This is part two of a three-part series. You can read the rest of the series here.
With the recent tragic attacks in El Paso and Dayton, the world once again turned its attention to mass shootings. It’s a subject that has captivated America for years with little progress in understanding the nature of the problem.
The topic of mass shootings is fraught not only with political agendas but also with rampant misinformation. Facile comparisons and snarky memes dominate social media, crowding out objective, evidence-based evidence and analysis. This is effective for scoring political points but wholly counterproductive for understanding the nature of the problem and its broader issues.
The public’s perception of mass shootings is heavily influenced by mass media, primarily news media and social media. In my capacity as a media literacy educator (and author of several books on the topic, including Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us), I have in past articles for the Center for Inquiry attempted to unpack thorny and contentious social issues such as the labeling of terrorists (see, for example, my April 2, 2018, Special Report “Why ‘They’ Aren’t Calling It ‘Terrorism’–A Primer”) and the claim that “the media” isn’t covering certain news stories because of some social or political agenda (see my November 9, 2018, piece “’Why Isn’t The Media Covering This Story?’—Or Are They?”).
In this three-part series I focus on myths about mass shootings in America, as they represent a common concern. My focus is not on the politics of gun control or criminology but instead misinformation and media literacy, specifically as it is spread through news and social media (“the media” in this article). A comprehensive analysis of the phenomenology of mass shootings is beyond the scope of this short article series; my goal is to help separate facts from myths about mass shootings so that the public can better understand the true nature of the problem.
Specifically, in this series I tackle 1) the nature and frequency of mass shootings, 2) the demographics of mass shooters, concluding with 3) applying media literacy to mass shooting statistics. You can find Part 1 here.
In this part, I examine truths and myths about the demographics of mass shooters. In the previous article I discussed why mass shootings statistics can be contradictory and confusing, especially because of differing definitions of what constitutes a mass shooting (for example numbers of victims involved).
Different Types of Mass Shootings
Just as there are differing definitions of mass shootings, there are different types of mass shootings. One recent analysis by Emma Fridel in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence (discussed in more depth later) identified the three most common types of mass shootings: Family killings, felony killings, and public mass killings.
- Familicides represent the most common form of mass murder and are principally defined by a close victim-offender relationship. Perpetrators are typically White, middle-aged males who target their spouse or intimate partner, children, and other relatives (Fridel 2017, 3).
- Felony killings are distinguished by motive. Murder is used to achieve some primary criminal objective, typically involving financial gain. … Due to their general lack of sensationalism, felony killings are not widely publicized despite representing the second largest category of mass murder. Perpetrators of felony mass murders tend to be young black or Hispanic males with extensive criminal records (Fridel 2017, 7).
- Despite their extreme visibility, public mass killings account for the smallest proportion of all mass murders. Formally, these incidents are defined by attack location. Public mass killers are a heterogeneous group and are frequently delineated into several subtypes. Public murderers are often stereotyped as middle-aged white men who have suffered a series of failures in different areas of life, though some research indicates a disproportionate number of immigrants commit public massacres (Fridel 2017, 5). These public mass shootings are what most people (wrongly) consider as typical of mass shootings.
Fridel found that blacks commit twice as many felony mass shootings as whites (50.49 percent versus 22.33 percent), so it’s not surprising that blacks are overrepresented in this group:
In most instances, the murders serve to eliminate witnesses of a robbery, drug crime, or gang-related attack. Due to their general lack of sensationalism, felony killings are not widely publicized despite representing the second largest category of mass murder (Krouse & Richardson, 2015). Perpetrators of felony mass murders tend to be young Black or Hispanic males with extensive criminal records (Lankford, 2016b). With frequent ties to the drug trade or gangs, they operate in pairs or small groups in urban areas (Fox & Levin, 2015; Petee et al., 1997). As the primary purpose of murder is to cover up another crime, felony killers leave few survivors and generally claim four or five victims on average, similar to family killers (Duwe, 2007). … As with homicide in general, most victims are the same race as the offender(s). [References can be found in the original article.]
One of the highest-profile recent mass shootings was a felony killing, the murder of a young African American girl, Jazmine Barnes. On December 30, 2018, the seven-year-old Houston girl was killed when a gunman drove up next to the vehicle she was in and opened fire on its occupants. Her mother, LaPorsha Washington, was wounded; Jazmine was struck in the head and died on the way to the hospital. The investigation carried over into the new year as the public and police searched desperately for her killers. Harris County Sheriff’s Office announced that Eric Black Jr., a twenty-year-old black man, had been arrested for the shooting. Black admitted to being the driver in the car, while Larry Woodruffe—also a black man in his twenties—fired the fatal shots into the Barnes’s vehicle. It was a gang-related drive-by shooting, and the pair had mistaken Washington’s vehicle for their intended target.
More than 80 percent of all crime involves victims and perpetrators of the same race. Whites and African Americans of course can and do attack each other, but they are the exception, not the rule. As Lois Beckett noted in The Guardian:
A new analysis of 358 mass shootings in America in 2015 found that three-quarters of the victims whose race could be identified were black. Roughly a third of the incidents with known circumstances were drive-by shootings or were identified by law enforcement as gang-related. Another third were sparked by arguments, often among people who were drunk or high. The analysis, conducted by the New York Times with data collected by Reddit’s mass shooting tracker and the Gun Violence Archive, used law enforcement reports on shootings that left four or more people injured or dead in 2015. Few of the incidents resembled the kinds of planned massacres in schools, churches and movie theaters that have attracted intense media and political attention. Instead, the analysis, defined purely by the number of victims injured, revealed that many were part of the broader burden of everyday gun violence on economically struggling neighborhoods. … Many gang-related mass shootings began as fights over small incidents of perceived disrespect.
As noted, truly random violence (involving mass murder or otherwise) is quite rare; shootings almost always emerge from personal conflicts and grievances, between friends, lovers, coworkers, and so on.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Many news headlines suggest instead that white males account for most mass shootings. Newsweek, for instance, ran a story with the headline, “White men have committed more mass shootings than any other group.”
Politifact examined this claim and found it be technically true, with some important caveats:
Newsweek based its claim on data from Mother Jones, which defines a public mass shooting as an incident in which the motive appeared to be indiscriminate killing and a lone gunman took the lives of at least three people. Under this definition, Mother Jones found that non-Hispanic white men have been responsible for 54 percent of mass shootings since August 1982. Another tally, with a longer timeline and a different definition of mass shooting, found non-Hispanic white men make up 63 percent of these attacks. Under both definitions and datasets, white men have committed more mass shootings than any other ethnicity group. Newsweek’s claim is literally accurate. But it’s worth noting the imprecision of this data, and the percentage of mass shootings by white men is lower than their share of the male population, according to Mother Jones.
It’s also important to note that the Newsweek and Mother Jones analysis only examined one of the three types of mass shootings—public mass killings—which also happens to be the rarest type, though the kind most conforming to social assumptions and expectations.
Despite the widespread perception that mass shooters are overwhelmingly white males, researchers have found that white men are not overrepresented among mass shooters. In other words, white men are no more likely than other male demographic to engage in a mass shooting. Daniel Engber, writing for Slate, noted that mass shooters are not disproportionately white male. He writes that “the notion that white men of privilege are disproportionately represented among mass shooters—indeed, that they make up ‘nearly all’ of them—is a myth.” A widely referenced analysis by Mother Jones (mentioned earlier) found that “white people weren’t overrepresented among mass shooters. The media outlet had found that roughly 70 percent of the shooters in mass killings were white—certainly a majority. But according to Census Bureau estimates for 2012, whites accounted for 73.9 percent of all Americans.” In other words, there are more white men in America than there are Asian, black, or Hispanic men, and therefore there are more white shooters. This, too, is unremarkable and expected, though the nuance is lost on many who claim, for example, that “90% of mass shootings are committed by whites.”
The Slate article goes into some detail about differing statistical analyses, and I recommend it for an insightful glimpse into just how different methodologies—each as valid as the next—can result in different numbers. In the end, Engber notes:
The whites-are-overrepresented-among-mass-shooters meme does serve a useful purpose in that it helps displace another myth about mass shootings: that they’re most often perpetrated by angry immigrants from travel-banned countries, and that nothing is more dangerous to America that the scourge of Islamic terrorism. … These are worthy ends, but we shouldn’t have to build another myth to reach them.”
In other words, as skeptics and critical thinkers know, debunking a myth with another myth is a problematic path. We can all agree that mass shootings are a serious social problem—and that the threat posed by immigrants and Muslims are often greatly exaggerated—without fabricating factoids about how common white (or black) male mass shooters are. It’s not a zero-sum game.
Men in general and across cultures commit more violence than women do—whether in the context of a mass shooting or a fistfight—so that’s no surprise. Beyond that, the collective data suggest that, across all three types of mass shootings, the races commit mass shootings at about what we’d expect based on their representative demographics. No single race emerges as an obvious mass shooter threat.
Nevertheless, some memes circulating on social media go so far as to claim that white males are solely responsible for mass shootings; one from Occupy Democrats circulating in July 2018 claimed “154 mass shootings this year and not one committed by a black man or an illegal alien. Let that sink in.” It’s a bold and damning claim—and it’s also completely false.
As we saw in the first article in this series, there is no single universal definition of “mass shooting,” so there is not a single “correct” number of mass shootings in America. As with “school shooting,” it depends on how you count them. Do you mean armed adults or teenagers showing up at a school with the intent to kill students, or do you mean a police officer’s accidental weapon discharge after hours in an empty college parking lot in which no one was injured? Or gunfire at a bar near campus in a drunken altercation?
Looking at school shootings specifically, a recent New York Times analysis identified 111 cases since 1970 “that met the F.B.I.’s definition for an active-shooter scenario, in which an assailant is actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people, on school property or inside school buildings. It excluded episodes that fit more typical patterns of gun violence such as targeted attacks, gang shootings and suicides.” It also excluded incidents at colleges and universities.
It found that the majority of shooters were young white males (average age about fifteen), many of them current or former students of the schools where they opened fire. The analysis noted that such “active shooter” incidents, though generating much media coverage, “account for only a small fraction of the episodes of gun violence that children experience in American schools. Other cases might include a student showing off a gun to friends in the hallway, the accidental discharge of a school resource officer’s gun, or a gang-related drive-by shooting at a school bus stop.”
Examining January 2019 Mass Shootings
To independently investigate a limited sample of mass shooter demographics, I chose a widely referenced database, the Gun Violence Archive. The Gun Violence Archive (GVA) is “an online archive of gun violence incidents collected from over 2,500 media, law enforcement, government and commercial sources daily in an effort to provide near-real time data about the results of gun violence. GVA is an independent data collection and research group with no affiliation with any advocacy organization.” I chose GVA for several reasons: it is continually updated and provides not just a summary of incidents but links to original news reports, which can be analyzed for additional information about locations, circumstances, demographics, and so on. In addition, the GVA is open-sourced, so anyone can easily confirm the results.
A full year of mass shootings would be too many to quickly and efficiently analyze, so I chose the most recent full month (in this case, January 2019), which would presumably be fairly representative of other months. The crime rates for many specific offenses vary by season (for example, summer nights provide more hours of social interactions—and by extension robberies and assaults—than winter nights), but there seemed no reason why the number and nature of mass shootings in January, for example, would be dramatically different than those in March or May. (Should other researchers believe that month was unrepresentative for some reason I welcome similar analyses of other months or the full year.)
I found a total of twenty-seven American mass shootings in January 2019. Of those, two were home invasion shootings in Houston, Texas: one in which several would-be robbers breaking into a home were shot by the homeowner, and the second when police raided the wrong house and came under fire from the (innocent) occupants within. Neither of these fit the typical image of a “mass shooter” threat or categories, so both were omitted from the dataset, bringing the total to twenty-five. I read news reports about the incidents and recorded when the race of the suspect was mentioned. There were four categories: white, black, other (Hispanic, Asian, etc.), and unknown.
Of the twenty-five mass shootings in the Gun Violence Archive database for January 2019, 16 percent (four) of them were committed by white males; 4 percent (one) was committed by a Hispanic man; 64 percent (sixteen) were committed by African Americans; and in 16 percent, or four cases, the attacker’s race is unknown. As described by Fridel, most of these incidents fell into the felony and familicide categories, and the profile of perpetrators seems to track well with those demographics.
Interestingly, a meme circulating January 27, 2019, highlighted three mass shooters that month—all of whom were white males, in fact three of the four that month. They were likely chosen to make a specific political point—in service of debunking myths about “dangerous” immigrants and minorities—but they were cherry picked and not representative of mass shooters generally. Thus, it’s not surprising why social media users are misled; they are seeing intentionally misleading information.
There Is No ‘Typical’ Mass Shooter
There is no single accurate profile of a mass shooter. It really depends on what type of mass shooting you’re talking about. Several of the highest-profile mass shootings in recent memory (the rare “public mass killing” category) were committed by white males, such as the 2017 Las Vegas attack by Stephen Paddock. But much beyond that, the stereotype breaks down; Muslim man Omar Mateen killed forty-nine people at a Florida nightclub in 2016 on behalf of a terrorism group; white male Adam Lanza killed twenty-seven people in 2012 at an elementary school, though Asian student Seung-Hui Cho killed thirty-two people on the Virginia Tech campus in 2007. And so on.
The New York Times noted that “As convenient as it would be, there is no one-size-fits-all profile of who carries out mass shootings in the United States. About the only thing almost all of them have in common is that they are men. But those men come from varying backgrounds, with different mental health diagnoses and criminal histories.” Mass shootings with white victims tend to get more attention, both from journalists and those on social media, than those with victims who are people of color. This is a well-known pattern and explains why the public is quicker to react to a missing young blonde girl than a missing young black girl (for more on this see my book Media Mythmakers).
Focusing on the statistically rare but high-profile mass shootings makes for sensational news coverage and concern but doesn’t address far greater dangers. Similarly, focusing on the handful of high-profile mass shootings in which dozens are killed at a time—or for that matter serial killers, who prey on multiple victims over months, years, or decades—doesn’t help the public determine their individual risk. Any one of us could be killed at any moment by a mass shooter or serial killer, but the chances of it happening are so remote that it’s pointless to worry about, and there’s not much we can do to prevent it anyway.
The question of the “typical mass shooter profile” is a red herring. As simplistic and satisfying as it would be, no single demographic emerges from the data as “the typical mass shooter.” It depends on what type of mass shooting you’re looking at, but in any event, focusing on the race or gender of mass shooters is not helpful for the general public; it is not predictive of who is likely to engage in gun violence. Singling out any specific race as being dangerous—or, worse yet, highlighting rare anecdotal violent incidents as representative of larger groups—is more likely to fuel racism than help the public. Unless you’re a criminologist or social scientist aggregating data, it doesn’t really tell you anything useful. It doesn’t help you decide who to watch out for and who to avoid. The percentage of mass shooters in any demographic is vanishingly small, and the chances of being killed in a mass shooting is even smaller.
In the last of this series I’ll examine the ways in which media literacy and critical thinking can help the public sort fact from fiction regarding mass shootings.
Fridel, Emma E. 2017. A multivariate comparison of family, felony, and public mass murders in the United States. Journal of Interpersonal Violence (November 1).
Part 3 will appear soon.