Rampage killing facts and
by John R. Lott, Jr.
The media has a natural
inclination to report only dramatic events, preferably with a dead body, while
ignoring potentially tragic events that are avoided. This has created a bad
image of gun ownership, for the defensive use of guns, such as preventing murder
or theft, is just not newsworthy.
Lately, however, these fears have
been further reinforced by an unusual amount of false or misleading statistics
from sources like the Clinton administration. The press simply has not been
critical enough in questioning the numbers they are given. However, in a recent
case, the press itself now is the source of fraudulent statistics.
In a major, 20,000-word series of
articles this month on "rampage killings," the New York Times declared
its own research "confirmed the public perception that they appear to be
increasing." Indeed, the Times reported that exactly 100 such attacks took
place during the 50 years from 1949 to 1999, with more than half (51) during the
five years from 1995 to 1999. With such an apparently huge increase, they
concluded: "the nation needs tighter gun laws for everyone." Since I
have extensively researched mass shootings (together with Professor Bill Landes
at the University of Chicago), it was immediately obvious that the Times had
simply left out most cases prior to 1995.
The omissions were major: For
instance, the Times claims that from 1977 to 1995 there was an annual average of
only 2.6 attacks where at least one person was killed in a public multiple
victim attack (not including robberies or political killings). Yet, our own
research uncovered more than 6 times as many cases — an average of 17 per
It is only by consistently
counting recent cases and ignoring most old ones that the Times was able to show
that mass killings have been on the increase. Contrary to their figures, there
is no upward national trend at least since the mid-1970s. The data show lots of
ups and downs, but with no generally rising or falling pattern.
When questioned over the
telephone, Ford Fessenden (a database reporter at the Times and the author of
the first article in the series) admitted the Times staff had concentrated on
mainly getting the cases for recent years and that for the early years they only
got the "easily obtainable" cases. One hundred simply seemed like a
convenient stopping place. When he asked how long it had taken us to conduct our
study, I told him "a couple of thousand hours." His reaction was there
was "no way" the Times could have devoted that much time to the
project. Mr. Fessenden also acknowledged he was familiar with our research and
that the article may have given the false impression the Times staff was the
first to compile this type of data.
The Times' claim that attacks
increased in the late 1980s and coincided with the time the "production of
semiautomatic pistols overtook the production of revolvers" is wrong, for
there was no such increase in the late 1980s. In fact, the opposite was
occurring. The number of public shootings per 10 million people fell from 1 in
1985 to .9 in 1990 to .5 in 1995. The Times' assertion about pistols makes as
much sense as blaming the Brady Law for supposed increase in "rampage
killings" during the mid-1990s.
Should "tighter gun
laws" be required, as asserted by the New York Times? The Times staff
conclusion reflects its dismay over the supposed increase in deaths, which they
found averaged 33 per year between 1995 and 1999. Unfortunately, they simply
assume tighter gun laws would save lives. However, existing research indicates
murder and other crime rates tend to rise with the reforms being advocated.
The proposed rules are
particularly useless at stopping these "rampage killings." My research
with Mr. Landes examined a range of different policies, including sentencing
laws and gun laws (such as waiting periods, background checks, and
one-gun-a-month restrictions), to see what might deter these killings. While
higher arrest and conviction rates, longer prison sentences, and the death
penalty reduce murders generally, neither these measures nor restrictive gun
laws had a discernible impact on mass public shootings.
We found only one policy that
effectively reduces these attacks: the passage of right-to-carry laws. But the
Times does not even mention this measure.
Giving law-abiding adults the
right to carry concealed handguns had a dramatic impact. Thirty-one states now
provide such a right under law. When states passed right-to-carry laws, the
number of multiple-victim public shootings plummeted below one-fifth, with an
even greater decline in deaths. To the extent attacks still occur in states
after enactment of these laws, such shootings tend to occur in those areas in
which concealed handguns are forbidden. The drop in attacks in states adopting
right-to-carry laws has been offset by increases in states without these laws.
The New York Times blatantly
manipulated its numbers in order to claim a dramatic increase in "rampage
killings" and promote a gun-control agenda. There also were other biases in
their numbers. Too bad the real world doesn't work the way the Times reporters
think it should. That is what real research helps us discover.
John Lott Jr. is a senior research scholar at the
Yale University Law School and author of More Guns, Less Crime. The second edition of his book "More Guns, Less
Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws" will be published in June