Why Are Mass Shootings an ‘Exceptionally American Problem’?

With just 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. had 31 percent of the world’s public mass shooters between 1966 and 2012, according to a new study.
People gather to pay respect to the slain outside Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. (Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Aug 25, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

When white supremacist Dylann Roof shot and killed eight people during a prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina’s historically black Emanuel AME Church in June, the country grieved the horrific tragedy and the hatred that motivated the bloodshed. But there was, too, a gross familiarity in the murders of the congregants by a man who was a stranger to them. American schools, movie theaters, military centers, and places of worship have all been scarred by this brand of mass murder. Since 1982, there have been 71 such shootings involving four or more deaths in the U.S.—a prevalence that has led many to wonder if public mass shootings are a uniquely American affliction.

That question is at the heart of a new study, “Mass shooters, Firearms, and Social Strains: A Global Analysis of an Exceptionally American Problem,” conducted by University of Alabama criminal justice professor Adam Lankford. Between 1966 and 2012, the U.S. had 31 percent of the world’s public mass shooters, in spite of having just 5 percent of the world’s population, according to Lankford’s findings, which will be presented at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting this week. The study, which attempts to assess all mass shootings that left four or more people dead in 171 countries, found a country’s civilian firearm ownership rate is the strongest predictor of the prevalence of mass shootings in that country.

Lankford's ambitious research endeavors to be as comprehensive as possible but necessarily has its limitations. The broad international lens of the study makes accuracy a challenge when compiling such data, which is why Lankford limited his research to cases involving mass public shootings with four or more deaths.

“As a scholar you recognize that there will be unknowable cases,” Lankford told TakePart. “But if someone kills four strangers, that [tends to] register everywhere, which makes it easier to include those cases accurately.”

To compile the data, Lankford drew together a broad range of sources, starting with the New York Police Department’s 2012 “active shooter report.” The report attempts to be global in scope but only includes shooting incidents in 27 countries. This data was supplemented with the FBI’s 2014 active shooter report, as well as reports from scholars and domestic and international media reports of shootings worldwide.

Lankford found that between 1966 and 2012, the U.S. had far more public mass shooters—a total of 90 offenders—than any other country. The Philippines, Russia, Yemen, and France were the only other countries whose count even reached double digits, and none exceeded 20. Shooters in the U.S. were also far more likely to arm themselves with multiple weapons than shooters abroad. In spite of this, the study found the U.S. had a lower average number of victims per shooting than other countries: 6.87 victims to the 8.83 global average.

“My sense is that the law enforcement response is better in the U.S. than it is abroad,” Lankford said. “You could say that the unfortunate side effect of all these mass shootings is that we’ve learned how to respond to them.”

Lankford was surprised to find that the only statistically significant variables related to the number of mass shootings that occurred in a country were population and firearm ownership rate. Homicide rates, suicide rates, level of urbanization, and GDP were not related to the prevalence of mass shootings.

Apart from firearm ownership in the U.S.—where there are 88.8 guns per 100 people, outpacing all other countries—Lankford speculates that the American idolization of fame plays a role in the frequency of mass shootings, citing a 2007 Pew Research Center poll in which 51 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds said being famous is their generation’s most important or second most important goal.

“It appears that nowhere in the world is fame prioritized more than in the U.S.,” said Lankford. “There’s no more guaranteed way to become famous than by killing random innocent people. They’re not just seeking fame—they’re getting it.”

Adoration of fame aside, the most concrete policy response to mass shootings—heightened gun control—also appears to be, at present, a political impossibility. Addressing the eight people slain in Charleston, President Obama lamented this challenge.

“Now is the time for mourning and for healing, but let's be clear," Obama said. "It doesn't happen in other places with this kind of frequency, and it is in our power to do something about it. I say that recognizing the politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now, but it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge it.”