Mass Killings vs. Mass Shootings

FILE - In this Jan. 6, 1953, file photo, four school children watch a teacher giving them a lesson via television at home in Baltimore, Md. TV was key to the world baby boomers were born into (AP Photo, File)

In trying to measure the effects of guns on society — not just the Americans — it pays to be careful about what we are describing. The Washington Post explains that there is no direct relation between the number of firearms in circulation and the number of ordinary gun-related murders.


Most Americans incorrectly think gun-murder rates have gotten worse, not better … To be explicit: This is wrong. Data from the FBI breaks out reported murders by type of weapon, showing a drop in the raw count of firearm murders since a peak in 1993. ….

But remember, too, that the question asked about the murder rate — that is, the number of murders as a function of the population. In that regard, the drop is even steeper. In 1994, the FBI data suggest a rate of about 6.2 firearm murders per 100,000 people. In 2017, the rate was 3.38 murders, up from the 2014 low in which the rate was less than half of that in 1994.

Ordinary murder is apparently driven by more than the weapon. An observed reduction in the propensity of Americans to shoot each other offset the greater availability of weapons. The federal assault weapons ban and its subsequent removal without detectable effect showed how weak a factor it was by itself.

Research published by John Lott in 1998 found no impact of these bans on violent crime rates. … In 2004, a research report commissioned by the National Institute of Justice found that if the ban was renewed, the effects on gun violence would likely be small and perhaps too small for reliable measurement, because rifles in general, including rifles referred to as “assault rifles” or “assault weapons”, are rarely used in gun crimes. That study, by the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology, University of Pennsylvania, found no significant evidence that either the assault weapons ban or the ban on magazines holding more than 10 rounds had reduced gun murders.


For a variety of reasons having to do with social and economic factors, the firearms murder rate went down. What the current debate really seems to be about is whether rapid-fire guns increase the frequency of a special kind of crime called mass shootings. However, this is a somewhat artificial category. Mass shootings are a subset of the larger phenomenon of mass killings, sometimes referred to as rampage killings. “A rampage involves the (attempted) killing of multiple persons at least partly in public space by a single physically present perpetrator using (potentially) deadly weapons in a single event without any cooling-off period.”

It is one killer, one place, one time, many victims in a setting outside of war. The data collected on this type of event notes the type of weapon used, which is not always a firearm. It is mass killings that one would want to reduce, not just mass shootings.

What differentiates rampage killings from regular homicide is they were (and still are) by comparison extremely rare. Wikipedia lists only 1,850 incidents worldwide in recorded history, which is very small compared to the number of ordinary homicides. While the record probably leaves out many incidents it should be, by order of magnitude, correct at least from the 1800s. (I converted the incidents into a queryable database, excluding familicides, home intruders and the “other” category to obtain the following charts in a process to be described next post).


What happened in the mid-1960s?

Rampage killings really start taking off after the mid-1960s. Perhaps the most surprising thing is how much of that spike comes from religious-ethnic and school shootings (which are counted separately from geographical divisions).

If general rampage killings are purely a function of weapons availability, they should be reflected across the jurisdiction of those geographical areas. The fact that they spike in certain categories (religious-ethnic and schools) suggests it is higher than average in certain places due in part to the killer’s efforts to act out some pathological or political message related to these settings.

Because rampage killers are rare, they may be quite different from the ordinary murderer. If the mass killer decides to commit mayhem, first the weapon selection is driven by the plan. Availability is one, but only one of the factors. The rampage data reflect the choice. While bladed weapons are less deadly than firearms, the really devastating attacks are carried out using vehicles or arson. Wikipedia has a category for these called other.

Year W Killed Additional notes
1978  E 134 Died in the explosion of ship 160, which he caused
1989  E 110 Sentenced to 10 consecutive life sentences for the bombing of Avianca Flight 203
1990  A 87 Sentenced to 25 years to life imprisonment for causing the Happy Land fire
1990  V 127 Died in the crash of Xiamen Airlines Flight 8301, which he caused
1995  E 168 Sentenced to death and executed for the Oklahoma City bombing
Killed 3 unborn children
1997  V 103 Pilot; Died in the crash of SilkAir Flight 185, which he was suspected of causing
1999  V 216 Pilot; died in the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990, which he was suspected of causing
2001  E 89 Sentenced to death and executed
2002  A 111 Died in the crash of China Northern Airlines Flight 6136, which he caused
2003  A 192 Sentenced to life imprisonment for causing the Daegu subway fire
2009  A 112 Unsolved
2014  V 238 Pilot; died in the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which he was suspected of causing

The reason the high end is non-gun is simple. Firearms, even assault weapons, are inherently limited by the need to change magazines, which is why buddy pairs are considered the smallest tactical unit so that one can maintain fire while the other is reloading. Fire, aerial vehicles, explosives and poison are not similarly constrained. The recent Kyoto animation studio attack killed more people than the El Paso and Dayton shootings combined.

It is sometimes argued that gun control can force rampage killers downward to knives, but there is nothing to prevent them from trading up to a deadly plan and a box of matches. Any strategy to reduce mass killings must consider psychological and network factors as much as object control (like banning knives).

The discussion on rampage killing might benefit from examining the following propositions:

  1. Are rampage killers different from ordinary killers?
  2. Was the spike from the mid-1960s driven by accelerants other than weapons availability, explaining why gun murder rates per 100,000 went down but mass killings of all sorts went up.
  3. To what extent does school and religious-ethnic data suggest the spike is driven by contentious politics? Unlike regular murderers who strive to conceal their identity, rampagers often leave elaborate manifestos, a video statement, social media declarations, or even live feeds to memorialize their deeds. They want the world to know who they are.
  4. Was TV and social media the accelerant at least in part? Is the lack of it why places like Africa appear to have slower growth in this type of event?

While this discussion of the subject is far from scientific, it may throw light upon the problem from a novel angle. The next Belmont Club post will examine the relationship between civilian weapons ownership and that other form of mass killing: extrajudicial killing. What can go wrong if civilians don’t have weapons?

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