Last Friday I wrote about violence in America and how we hurt the effort to deal with it by defining it as prevalent throughout the land instead of as the mostly localized problem that it is. Today's subject is the related, but distinct issue of public mass killings in the United States. While gun control advocates would prefer that we look at one method(firearms), and the NRA would prefer we focus on one kind of place(schools), the public is best served by looking at the risks to all of the places we normally gather at and as many lethal methods as practical if we are to arrive at effective and reasonable solutions.
Shortly after the Newtown shooting USA Today examined FBI data on mass killings(defined as 4 or more victims) from 2006 to 2010. They found 156 incidents resulting in 774 deaths over those five years. Here's some of what they found:
- The killings between 2006 and 2010, however, offer a portrait of mass murder that in many ways belies the stereotype of a lone gunman targeting strangers:
- Lone gunmen, such as the one who terrorized Sandy Hook Elementary School last week, account for less than half of the nation's mass killers. About a quarter of mass murders involve two or more killers.
- A third of mass killings didn't involve guns at all. In 15 incidents, the victims died in a fire. In 20 others, the killer used a knife or a blunt object. When guns were involved, killers were far more likely to use handguns than any other type of weapon.
- Children are frequently victims. At least 161 who died in mass killings -- roughly one in five -- were 12 and younger.
- Mass murderers tend to be older than other killers, with an average age of nearly 32 years old. Like all killers, they are overwhelmingly men.
The Happy Land social club fire killed 87 people in 1990. The murder weapons there were some gasoline and only one exit. I can rattle off a bunch more that had nothing to do with guns.
None of that is to try to deflect people away from talking about gun control as a possible solution, it's only to say that if we define the problem as only one of guns, we will almost certainly miss many other solutions and opportunities to avoid some mass killings. Much to our sorrow. I'll wait and see what Vice President Biden proposes tomorrow, but I'm pretty sure he is going to take the narrow "guns, guns, guns" approach.
Update: No definition of the problem of mass killings would be complete without also addressing the scope of the overall issue. As many have noted, mass killings account for about 1% of homicides every year and contrary to some reports, are not happening more frequently now than they have in the past. That's not a call for inaction, but a note of caution that when considering proposals the potential results need to be weighed against potential negative impacts.
For example, improved mental health reporting is an idea worth examining. We have to be careful, though, to not scare off the many others who are no danger to their community but could use some professional help. We don't want those people to refuse help just because they fear their guns will be confiscated or that they'll end up on some "no buy" list that can never be expunged.
Like any issue, this one demands that solutions be proportional with the problem.
Why is it that we can never seem to properly define these issues?
I'll come back to that in a little bit. I decided to do a separate post on that.