Data shows most mass public shooters used handguns, not ‘assault rifles’

The national gun control debate focuses heavily on AR-15-style rifles but most mass public shootings over the last 25 years have actually used handguns, according to new myth-busting data from the Crime Prevention Research Center.

Shootings largely took place in what the center said are already supposed to be “gun-free zones” according to the law, and none of the shootings from 1998 to 2023 would have been stopped by requiring universal background checks, said John R. Lott Jr., the center’s founder and author of the new report.

The study also said Black and Middle Eastern shooters significantly outstrip their percentage of the population, while Hispanics are disproportionately victimized in the shootings.

Mr. Lott said by his calculations, there were just 101 mass public shootings from 1998 to 2023, which is far less than the hundreds of cases per year often cited by the media and politicians.

The trend line is ticking up, with eight mass public shootings each in 2021 and 2022 and seven shootings through Oct. 25, 2023, Mr. Lott’s data cutoff.

But he said the deaths per shooting is plateauing, with between 51 and 61 total deaths in those three years. The deadliest year for public mass shootings — 2017, when the Las Vegas attack slaughtered 60 people — still only ended with 94 total deaths.

He said that’s not to minimize gun violence but to put the scary random shootings that get the most attention into proper context. He said they’re not as common as Americans have been led to think.

“The number of mass public shootings that you see each year is from one to eight. That’s a very different number than what you see that the media covers all the time,” Mr. Lott said. “The causes and solutions for these mass public shootings are very different.”

The problem is one of definitions.

The Gun Violence Archive, the source used by many journalists reporting on mass shootings, says there have been more than 600 mass shootings each year this decade, up from 300 to 400 a year from 205 in 2018. That includes all gun-related incidents where four or more people are wounded or killed, whether in public or private, including gang shootouts and robberies.

Mr. Lott says GVA is mixing common violence, such as crimes gone bad, with the random school-shooting massacres in places like Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, that draw media coverage and frighten people the most.

“The big thing that irritates me is you have somebody like [President] Biden go and say, ‘We have Uvalde and we’ve had 600 more attacks like this,’” Mr. Lott said. “That’s simply false because they’re just putting apples and oranges together.”

He said the FBI’s definition of mass shooting is more strict than the GVA, requiring at least four persons to be murdered, not just injured, and he said GVA sometimes counts wrong cases.

Mark Bryant, founding executive director at GVA, said Mr. Lott was “trying to minimize the scope of shootings” by slicing and dicing what counts as a mass shooting. He said GVA is delivering data and people can draw conclusions from it.

“We don’t put caveats into our numbers for two reasons,” Mr. Bryant said. “First, it minimizes the impacts on some people who were ‘only injured’ and also, no matter how we filter, someone would complain.

“So it is best to look at open records without filters and let the reporter or politician or advocate make the decision as to which are important to them. That can’t happen if you winnow the number from the get-go, leaving out many incidents,” he said.

He said GVA is always refining its data and correcting entries, such as removing a person from the victim list who turned out to be a suspect or erasing an entire shooting from their database if it turns out to be an incident “where everyone was both a victim and a suspect.”

Mr. Bryant said Mr. Lott, while complaining about GVA trying to make mass shootings look prevalent, was doing the exact opposite in trying to “make the data look as small as possible to avoid gun regulations.”

“GVA’s position is simple. We mark up each gun violence incident based on the criteria it presents,” he said. “Mass Shooting is just 6% of the work we collect and whether you call it mass shooting or not, the same number of people were shot in the same number of incidents.”

Shooter demographics

Mr. Lott said his findings challenge other common narratives surrounding mass shootings, including who’s shooting and who’s getting shot.

His database shows that non-Hispanic Whites were 55% of the shooters and 55% of victims, or about equal to their share of the total population in 2022.

Hispanics were just 11% of shooters, a bit less than their share of the 2022 population, but accounted for 17% of victims. Black Americans were the opposite: 17% of shooters, but just 10% of victims of mass public shootings.

Mr. Lott separated those of Middle Eastern origin — usually included as part of the White population — and said they were nearly 7% of shooters but less than 1% of victims.

Asian Americans were about 8% of shooters and about 10% of victims.

Mr. Lott said those findings undercut the sense that mass shootings are frequently white supremacists shooting up minority-heavy locations.

“This mantra of who are the shooters and who are the victims — it just doesn’t match up,” he said.

The data on transgender shooters doesn’t go back as far, but Mr. Lott calculated that from 2018 to 2023, they constituted one out of every 20 shooters. He said that’s far more than their share of the population, which he put at roughly three-quarters of a percent, after averaging out three prominent estimates.

Mr. Lott said the data also challenges a notion popular among conservatives that mass shootings are a mental health issue. He said roughly half of the shooters had seen a mental health professional, yet they were not identified as dangers.

“If you can’t identify these individuals beforehand, what’s your backup plan to stop these attacks?” Mr. Lott said.

Among other findings, he said 20% of mass public shooters had military service.

And most shooters didn’t survive the attack themselves, with 43% dying by suicide and 17% killed by police.

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