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Beyond the Two-Sided Narrative: Are Mass Shootings on the Rise?

In the wake of the mass shooting in an Orlando nightclub over the weekend that left 49 dead and 53 wounded, the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, the two-sided narrative in the media has turned to two subjects, radical Islamic terrorism and guns.

On the subject of guns and mass shootings, the questions that are often debated in the media, online, and on social media are: 1.) Are gun-related deaths on the rise in the U.S.? 2.) Are mass shootings and mass shooting deaths on the rise?

Each side of this debate has their own pool of data to pick from to make their argument, often using careful word choice like drawing a distinction between gun-related deaths and gun-related crime or using a broader than typical definition of what constitutes a mass shooting.

Both sides play the necessary word and data games to make the point they want to make, which is a big part of the problem. There is so much detached data out there from several sources that even if political motives were put to the side, a full picture would be difficult to glean.

Below are two charts that examine both questions. When examined from a more neutral perspective, they show interesting results.

To the first question — Are gun-related deaths on the rise in the U.S.? — the Human Indicators Warehouse, a program under the Department of Health and Human Services, found that from 2008 to 2013 (the most recent reported period), the number of fatalities per 100,000 people in the U.S. remained relatively steady, with a slight bump.

The number increased from 10.4 per 100,000 people in 2008 to 10.6 in 2013 (a .2 increase that represents about 600 people), and peaked at 10.7 in 2012. 

The increase in 2012 is also partly reflected in a chart by Mother Jones, which examines the second question: Are mass shootings and mass shooting deaths on the rise? And before you take to your keyboards, I am aware that Mother Jones tends to have a left-leaning bias. Bear with me.

The numbers of fatalities go up and down from year to year, with 2012 being the deadliest year for mass shootings. The chart defines a mass shooting as a shooter who took the lives of 4 or more people, while excluding gang activity, armed robberies, and domestic violence in homes.

As to the other part of the question, a study by the Harvard School of Public Health suggests that mass shootings have become more frequent. According to the study, from 1983 to 2011 the average gap between mass shootings was 200 days. In the last 5 years, the study finds, the average gap has shrunk dramatically to 64 days.

Further, if we amend the question on mass shootings to ask, “are mass shootings getting deadlier?” There also seems to be a clearer trend. According to the LA Times, of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history, 7 took place after 2005. The three deadliest — Orlando (49), Blacksburg, Va. (32), and Newtown, Conn. (27)  — occurred in 2016, 2007, and 2012, respectively.

The Mother Jones chart also shows a notable increase in injuries. In 2012, for instance, nearly just as many people were injured as killed in the deadliest year in modern U.S. history. This was the case in the single mass shooting in Orlando, as well, where 53 people were injured. This is prominent in years where the worst mass shooting(s) involved semi-automatic or automatic rifles, spraying shots into a large group of people.

So back to the question of whether or not mass shootings are on the rise. The best answer is to say that based on some data and research, these tragedies appear to be much more frequent than they once were. But we need to respect the fact that this is not an issue that one chart, table, or graph can explain.

This is just a glimpse at the vast array of mostly disjointed data and information out there regarding mass shootings in the United States. We must avoid reducing the subject to tired partisan platitudes (“ban assault rifles” or “end gun free zones”) because we find a single chart or graphic that matches a preconceived notion established long ago.

Mass shootings and gun violence in America are nuanced issues. Guns are not the only factor, nor is the religious preference of the shooter.

Gun violence needs a broader, big-picture approach, because there will always be people who will take the data and statistics they need to fit their narrative. This prevents us from not only having an honest discussion about the topic, but prevents anything from actually being done about it.

Photo Source: Reuters