Mass Shootings in America: Anatomy of a Hyped Statistic

Three years ago, which means it was before the mass murders at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs — but after Sandy Hook Elementary and Fort Hood — a University of Alabama professor sought to answer a chilling public policy question: Do countries other than the U.S. experience anything approaching America’s mayhem at the hands of shooters who randomly slaughter people in public places?

The researcher’s name is Adam Lankford, and his answer was unequivocal. No, it only happens here, he proclaimed in a much-quoted 2016 academic paper. America, he said, stands alone. From 1966 to 2012, he documented 90 mass shootings in the United States. In the rest of the world combined – Lankford said he canvassed 171 other nations – there were 202 mass shooters, meaning that the overwhelming number of nations had, on average, one mass killing.

It also meant that the United States, with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, had 31 percent of all the mass shootings….

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The idea of comparing the United States of America to other nations when it comes to “active shooters” was first explored in 2010 by the New York Police Department. It tallied mass shootings in the U.S. going back to 1966, while seeking similar data from other countries during the same time frame. Its primary rationale for expanding its inquiry to foreign countries was to see if anything could be gleaned from international law enforcement’s approach to the problem. The NYPD didn’t pretend to be doing scholarly research, either in 2010 or in its updated 2012 report.

Lankford indicated that he was inspired by this approach, used the same time frame, and the same methods — and he credited the NYPD in his own paper. “Data for this study were drawn first from the New York City Police Department’s Active Shooter report,” he wrote. But that begs the question: How solid are the NYPD statistics?

The answer is that they are incomplete to the point of being completely unreliable, which the NYPD essentially admits in its 2012 report. The department conceded that its hunt for mass shootings merely consisted of doing online searches of publicly available Internet news sources. “The NYPD did not use special-access government sources to compile the cases,” it says. “All information is open-source and publicly available.” It apparently didn’t even access paywall-protected databases such as Lexis-Nexis. The NYPD acknowledged that this method obviously “has a strong sample bias towards recent incidents.”

That’s one big problem with its methodology. There are others. The most obvious is that the department did its search exclusively in English, which means if the shooting was never reported by Western news outlets it might as well not have happened.

In phone calls and emails from RealClearPolitics, Lankford was asked how he supplemented the NYPD methods. He did not answer those queries. Nor has he responded to requests for his raw data, which is missing from his published paper, or to clear up basic questions. One of them is why he lists “shooters” instead of “shootings,” the term most criminologists use when comparing data. This is significant because mass shootings outside the United States often involve multiple triggermen. Also, although Lankford cites 202 shooters globally from 1966 to 2012, these cases aren’t listed in any appendix and he only lists totals for a handful of countries. This means that other scholars can’t replicate his research to test his findings — or point out shootings he overlooked.

John R. Lott Jr., an economist and gun rights advocate who founded an organization called Crime Prevention Research Center, told RCP that he’s spent two years asking Lankford for his backup material, without success. “It’s strange,” Lott said. “He wouldn’t give out the list he complied, tell you how he found the cases, or where he’s gotten his data.”

So Lott undertook a study of his own, which was obtained late last month by RCP and is now available online. Titled “How a Botched Study Fooled the World About the U.S. Share of Mass Public Shootings: U.S. Rate Is Lower Than Global Average,” it looks at the years 1998 to 2012 – the last 15 years of Lankford’s time frame.

In it, Lott has some eye-opening statistics. For starters, in the just last 15 years of the 47-year period covered in the NYPD and Lankford reports, Lott found 1,448 mass public shootings — and 3,081 shooters — outside the United States. This means he discovered 15 times as many mass killers as Lankford in less than one-third the time frame.

It also means that instead of having 31 percent of the world’s mass shootings, the United States has fewer than 3 percent. The key takeaway here is that, with 4.4 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. has less than its share of mass murderers, a finding that utterly undermines the prevailing narrative.

Take the Philippines, for example. It is one of the countries for which Lankford provides statistics. He says it had 18 mass shooters from 1966 to 2012. Lott says the Philippines had 52 mass shootings cases from 1998 to 2012 carried out by 120 gunmen. In Russia, Lankford had the total as 15. Lott found 34 in the tighter time frame. In Yemen, it was Lankford 11, Lott 29….

In April of this year, which is to say two months after the tragedy at Stoneman High School in Parkland, Fla., and a month before the Santa Fe High School rampage in Texas, the U.S. Department of Education published a booklet stating that during the 2015-2016 academic year “nearly 240 schools in this country…reported at least 1 incident involving a school-related shooting.”

Here was a truly shocking number. It was so high that National Public Radio attempted to contact each one of them. The results? NPR could confirm exactly 11 school shootings. Two-thirds of the schools they called reported definitively that they’d had no such incident. The federal government’s figure is bogus.

[Shooters Motivated by Publicity]

[Wayne Lo, who fatally shot a beloved professor and fellow students – while wounding four other people — at a small Massachusetts college in 1992, and Eric Harris, one of two shooters at Columbine High School in Colorado, both expressed the desire that movies would be made about them….]

Last autumn, Lankford and a colleague wrote an open letter to the Fourth Estate, one signed by 145 academics, suggesting three steps designed to disincentivize future mass murderers: (1) Don’t name the killers; (2) don’t use their photographs; (3) when mass shootings occur, refrain from using the names or likenesses of past perpetrators.

In pressing for this solution, Lankford expresses the view that recent events have supplied a measure of validation for his research. In 2016, when he released his report, he predicted that mass shootings in this country would become more frequent and deadlier….

Yet, there is also unintended irony in Lankford’s calls for curbing the coverage of these crimes. It is incomplete news coverage in much of the rest of the world that makes mass murder in those places hard to track and helps explain, in part, how badly he missed the mark when tallying up those cases.

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