Mass Shootings Fuel Fear, Account for Fraction of Murders

Mass U.S. shootings such as the bloody rampage at the Washington Navy Yard spur safety concerns and garner intense media attention while statistically accounting for few of the total murders reported nationwide.

In the 30 years through March, 78 public mass shootings occurred in the U.S. -- incidents in which four or more people were killed at random by a gunman killing indiscriminately, according to a report issued that month by the Congressional Research Service. These crimes don’t include gang-related killings or domestic disputes where a person slays relatives or other people linked to the assailant.

The mass slaughters listed in the report caused the deaths of 547 people. Over the same three decades through 2012, that’s less than a tenth of 1 percent of the 559,347 people the Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates were murdered in America.

“It is a very, very small percentage,” said James Alan Fox, who teaches criminology at Boston’s Northeastern University and co-authored a book about mass shootings called “Extreme Killing,” published in 2011.

In the wake of shootings such as the one in Washington that claimed at least 13 lives, including the alleged shooter, “our tendency is to go overboard and overreach in terms of trying to increase levels of security,” Fox said. “The fear is greater than the risk.”

No ‘Epidemic’

In his research, Fox uses a broader definition of mass killing than the research service report -- he looks at any homicide resulting in four or more deaths, regardless of motive, which includes killings in domestic disputes and robberies gone bad. He reports no increase in mass killings in recent years.

“This is not an epidemic,” he said.

In a database of mass killings since 2006 compiled by USA Today, roughly half of all instances where more than four died were motivated by a family dispute of some kind, while 30 percent start as robberies or burglaries. Just 20 percent were the type of public, random killings that occurred in Washington, the newspaper said.

Still, such incidents fuel calls for increased security at schools, malls and offices. And some result in calls for tighter regulations on firearms ownership.

President Barack Obama pledged to make gun control a second-term priority after 20 children and six educators were shot to death at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, last December. He failed, though, in his push for legislation to expand background checks for gun buyers.

State Laws

A handful of states including Connecticut, New York and Maryland expanded their bans on assault weapons following the Newtown tragedy, and at least 17 other state legislatures moved to tighten gun-control laws.

At the same time, 27 states weakened restrictions, including seven that now specify guns are allowed in schools, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a San Francisco-based group that tracks state gun laws.

Though mass shootings are rare, police departments are increasingly being trained for them and have changed their recommended response tactics, said Peter Blair, director of research at the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Program at Texas State University in San Marcos.

Unlike the handling of the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School outside Denver, first-arriving law enforcement officers are encouraged to enter a building rather than wait for backup. In the Columbine case, the initial responders formed a perimeter outside the school while two students methodically murdered 13 and wounded 24 before killing themselves.

‘Go In Solo’

“Police make an effort to go in and get in quickly,” Blair said. “Police policies around the country now authorize officers to go in solo.”

The average response time by authorities to an active shooting scene is three minutes, Blair said. Still, about half of the massacres are over by the time the police arrive -- usually because the shooters take their own lives, he said.

Blair recommends that after first trying to flee, people at a mass shooting may find safety in hiding because the killers tend not to breach locked doors since they know the clock is ticking before police arrive.

The last resort is to attack the shooter -- perhaps during reloading, Blair said. That’s when the gunman was tackled to the ground in the January 2011 shooting in Tucson, Arizona, in which six people were killed and 13 wounded, including then-U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords.

Theater Killings

In July 2012, a lone gunman fired into a packed movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, killing 12 and injuring 70 others. At one point, James E. Holmes used a semi-automatic weapon equipped with a 100-round barrel magazine to spray the audience -- shooting until the weapon jammed.

This July, lawyers for Holmes said their client was “in the throes of a psychotic episode” when he committed the crime. Holmes has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity; prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

Though the motivation remained unclear for yesterday’s shooting by suspected gunman Aaron Alexis, a former Navy reservist, its occurrence at a military facility sparked recollections of the 2009 shootings at Fort Hood in Texas. Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, who had become radicalized by an al-Qaeda terrorist based in Yeman, killed 13 and wounded more than 30 at a base facility while yelling “Allahu Akbar,” Arabic for God is Great.

Hasan, who later said he took aim at the soldiers because he viewed them as a threat to Taliban leaders in Afghanistan, was sentenced to death by a military court on Aug. 28.

Rare Type

A CRS report issued this January identified another jihadist-inspired violent attack in the U.S. in 2009. Carlos Leon Bledsoe, who had taken the name of Abdulhakim Muhammad, shot and killed one soldier and wounded another at the U.S. Army-Navy Career Center in Little Rock, Arkansas. He pleaded guilty and avoided the death penalty.

After the report was published, two ethnic Chechen brothers living in America terrorized Boston on April 15 with a jihadist-inspired attack that killed three people and injured more than 200. Following the bombings at the Boston Marathon finish line, one of the brothers shot and killed a Massachusetts Institute of Technology policeman April 18 as they tried to flee the area. Hours later, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, died following a faceoff with law officers. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 20, is in jail awaiting trial.

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