Speed Reads

guns and america

Why mass shootings may distort our gun policy debate

Mass shootings like this week's attack in Las Vegas are core to how Americans debate gun policy — but not necessarily with good reason. As Maggie Koerth-Baker details in a Tuesday analysis at FiveThirtyEight, mass shootings are very different from most firearm deaths in the United States in several key ways.

Koerth-Baker uses the FBI's definition of a mass shooting as "a single incident in which four or more people are killed." By that measure, there were 90 mass shootings in America between 1966 and 2012, crimes that are uniquely American and also just plain unique. First, Koerth-Baker notes, most people killed by guns in America don't die in a mass shooting. In fact, 2 in 3 aren't homicide victims at all, but rather people who commit suicide.

Second, the demographics of mass shootings are different: Shooters tend to be young or middle-aged white men, and their victims are equally split along gender lines. Despite what very high-profile attacks like Las Vegas suggest, more than half of mass shooters are engaging in domestic violence. In other murders, victims are disproportionately male, young, and black.

And third, while mass shootings have become more frequent and deadlier in recent years, violent crime more broadly is historically low. "[H]omicide rates have fallen significantly from their 1980 peak and continued on a generally downward trajectory for most of the 21st century," Koerth-Baker writes. Suicides, however, have increased dramatically. If these divergent trends continue, she concludes, using mass shootings as our primary lens for gun policy conversations will lead to legislation ill-suited to address the vast majority of gun violence.