Not just guns: New study looks at why the U.S. is No. 1 in mass shootings

The mass shooting at a black church in Charleston was sadly common in the U.S.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Since 1966, the U.S. has had more mass shootings than the next several countries combined, according to a new study by University of Alabama criminologist Adam Lankford. Between 1966 and 2012, there were 291 documented mass shootings in the world, and 31 percent of those were in the U.S., Lankford says in a paper being presented this week at the American Sociological Association's annual meeting in Chicago. That's five times the rate in the second-ranked country, the Philippines.

A big reason for this unwanted top ranking is America's unusually high rate of gun ownership, the Los Angeles Times reports: 88.8 firearms per 100 people, according to a 2007 survey. Yemen, the No. 3 country for mass killings, comes in a distant second, with 54.8 firearms per 100 people. The No. 3 and No. 4 countries in per-capita gun ownership, Finland and Switzerland, are also in the Top 15 for mass shootings, Lankford found. "Because of its world-leading firearm ownership rate, America does stand apart," he wrote, "and this appears connected to its high percentage of mass shootings."

But it isn't the only reason. The poor U.S. system to care for mental illness plays a role, Lankford noted, though that's a trait not unique to the U.S. One thing that is unique is the "American dream," he said, and when people fail to achieve that upward mobility, some of them express their frustration in violence. The last big element? Fame. "Increasingly in America — perhaps more than in any other country on the globe — fame is revered as an end unto itself," he wrote. "Some mass shooters succumb to terrible delusions of grandeur and seek fame and glory through killing." You can read more about Langford's research at the Los Angeles Times.

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.