Does the U.S. Lead the World in Mass Shootings?

Authored by: Matt Palumbo

An inevitable talking point following any mass public shooting is that such tragedies “simply don’t happen” anywhere else in the world. Former President Barack Obama famously said following the 2015 Charleston church shooting which killed nine, that “This type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency.”

To support the claim, the White House released a statement citing research from criminologist Adam Lankford, which concluded the U.S. has roughly 5% of the world’s population, but 31% of the world’s mass shootings (with 90 of 292 mass shootings having a minimum of four victims having occurred in the U.S.). The time-frame was from 1966-2012, and put the blame on America’s gun laws and gun culture. The study also found that American mass shootings tend to be carried out with multiple weapons, while mass shootings abroad tend to be carried out with a single weapon (though interestingly the average death toll per shooting is lower in the U.S. despite that, with about 6.87 victims per incident in the U.S. and 8.8 per incident abroad). 

Countless publications cited the study as proof that mass shootings are a uniquely American problem, but a new study found serious flaws in Lankford’s research, concluding instead that despite having 4.6% of the world’s population and 40% of the world’s firearms, we in the U.S. experience just 2.88% of the world’s mass shootings. According to the study, authored by John Lott and 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“:

Lankford claims to have “complete” data on such shooters in 171 countries. However, because he has neither identified the cases nor their location nor even a complete description on how he put the cases together, it is impossible to replicate his findings.

It is particularly important that Lankford share his data because of the extreme difficulty in finding mass shooting cases in remote parts of the world going back to 1966. Lack of media coverage could easily lead to under-counting of foreign mass shootings, which would falsely lead to the conclusion that the U.S. has such a large share.

As it turned out, Lankford massively under-counted mass shootings abroad, giving the U.S. an unjustly high share of the world’s mass shootings in his findings. Lott’s study used the same criteria for mass shootings as Lankford, though his researchers relied on a wide array of crime databases to search for mass shootings, and also hired people who spoke Chinese, French, Polish, Russian, Spanish, and other languages to scour international sources Lankford may have missed.

And boy did Lankford miss a lot. Lott’s list include:

1,448 attacks and at least 3,081 shooters outside the United States over just the last 15 years of the period that Lankford examined (1998-2012). We find at least fifteen times more mass public shooters than Lankford in less than a third the number of years. Coding these events sometimes involves subjectivity. But even when we use coding choices that are most charitable to Lankford, his 31 percent estimate of the US’s share of world mass public shooters is cut by over 95 percent. By our count, the US makes up less than 1.43% of the mass public shooters, 2.11% of their murders, and 2.88% of their attacks. All these are much less than the US’s 4.6% share of the world population. Attacks in the US are not only less frequent than other countries, they are also much less deadly on average.

In other words, the U.S. has had 43 mass shootings between 1998 to 2012, compared to 1,448 from the rest of the world. 

While there’s an impression that mass shootings are on the rise in the U.S., that’s certainly not true relative to the rest of the world:

And aside from mass shootings, America is not a uniquely violent country despite widespread gun ownership. Americans commit just 3.7% of the world’s murders, despite having 4.6% of the world’s population and 40% of the world’s firearms.

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