Why the U.S Has the Worst Mass Shooting Problem in the World

August 24th 2015

It's the guns, stupid! At least according to a new study about gun violence from the American Sociological Association that reveals that the U.S. has experienced a disproportionate number of mass shootings in the past 50 years.

With 90 mass shootings reported between 1966 and 2012, the country accounts for approximately one-third of these tragedies around the globe, despite having only about five percent of the world's population.

Dr. Adam Lankford and his team of researchers at the University of Alabama looked at data from the New York Police Department's 2012 active shooter report, the FBI's 2014 active shooter reporter, and a set of international sources as well, developing the first ever quantitative analysis of all reported public shootings that resulted in the deaths of four or more people. The report will be presented at the 110th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association.

A 2007 study found that the U.S., Yemen, Switzerland, Finland, and Serbia are ranked as the top five in firearms owned per capita, and Lankford's research suggests that there is a strong, positive correlation between this statistic and the rate of mass shootings across the world.

"This is not a coincidence," the criminal justice professor said.

"My study provides empirical evidence, based on my quantitative assessment of 171 countries, that a nation's civilian firearm ownership rate is the strongest predictor of its number of public mass shooters," Lankford, the lead author of the study, explained. "Until now, everyone was simply speculating about the relationship between firearms and public mass shootings. My study provides empirical evidence of a positive association between the two."


Titled "Mass Shooters, Firearms, and Social Strains: A Global Analysis of an Exceptionally American Problem," the study provides both an overview of the broader trends at play with respect to mass shootings internationally as well as a nuanced analysis of the defining characteristics of these incidents in the countries where gun violence is most prevalent. Compared to the U.S., for example, mass shooters were 3.6 times less likely to use multiple weapons in other countries; more than half used multiple weapons in the U.S.

"Given the fact that the United States has over 200 million more firearms in circulation than any other country, it's not surprising that our public mass shooters would be more likely to arm themselves with multiple weapons than foreign offenders," Lankford said. "I was surprised, however, that the average number of victims killed by each shooter was actually higher in other countries (8.81 victims) than it was in the United States (6.87 victims) because so many horrific attacks have occurred here."

The reason for this seeming anomaly might be that law enforcement in the U.S., having been more exposed to and trained for mass shooting incidents, are better at responding to active shootings, effectively reducing the number of casualties. So although America might have significantly more mass shootings than other countries, with shooters who typically use multiple weapons, as a consequence, we also have a reduced number of people killed per shooting due, in part, to the frequency of these tragedies.

The setting of these shootings is also distinct in the U.S., Lankford noted. Whereas public mass shooters abroad tended to target places associated with the military (e.g. bases, barracks, and checkpoints), public mass shootings in America often occurred at schools, factories, and office buildings.

"In the United States, where many individuals are socialized to assume that they will reach great levels of success and achieve 'the American Dream,' there may be particularly high levels of strain among those who encounter blocked goals or have negative social interactions with their peers, coworkers, or bosses," the professor postulated. "When we add depression, schizophrenia, paranoia, or narcissism into the mix, this could explain why the U.S. has such a disproportionate number of public mass shooters."

"Other countries certainly have their share of people who struggle with these problems, but they may be less likely to indulge in the delusions of grandeur that are common among these offenders in the U.S., and, of course, less likely to get their hands on the guns necessary for such attacks."

As far as the implications of the study are concerned, Lankford put it simply: If people want to reduce the number of mass shootings in the U.S., a good first step would be reducing the number of guns in circulation. It worked in Australia, he said. Between 1987 and 1996, the country experienced four mass shootings, according to his research, and 12 days after the last of those incidents killed 35 people, Australia passed comprehensive gun control legislation, including a buyback program that reduced its national firearm stock by 20 percent.

"My study shows that in the wake of these policies, Australia has yet to experience another public mass shooting," Lankford stated.

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