bad Way To Make Policy According To FiveThirtyEight

Mass shootings make headlines. As a nation, we gather to mourn those lost, even though we knew none of the deceased. The sheer scale of horror from a mass shooting like Las Vegas or the Pulse Orlando shooting boggles our mind.


Invariably, calls begin for something to be done. Anything. “We simply have to stop this kind of thing from happening,” someone argues.

Yet, is that really the way forward? I don’t think so, and I’m definitely not alone.

FiveThirtyEight is a site that looks at statistics and makes pronouncements from that. They aren’t always right in their predictions (see the 2016 election, for example), but they’re fair. They manage to make both sides angry from time to time with their work.

Guess who they’re making mad when they say this, though:

Last year, we produced a series of stories on American gun deaths and the people behind the statistics. From that reporting, and other sources, we know mass shootings are different from other kinds of gun deaths in several ways.

First, they’re rare, and the people doing the shooting are different. The majority of gun deaths in America aren’t even homicides, let alone caused by mass shootings. Two-thirds of the more than 33,000 gun deaths that take place in the U.S. every year are suicides.

You could, theoretically, cut down on all these deaths with a blanket removal of guns from the U.S. entirely — something that is as politically unlikely as it is legally untenable. Barring that, though, policies aimed at reducing gun deaths will likely need to be targeted at the specific people who commit or are victimized by those incidents. And mass shootings just aren’t a good proxy for the diversity of gun violence. Policies that reduce the number of homicides among young black men — such as programs that build trustbetween community members, police and at-risk youth and offer people a way out of crime — probably won’t have the same effect on suicides among elderly white men. Background checks and laws aimed at preventing a young white man with a history of domestic violence from obtaining a gunand using it in a mass shooting might not prevent a similar shooting by an older white male with no criminal record.

If we focus on mass shootings as a means of understanding how to reduce the number of people killed by guns in this country, we’re likely to implement laws that don’t do what we want them to do — and miss opportunities to make changes that really work. Gun violence isn’t one problem, it’s many. And it probably won’t have a single solution, either.


So far, there’s little evidence that a mass shooter would simply abandon their desire to kill a lot of people simply because they couldn’t get a firearm. I’d say there was none, but there might be some obscure study somewhere that I miss or a report I forgot about, so I’m hedging here.

The point, however, is that mass shooting are horrific things, but they’re still the exception, not the rule. They’ll probably always be, and even if you were somehow to magically eliminate all firearms in this country, well, all that will happen is these madmen will find some other avenue of attack, and possibly hurt or kill even more people.

I get why people are antsy about guns right now. That doesn’t mean good policy will come about at a time like this.


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