Monday, December 17, 2012

Shootings In Context Part 2: What Can We Learn From The Last 61 Shootings?

One trait common to most humans is discomfort with uncertainty and ambiguity which is part of our need for closure.  The question 'why?' seems to be part of our DNA.  Some people channel this need into science.  Others into addictions - alcohol,  drugs, work, television, sports,  reading - anything that allows them to put off dealing with the uncertainties of life.  Others turn to religion to get answers to the unanswerable.  Probably most of us use a bit of all three.  Events like the school shooting in Newtown force us to attend to things that don't make sense to our normally routine worlds.  They force us to attend to the contradictions in our world views.  And we seek explanations that allow us to go back to normal.

I just made all that up.  It's probably not completely wrong, but I don't have anything but my experience and quirky brain to back it up.  Why am I telling you this?  Because I don't want you to do anything more than consider what I have to say.  I'm not writing  'the truth.'  I don't have any conclusions in this post.

I'm just trying to find some facts that are out there that can be used to test people's attempts to bring closure to a mass murder.  We shouldn't latch on to the first explanation that is most consistent with what we believe.  We should clean out our brain's dusty models of how the world works and see if they need some revisions.  We need to see why it's so easy to let go of the murder of 26 people and allow the conditions that allowed it to happen to incubate the next shooting.  It's not easy to let go?  Give it a few days.  How many of the last 61 mass shootings are still haunting you? 

That's the number in a Mother Jones piece I found.  Since 1982.  It maps them all out.  I went looking for numbers trying to find something that might give a clue to what we can do to stop the shootings.  In the previous post, I had found that mass shootings, dramatic as they may be, make up only a tiny fraction of the firearms deaths in the United States. But that post went in a different direction and so this post will share some of the numbers I had left over.

As I mentioned in the previous post on this topic, we can concentrate on figuring out the characteristics of mass murderers, then focus on finding people with those characteristics to stop them.  Or we can focus on those characteristics and figure out how to develop public health infrastructures that prevent the kinds of problems that mass shooters seem to have.  Focus on individuals or focus on what society does to encourage or discourage shooters.

Taking the list from Mother Jones, I made a long table which included the year, date, state, location (of the shooting), and the age of the shooter.  All that information and a little more is in the Mother Jones article, but I wanted to be able to sort it in different ways.

They specifically defined a mass murder as
  • one shooter (though there are two exceptions which included two shooters)
  • at least four dead, not including the shooter
  • the number of dead can include the shooter 
  • all but a couple were at one location, though there are a couple of 'sprees' in the list

[I  went back to their site, they've updated and done some of the sorting of numbers I was doing and present here.  I've done it a little differently.]

First I just start grouping the raw numbers.  I wanted to see if there are any things that stand out - such as most of the shooters are white males.  But even though this stands out, what do we do with it?  Even if all shooters were white males aged 37, would we screen all white males two weeks before their 37th birthday?  Not likely.

All the while I was thinking about correlations.  I didn't do anything complicated.  I'm just eyeballing the numbers - are there any relationships?  For instance, I checked the shooting dates against full moons.  There were three within a day of the full moon.  Sixty one shootings is  two months worth and we would expect about two to fall on a full moon. So that means nothing.

Gender and Race

I didn't do race because race wasn't always clear.  They have pictures for many, but you often can't tell race for sure by looking or by a name.   But people who study this say they are predominantly white males.  There was at least one black, a few Asians, and a couple who would appear to have been Hispanic.  Gender was pretty clear:  there was only one woman (white.)


AGE 11-19 20-29 30-39 40-49 50-59 60-69 Total
Number 9* 15 12 20 6 1 63
*Two of the seven shootings in this age group had two shooters.

The average age = 34.7 years
The modal (the number in the middle of the list) age = 36
The median (most frequent) age = 44 (5 were 44 years old)
If I had added in the Newtown shooting, there would also be 5 for the age of 20.

In the list of characteristics in Shootings in Context Part 1, it said most shooters were in their 20's or 30's.  But this list shows most to be in their 20's and 40's.  


Is there some pattern for when they shoot?  Here's a table with how many shootings there have been per month.

Jan Feb Mar April May June July Aug Sept Oct Dec
3 7 6 6 3 4 5 5 5 5 6*
* Does not include Newtown school shooting

A pretty even distribution for such a low number.    I even looked to see if the full moon had any relationship to the shootings.  It didn't.


What about the states these events take place in? 

# of shootings States (population density - people/square mile) Total
0 Alabama (87), Alaska(1), Delaware(402), Idaho(15), Indiana(154), Kansas(33), Louisiana(103), Maine(41), Maryland(545), Montana (6), New Hampshire (138), New Jersey(1,144), New Mexico (15), North Dakota(9), Rhode Island (1014), South Dakota (10), Tennessee (138), Vermont (66), West Virginia (75), Wyoming(5)
Washington DC (9370)
1 Arizona (45), Arkansas (51), Hawaii (186), Iowa (52), Michigan (175), Massachusetts (814), Mississippi (60), Missouri (81), Nebraska (22), Nevada (18), Ohio (277), Oklahoma (50), Oregon (35), Pennsylvania (274), South Carolina (135), Utah (27), Virginia (179) 17
2 Conn.(703),  Georgia (142), Illinois (223), Minnesota (61), Kentucky (102), 5
3 Colorado (41), New York (402), North Carolina (165), Wisconsin (99) 4
4 Washington (88) 1
5 Florida (298), Texas (79) 2
9 California (217) 1

Here's a map I made that shows this graphically:

I'm not sure what this tells us.  30 states have had mass shootings, some more than once.  I was going to check population to see if that could account for California's high number of shootings.  The first chart I found was population density, so I stuck that in instead.  I thought maybe people in low density states might feel less stress or have more room to be alone.  All the states with 15 people per square mile or less are in the zero shooting category.

But the highest density states (New Jersey and Rhode Island) plus the District of Columbia (with the highest density) are also in the zero category.  Plus this is about mass shootings.   When I looked up firearm deaths per capita by state things changed quickly.

The four highest death by firearm states  (DC (31.2 deaths/100,000 population), Alaska (20),  Louisiana (19.5) and Wyoming (18.8), all had no mass shootings.  California (9.8) was 30th in deaths by firearm and high density states like New York (5.1) and Rhode Island (5.1)  tied at 46th and New Jersey (4.9) was 48th.

Looking for numbers I found this Atlantic Monthly article, The Geography of Gun Deaths, by Richard Florida, that does a lot of similar kinds of work on relationships between gun deaths in a state and other factors. (These are all gun deaths, of which mass shootings deaths are a small fraction.)  It concludes:
While the causes of individual acts of mass violence always differ, our analysis shows fatal gun violence is less likely to occur in richer states with more post-industrial knowledge economies, higher levels of college graduates, and tighter gun laws. Factors like drug use, stress levels, and mental illness are much less significant than might be assumed.
I'd say it's worthwhile to check out the whole article - it isn't that long, but full of interesting statistics.   It looks for a lot more correlations than I have and lists which ones are strong and which weak. 

They found no correlation (it only discusses correlation, not causation) between mental health and firearm deaths.  I put mental health as a major issue in the previous post.  But I was talking about mass killings and Florida (the author not the state) was looking at total firearm death statistics.  Mass shooting deaths are only a fraction of a percent of all annual firearm deaths so they wouldn't affect the statistics.

Location of Shooting

Gunman's workplace 25
School/University 11
Restaurant/Cafe 6
Mall/Shopping Center/Movie 5
Concert/Nightclub/Party 4
Social Services/City Hall 3
Place of Worship/Church 3
Wife's workplace 2
Other (train, spa) 2

These numbers strongly support the triggering events mentioned in Part 1.
"triggering event may be a loss of job, being spurned by a woman, or something similar (usually an economic or academic crisis of some sort)."    
 36 of the 61 shootings were at their workplace or a school.  That says a lot.

While these shooters are clearly way outside the norm and many of them have conceptions of the world that don't come near matching reality, I do believe that many of them have been treated poorly by co-workers or fellow students and that treating others with respect - even when they are behaving strangely, even badly - would go a long way.  Even if it didn't stop these kinds of events, everyone else's lives would be much better. 

Are Things Getting Worse?

People have been asking if things are getting worse.  The chart shows that the 80's had the lowest number of shootings and deaths.  The 90s were the highest.  The 2000s dropped, but this may have been a post 9/11 effect (one shooting in 2001 and none in 2002).  The current teens would set a record if the rate continues. 

Year # of
# Dead Decade # of
# Dead
1982 1 111982-89 7 153
1984 2 48
1986 1 21
1987 1 6
1988 1 11
1989 2 56
1990 1 42 1990-99 22 348
1991 3 61
1992 2 19
1993 4 56
1994 1 28
1995 1 6
1996 1 6
1997 2 14
1998 2 25
1999 5 91
2000 1 7 2000-2010 20 307
2001 1 9
2003 1 15
2004 1 12
2005 2 41
2006 3 28
2007 4 86
2008 3 42
2009 4 67
2010 1 11 2010-2012 10* 218*
2011 3 40
2012 6* 110*
* Newtown school shooting not counted here

But given that there are over 30,000 firearm deaths a year, these numbers are almost incidental. 

So, I offer these numbers for reflection.  They don't tell us much, but they are probably more anchor than most people have when they talk about the shootings.

And do look at the Mark Follman piece in Mother Jones.  Then look at Richard Florida's Atlantic article.  He takes this much further than I do.  But remember, Flrida's looking at all firearm deaths, not just mass shootings. 

Here's what I've learned the past couple of days writing these two posts:

1.  We may or may not be able to stop these mass shootings.  It probably won't happen by trying to identify individuals likely to explode and stopping them.  Making it hard to get weapons might have an effect, but I'm not sure given how many weapons are already out there.  But making societal changes in general mental health care availability,  teaching people how to interact more respectfully, and preventing school and workplace bullying and harassment would probably, in the longer term, give future shooters less need to shoot.

2.  Probably more important is that the mass shootings are a highly visible, but a relatively insignificant part of the firearm death statistics.   Plain old murders and suicides and accidents with firearms kill 30,000 people a year.  That's where our efforts to stop firearm deaths should start.  The efforts there will, I'm guessing, also have an effect on mass shooters. 


  1. When will Americans grow up and realize NOBODY gets everything they want? They have been indoctrinated with the "pursuit of happiness" twisted to mean it's their right, not to be denied. It is an infantalized society.
    Sadly, I see no end in sight. The last election shone a light on what HALF the country believes and it is disgusting.

  2. Thanks for all the hard work. Something to think about, no matter your position on the issue.


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