America's Epidemic: The US’s Massive Mass Shooting Problem
The Oxford High School shooting in Michigan that killed four teens and wounded seven others has reignited the debate over how to combat mass shootings in the United States. The shooting was the sixth major mass shooting this year, and raises the question, can it stop?
There was a time in the United States when mass shootings and school shootings were singular events. From 1982 through 1989, eight mass shootings, as defined by Mother Jones, occurred. The publication includes shootings involving as few as three deaths but excludes drug and gag-related murders.
In the 1980s a mass shooting was an annual event, but nothing more.
Over the next two decades, the yearly average of mass shootings roughly doubled. In the 1990s, there were 23 mass shootings, and in the first decade of the 2000s, there were 20.
The upward trend did not abate in the 2010s. For the decade there were another 67 mass shootings. In a span of ten years, there were 16 more mass shootings than there had been over the previous 28. In the 2020s, there have been eight mass shootings and counting.
Identifying Mass Shootings
The way Mother Jones defines and tracks mass shootings is highly specific. They track shootings of more than four people done in public spaces. These events are highly publicised mass shooting events, but their growth correlates with the overall increase in all mass shootings. To present the scope of the problem, according to the Gun Violence Archives, there were 611 mass shootings in 2020 alone.
The steady increase in mass shootings raises a serious question. How has the wealthiest country on Earth allowed mass shootings to grow unabated for nearly four decades?
At a fundamental level, a mass shooting cannot occur without a firearm. The number of yearly F.B.I. firearm background checks has grown from 9.1 million in 1999 to 39.7 million in 2020. F.B.I. background checks don’t represent a one-to-one correlation for the number of firearms being bought, but they act as a reliable baseline for the number of gun purchases in the United States.
Zooming in on a year-by-year basis, there is a correlation between the number of F.B.I. background checks conducted and the number of mass shootings in the years between 1999 and 2019. 2019 had the highest number of background checks (28.3 million) and the most mass shootings (11), while 2002 had the lowest number of background checks (8.45 million) and the fewest mass shootings (0).
Due to the fact that mass shootings are rare events and gun purchases are incredibly common, it is better to compare three-year rolling averages of F.B.I. background checks and mass shootings to ease the impact on outliers. When looking at three-year rolling averages, two clear trends emerge.
Three-Year Rolling Averages Per Year of Mass Shootings and F.B.I. Background Checks
3 Year Period
Average FBI Background Checks per year (in millions)
Average Mass Shootings per year
The first trend is that the more guns that are purchased over a three-year period the more mass shootings there are. The second trend is that the rate at which mass shootings occur is relatively stable in relation to the number of firearms. From 1999 to 2019, for roughly every 3.65 million F.B.I. background checks there was one mass killing.
What this indicates, is that the increase in mass shootings is largely a result of increased opportunity. While there are other factors to consider in the growth of mass shootings, such as improved mental health treatment, increased population density, and extreme localized economic despair, the smoking gun remains the smoking guns.
Joe Biden touted a comprehensive and expansive gun control agenda while on the campaign trail. The reforms and regulations his campaign promised have not come to fruition, and the reason has to do with American politics.
A game of politics
According to a PEW research poll from September 2021, 48% of Americans believe gun violence is a very big problem. That had it in a virtual tie with illegal immigration, violent crime, and the federal budget deficit. The only issue more Americans viewed as a very big problem was the affordability of health care.
While gun violence is a pressing concern for Americans at large, the level of concern changes dramatically based upon an individual’s party affiliation. 73% of Democrats or Independents that lean Democratic believe gun violence is a very big problem, but only 18% of Republicans or Independents that lean Republican do.
The same trend emerges when you poll Democrats and Republicans over whether gun laws should be stricter than they are today. In a PEW poll from April of 2021, 81% of Democrats believed gun laws should be stricter, while only 20% of Republican respondents thought the same. The partisan chasm over whether gun violence is a serious problem contributes to the lack of legislation designed to curb it.
The divide between Democrats' and Republicans’ views on gun violence largely explains Biden’s gun-regulating rhetoric on the campaign trail and his apprehension to pull the trigger on legislation while President. Gun reform rallies the Democratic base as a core concern, but once President it puts off prospective swing voters.
The only two gun measures that have broad support from both Republicans and Democrats are measures to prevent those with mental illnesses from obtaining a firearm and making private gun sales and sales at gun shows subject to background checks.
As President, Biden has tried to push measures to limit suicides by guns, increased punishment on gun dealers who fail to conduct background checks, and cracking down on ghost guns. However, it appears that Biden views gun legislation as too politically dangerous to push any serious reforms. Even in the wake of another mass shooting, it’s unlikely any serious legislation is coming.
When it comes to mass shootings, the nation is divided over whether limiting the number of guns will lead to fewer mass shootings. In a PEW research poll, 49% of respondents said they believed there would be fewer mass shootings if it was harder for people to obtain guns legally, 42% said it would make no difference, and 9% believe that fewer guns would lead to more mass shootings.
Americans want there to be fewer mass shootings but they’re unsure of how to achieve that end. There’s a statistical relationship between fewer guns and fewer mass shootings, but restricting guns hasn’t gained enough bipartisan support to be viable. Improved mental health flagging could stop some of the worst instances, but that too has its limits.
America’s massive mass shooting problem isn’t going anywhere until Americans push for reforms. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. The more guns there are, the more shootings there will be.