HUMANS & SOCIE TY
Science can’t yet
A lack of research hinders an
understanding of mass killers
BY BRUCE BOWER
Immediately after a 19-year-old shot and
killed 17 people and wounded 17 others at
a high school in Parkland, Fla., on Valentine’s Day, people leaped to explain what
had caused the latest mass slaughter.
By now, it’s a familiar drill: Too
many readily available guns. Too much
untreated mental illness. Too much
warped masculinity. Don’t forget those
shoot-’em-up video games and movies.
Add (or repeat, with voice raised) your
own favorite here.
Now the debate has received an
invigorated dose of activism. Inspired
by students from the targeted Florida
high school, hundreds of thousands of
people rallied against gun violence and
in favor of stricter gun laws on March 24
in Washington, D.C., and in cities across
the world. But a big problem haunts
the justifiable outrage over massacres
of innocents going about their daily
affairs: Whatever we think we know
about school shootings, or mass public shootings in general, is either sheer
speculation or wrong. A science of mass
shootings doesn’t exist.
“There is little good research on what
are probably a host of problems contributing to mass violence,” says Grant
Duwe, a criminologist at the Minnesota
Department of Corrections in St. Paul.
Duwe has spent over two decades mining federal crime records and newspaper
accounts to track trends in mass killings.
Perhaps this dearth of data is no surprise. Research on any kind of gun
violence gets little federal funding (SN:
5/14/16, p. 16). Criminologist James Alan
Fox of Northeastern University in Boston
has argued for over 20 years that crime
researchers mostly ignore mass shootings. Some of these researchers assume
that whatever causes people to commit
any form of murder explains mass shootings. Others regard mass killings as driven
by severe mental disorders, thus falling
outside the realm of crime studies.
When a research vacuum on a matter
of public safety meets a 24-hour news
cycle juiced up on national anguish, a
thousand speculations bloom. “
Everybody’s an expert on this issue, but we’re
relying on anecdotes,” says sociologist
Michael Rocque of Bates College in
Rocque and Duwe published a review
of what’s known about reasons for mass
public shootings, sometimes called rampage shootings, in the February Current
Opinion in Psychology. Their conclusion:
not much. Scientific ignorance on this
issue is especially concerning given that
Rocque and Duwe describe a slight, but
not unprecedented, recent uptick in the
national rate of rampage shootings.
Defining mass public shootings to track
their frequency is tricky. A consensus
is emerging that these events occur in
public places, include at least four people killed by gunshots within a 24-hour
Students run with their hands up following
a February 14 shooting at a high school in
Parkland, Fla. Little is known about why some
individuals become mass killers.
period and are not part of any other
separate crime, Rocque and Duwe say.
Overall, mass public shootings are rare,
Duwe says, though intense media coverage may suggest the opposite. Even less
obvious is that rampage shootings have
been occurring for at least 100 years.
Using FBI homicide reports, Congressional Research Service data on mass
shootings and online archives of news
accounts about multiple murders, Duwe
has tracked U.S. rates of mass shootings
from 1915 to 2017.
He has identified 185 such events
through 2017, 150 of which have occurred
since 1966. (In 2016, he published results
up to 2013 in the Wiley Handbook of the
Psychology of Mass Shootings.) In the
earliest-known case, from 1915, a Georgia
man shot five people dead in the street,
after killing an attorney he blamed for
financial losses, and wounded 32 others.
Another lawyer, who came to the crime
scene upon hearing gunshots and was
wounded by a bullet, ended the rampage
when he grabbed a pistol from a hardware
store and killed the shooter.
What stands out over a century later is
that, contrary to popular opinion, mass
public shooting rates have not ballooned
to record highs. While the average rate of
the crimes since 2005 is up, it’s currently
no greater than rates for some earlier
periods. Crime trends are usually calculated as rates per 100,000 people for,
say, robberies and assaults. But because
of the small number of mass shootings, Duwe calculates annual rates per
100 million people in the United States.
The average annual rate of mass public shootings since 2010 is about 1.44 per
100 million people. That roughly equals
the 1990s rate of 1.41, Duwe finds.
The average annual rate from 1988
to 1993 reached 1.52, about the same as
the 1.51 rate from 2007 to 2012. After
dropping to just below 1 per 100 million
people in 2013 and 2014, rates increased
to nearly 1. 3 the next three years.
From 1994 to 2004, rates mostly