When two troubled students with military-style guns fatally shot 11 classmates, a teacher and themselves at Colorado’s Columbine High School two decades ago, it shocked a nation where random mass shootings had been an occasional bloody horror.
Since then, statistics from the federal government, academic and advocacy groups show those mass shooting events — though still rare — have recurred with alarming and growing frequency, with three in the past two weeks in Dayton, Ohio; El Paso, Texas; and Gilroy, leaving 32 dead and 64 wounded.
An FBI list of 277 “active shooter incidents” from 2000 through 2018 published in April — the 20th anniversary of Columbine — shows a sharp rise during the latter half of the study period. Active shooter incidents averaged 8.6 a year from 2000 through 2009. From 2010 through 2018, that number jumped to an average 21.2 a year, two and a half times more frequently.
The research was based in part on a 2013 study in conjunction with Texas State University that also found average annual active shooter incidents from 2000-2013 more than doubled in frequency in the second half of the period studied.
And the pace seems to be continuing to quicken.
“I cannot personally recall a time when we had two mass shootings like this within a 24-hour period,” said David Chipman, who worked for 25 years as Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent and is now a senior policy adviser at gun-control group Giffords. “Six of the most lethal mass shootings in modern American history have happened in the last 10 years.”
In a country where a right to bear arms is a bedrock constitutional liberty dating to the nation’s founding, the growing frequency of random mass shootings in the U.S. is raising new demands for stricter gun laws that have long been resisted at the federal level and in many states. At the same time, experts still struggle to define the problem — an issue which has complicated the already daunting challenge of combating mass shootings.
The FBI’s active shooter data — which categorizes incidents based on the nature of the attack, not the number of casualties — differs from studies that define mass shootings in other ways, from three killed, four killed, or four or more shot and injured or killed. Gun law skeptics like John R. Lott, Jr., president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, say the FBI’s active shooter data are flawed and disputes that incidents have increased. But even he agreed the number of people killed in these mass shootings has gone up dramatically.
According to the latest FBI figures, there were 884 total fatalities from 2000-2018. The deaths averaged about 28 a year from 2000 through 2009 and nearly 62 a year from 2010 through 2018.
The shootings have occurred in 42 states and the District of Columbia, with seemingly little relation to strict or lax state gun laws. Several states have beefed up their gun laws after especially bloody mass shootings, including 17 killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., last year, and 28 killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012.
California, the country’s most populous state, has led the nation in laws regulating firearms, as ranked by the Giffords Law Center, a research arm of the group founded by former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords after a deranged gunman shot and wounded her in 2011. California last month became the first state to require background checks to buy ammunition, and reports that the new law already has stopped more than 100 people from getting bullets illegally.
Still, California had 31 active shooter incidents from 2000-2018 — more than any other state. Texas, the second most populous state, had 17 incidents, despite its far less restrictive gun laws. Florida, third in population and a state with modest gun laws, had 24. New York, which like California has some of the nation’s strongest gun laws, had 10 active shooter incidents since 2000.
As the July 28 shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival demonstrated, tough laws in one state don’t necessarily stop the violence, especially when its neighbors have fewer restrictions. The 19-year-old Gilroy gunman had recently moved to Nevada where he legally bought the AK-47-style semiautomatic rifle that he used to slaughter a 6-year-old boy, a 13-year-old girl and a 25-year-old man and injure 13 others before taking his own life in a shootout with police. That rifle is banned in California.
Advocates for stricter gun laws like Chipman argue the Gilroy shooting underscores the problem with a patchwork of state laws and the need for strong federal legislation.
“It’s important that the work at the states isn’t undercut by the actions of other states,” Chipman said. “That’s why it’s important to have it at the federal level too.”
The first major federal firearm legislation came in 1934, after waves of Prohibition-era gangland gun battles like Chicago’s “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” of 1929, regulating machine guns and silencers and requiring gun dealers to get a federal license.
A generation later, the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., inspired the 1968 Gun Control Act prohibiting felons and later some domestic abusers from owning guns.
The last major wave of federal rules came in the early 1990s after an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan and a shooting massacre at a San Francisco law firm. The 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act established FBI background checks for buying firearms, though it doesn’t apply to online retailers, gun shows or personal sales, or if the check isn’t concluded within three days.
The following year, a law by California Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein banned so-called assault weapons — certain military-style semi-automatic firearms — and ammunition magazines holding more than 10 rounds. But Congress didn’t renew the law in 2004, citing a lack of clear data on the ban’s effectiveness. A 2004 report funded by the Department of Justice said it was premature to make definitive assessments on the mixed findings, in part because it grandfathered guns and magazines already owned before it took effect. Today, assault weapons bans exist only at the state level.
The relative rarity of random mass shootings has continued to complicate efforts to assess the problem and develop any potential solutions.
According to the April FBI report, 2017 was the worst year since 2000 for mass shootings. There were 30, including the single deadliest: the Route 91 Harvest Festival concert massacre in Las Vegas that killed 58 people. But the total of 138 innocent people killed in those 30 incidents, some of which didn’t result in fatalities, were a small fraction of the 15,129 murder victims the FBI reported for that year, 10,982 of whom were killed by guns.
Another issue is active shooter and mass shooting incidents have not been consistently tracked by the federal government.
To fill the gap, academics and advocates on both sides of the gun law debate began compiling their own data. But there is little agreement among them on which incidents to track, or even an accepted definition of “mass shooting,” leading to conflicting reports about the scale of the problem.
For example, through 2012, the FBI defined a mass shooting as a minimum of four fatalities in a single incident. That was changed in 2013 to include three or more fatalities.
Lott’s Crime Prevention Research Center charted mass public shootings of four or more killed since 1998. That data shows a fairly consistent handful a year over that period, though the number of fatalities has risen sharply.
GunViolenceArchive.org, a nonprofit established in 2013, defines “mass shooting” more broadly as four or more people wounded or killed besides the shooter. It shows mass shootings over the last four years fluctuating between 269 in 2014 and 382 in 2016.
But Mother Jones magazine, which began compiling a detailed database of mass shootings after the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater slaughter in 2012, takes its own approach that includes three or more slain but omits domestic and gang murders because those incidents are so unlike random public shootings. The Mother Jones numbers also show an increase in mass shootings.
The FBI’s recent research focused on “active shooter incidents” defined as one or more individuals engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area with a firearm. It also excludes gang, drug or domestic violence shootings that lack the appearance of randomness, and those that weren’t “active” with the potential for cops to intervene.
The “active shooter” statistics include those such as the April 2018 shooting at YouTube headquarters in San Bruno in which a woman injured four with gunfire before killing herself. Because no one else died, the incident would not fit many definitions of “mass shooting,” even though the nature of the attack closely resembled more deadly confrontations.
Stanford University law professor and gun policy expert John Donohue III said the FBI’s compilation of active shooter incidents is about the best data available today tracking the type of public mass shooting incidents that have gripped the nation this summer.
The recent shootings this summer in Dayton, El Paso and Gilroy have renewed calls for stricter federal gun laws. But as with earlier gun massacres, they also have raised alarm among gun-rights advocates who argue new laws would be ineffective, only burdening the law-abiding.
The federal government made modest tweaks to gun regulation in response to other recent mass shootings. After the Las Vegas music festival shooting in 2017, in which the gunman used a “bump stock” device to increase his semiautomatic rifle’s rate of fire to something more like a machine gun, the Trump administration placed a ban on the devices in March. Bump stocks, however, are rarely used in mass shootings and other crimes.
This summer’s mass shootings all involved military style “assault” weapons of the type that would have been banned under the 1994 Feinstein law, and gun-law advocates say Congress should renew it.
“The real driver of this is the lethality of the weaponry readily available to Americans,” Chipman said.
President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have expressed skepticism about the idea but McConnell said last week it could be discussed in the Senate.
There appears to be some bi-partisan interest, including from President Trump, in “red flag” laws that allow law enforcement or families to get a court order to temporarily remove firearms from people who are deemed a threat to themselves or others.
There is also now bipartisan interest in expanding background checks for all gun sales. Legislation to that effect has been passed by the House of Representatives, though not taken up in the Senate. But last week the president called background checks “important” and McConnell said both red-flag laws and expanded background checks will be discussed in the Senate.
Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the National Rifle Association, said last week that the organization “will work in good faith to pursue real solutions to the epidemic of violence,” but added “the proposals being discussed by many would not have prevented the horrific tragedies in El Paso and Dayton.”
Donohue, the Stanford professor, agreed that “sometimes it is unclear how effective it will be.”
“But if you put in enough restrictions,” Donohue argued, “the overall effect will be valuable.”