Why is the U.S. uniquely prone to mass shootings? The New York Times says it’s guns.

This article in the New York Times (click on screenshot to go there) says that the “answer” to the deeply worrisome problem of mass shootings lies in both the number of guns we have, the ease of procuring them, and the ability to get guns in the U.S., like semiautomatic weapons (or ones that can be converted easily to automatics), that can do far more damage than simple rifles or pistols. The article rests largely on a study done in 2005 by Adam Lankford at the University of Alabama, a study I haven’t read.

The study (and article’s conclusion: “The only variable that can explain the high rate of mass shootings in America is its astronomical number of guns.”  To demonstrate this, the author (and NYT) show some data, including this correlation between the number of guns (showing how much of an outlier the U.S. is) and the number of mass shooters:


Well, of course this is a correlation, and we all know that correlations don’t show causation, as there are third variables that could increase both, like an increased propensity of Americans to be criminals, which could prompt the acquisition and the using of guns. But that’s taken care of in data below.

Further, if you eliminate the U.S from the graph as an outlier, it’s hard to see much of a positive correlation for the rest of the countries (it may well be there, but you can’t really tell from the plot alone), which is what you need to establish to see if there’s a general relationship between gun ownership and number of mass shootings. You’d also want to control for population size, for what we want is not the number of guns and mass shootings, but the number of guns per person and the number of mass shootings per person.

All this appears to be taken care of in the next bit, which shows this figure:

As you see, the U.S is an outlier along with Yemen, the only country that has a higher number of mass shootings—and also has a high rate of gun ownership. If you remove these two countries, and look at the remaining dots, it’s not clear to me that there’s a correlation here, either, but it’s hard to tell (no statistics are given).  But the article also notes that the relationship holds even when you remove the U.S., so I’ll trust Lankford here.

Further, if you look at confounding factors that may explain a correlation without saying that the cause of mass shootings is guns, they don’t appear to be involved. Lankford found, for instance, that there is still a relationship when you control for homicide rates, general criminality (the U.S. “is not actually more prone to crime than other developed countries”) and the rate of mental illness, which doesn’t appear to be higher in the U.S. than in other “wealthy countries”. (How would that cause a spurious correlation? Well, if Americans were more mentally ill than inhabitants of other countries, the disturbed people might go out and get more guns and then use them to kill others, so that the causal factor wouldn’t be availability of guns, though it would still involve gun ownership.) At any rate, countries with higher suicide rates have lower rates of mass shootings, the opposite of what you expect if the rate of mass shootings were correlated with the type of mental illness that lead to suicide.

There are other data as well:

America’s gun homicide rate was 33 per million people in 2009, far exceeding the average among developed countries. In Canada and Britain, it was 5 per million and 0.7 per million, respectively, which also corresponds with differences in gun ownership.

Americans sometimes see this as an expression of deeper problems with crime, a notion ingrained, in part, by a series of films portraying urban gang violence in the early 1990s. But the United States is not actually more prone to crime than other developed countries, according to a landmark 1999 study by Franklin E. Zimring and Gordon Hawkins of the University of California, Berkeley.

Rather, they found, in data that has since been repeatedly confirmed, that American crime is simply more lethal. A New Yorker is just as likely to be robbed as a Londoner, for instance, but the New Yorker is 54 times more likely to be killed in the process.

They concluded that the discrepancy, like so many other anomalies of American violence, came down to guns.

More gun ownership corresponds with more gun murders across virtually every axis: among developed countries, among American states, among American towns and cities and when controlling for crime rates. And gun control legislation tends to reduce gun murders, according to a recent analysis of 130 studies from 10 countries.

This suggests that the guns themselves cause the violence.

You can read the article for yourself, as I don’t want to simply regurgitate the data, but it all points to the fact that the easy accessibility of guns in America, the lack of gun controls, and the kind of guns that we can buy, are the variables that best explain the number (and rate) of mass shootings in America. (Note that this article doesn’t deal with individual homicides, but there are other data on those issues that implicate the accessibility of guns.)

In the end, the problem seems to come down to America’s Second Amendment, which was intended to allow arming of a militia, but has been interpreted (wrongly, I think) by U.S. courts as allowing fairly unrestricted individual ownership of guns—no militia needed. That Amendment appears to have fostered a sense of entitlement that we should have guns—that it’s our right. Barring the Second Amendment, you’d have a hard time justifying that we have a “right” to own such lethal weapons. (I’m always dubious when “rights” are asserted as arguments, but they become prima facie legal rights if they’re in our Constitution.)

Referring to the tighter gun laws of Switzerland (even though they’re second to the U.S. in the rate of gun ownership, the rate of Swiss gun homicides is far lower), the article notes this:

Swiss gun laws are more stringent, setting a higher bar for securing and keeping a license, for selling guns and for the types of guns that can be owned. Such laws reflect more than just tighter restrictions. They imply a different way of thinking about guns, as something that citizens must affirmatively earn the right to own.

The United States is one of only three countries, along with Mexico and Guatemala, that begin with the opposite assumption: that people have an inherent right to own guns.

The main reason American regulation of gun ownership is so weak may be the fact that the trade-offs are simply given a different weight in the United States than they are anywhere else.

After Britain had a mass shooting in 1987, the country instituted strict gun control laws. So did Australia after a 1996 shooting. But the United States has repeatedly faced the same calculus and determined that relatively unregulated gun ownership is worth the cost to society.

That choice, more than any statistic or regulation, is what most sets the United States apart.

And it is that Second Amendment that makes us think we have a right to own guns. Would that we could repeal that Amendment, but of course that wouldn’t end the problem, for we’d still have to legislate firearm laws for each state under the amended Constitution, and in a populace that largely thinks they have the right to have guns. The idea that we have such a right is alien to me, but it’s so deeply instilled in America that the problem seems harder to solve than that of Donald Trump himself, who, after all, will be gone in at most seven years. The article ends on a poignant note, one that shows how deeply sick we are with our guns fetish:

“In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate,” Dan Hodges, a British journalist, wrote in a post on Twitter two years ago, referring to the 2012 attack that killed 20 young students at an elementary school in Connecticut. “Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.”



  1. GM
    Posted November 8, 2017 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    There might be a lot of shootings in Yemen, but I kind of doubt that those are of the same kind as in the US (i.e. someone goes on a rampage in a school, church, etc. because they are sick of life and want to go out with a bang)

    Yemen is a very violent Third world country with pretty much no functioning government over much of the territory, so you will end up with lots of shootings just because of that.

    But the social dysfunction that creates the existence of a lot of psyched out people ready to do such things is unique to the US.

    Notice how the people who do these things are either Islamists or middle class white males?

    The Islamists are well understood, there is not much to discuss there.

    But why middle class white males do such things is the interesting question to ponder.

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted November 8, 2017 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      I don’t disagree with the thrust of the post but I believe that the ‘social dysfunction’ that ends in mass killings is not unique to the USA. I offer a Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Running_amok .

      Extensive gun ownership does make the consequences much more severe however. I don’t know how the USA *could* institute effective gun/ammo control when so many guns are already in circulation other than gentle restriction resolutely applied over decades. And that assumes that no politician wouldn’t want to seize the opportunity of reversing the restrictions to increase their political support.

      • GM
        Posted November 8, 2017 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

        While that social dysfunction is common to all industrial societies to some extent, I think it is worse in the USA than in other places.

        The USA combines being an advanced industrial society with lacking both the social cohesion and the social safety net mechanisms that most European countries have. That does make things worse.

        • Diane G.
          Posted November 9, 2017 at 1:30 am | Permalink

          “…lacking both the social cohesion and the social safety net mechanisms that most European countries have.”

          I think that pretty much nails the difference right there. One might add greater ethno/cultural diversity and sheer size to the diagnosis as well. Oh, and let’s not forget the glut of evangelicals and other fundamentalists. I guess these would all fall under the “why we have so much less social cohesion” umbrella.

          Sadly, Europe’s recent Middle Eastern immigration inundation appears to be destabilizing their societies in a very worrisome way.

      • GM
        Posted November 8, 2017 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

        Also, the group of people in the US that has the most guns and uses them most often to harm people is not the Duck Dynasty crowd, it’s gangs.

        Ever heard of a gang member or a mobster going on a rampage in a school or a church?

        Me neither.

        Keep in mind that those are some of the most sociopathic people in society, who will readily resort to the use of violence to resolve whatever issues they perceive to be having.

        That has always struck me as a very significant observation.

        While the gangs might live by and for violence, they also provide a social structure to their members. Which the wider society does not do.

    • Posted November 8, 2017 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

      Notice how the people who do these things are either Islamists or middle class white males?

      Except they’re not. White people commit around 64% of mass shootings, which is pretty much the proportion they make up of the population as a whole. I have no idea where you plucked the ‘middle class’ from so presumably you can back that up?

      Asians are over represented by 2.5x their relative population, Latinos are underrepresented. While Muslims commit a much higher rate of terrorist outrages the population in the USA is low and most terrorist attacks there aren’t shootings.


  2. Posted November 8, 2017 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    The thesis makes sense intuitively, and I believe is also supported in the other types of fatalities involving guns. Simply put: people have dark hours. If they have dark hours and guns, they’ll use them. If they have no guns, the dark hours eventually pass without that much happened.

    The rest makes sense when looking at the extreme tail ends of dark hours, i.e. the darkest of them, which are rare. That means that once some critical mass of weapon availability is reached, people with very dark hours will nearly always have an arsenal of weapons, which then, plausibly, causes the deadly combination.

    Otherwise, when guns and very dark hours are rarer, the odds that both intersect in time and space becomes very small, very quickly.

  3. Posted November 8, 2017 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    This elicits my “Duh!!” response.

    • Diane G.
      Posted November 9, 2017 at 1:34 am | Permalink

      Same here. 😉 And also the “haven’t we seen the same sort of studies before?” one. But the more data, the better, I’d say.

    • Posted November 9, 2017 at 4:39 am | Permalink

      Yes, when I read the headline to this post, my reaction was, “Gosh, who knew”.

    • David Harper
      Posted November 9, 2017 at 6:05 am | Permalink

      Definitely a “No sh*t, Sherlock!” moment.

  4. alexander
    Posted November 8, 2017 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    “Referring to the tighter gun laws of Switzerland (even though they’re second to the U.S. in the rate of gun ownership, the rate of Swiss gun homicides is far lower).”

    Gun ownership in Switzerland is high because when you finish your compulsory military service (I don’t know if you have compulsory military service today) you keep your military rifle, which is automatic. But I think it doesn’t become your property.

    • Posted November 8, 2017 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

      I was told those weapons are kept in armories, not in closets. That you had to check them out to use them.

      • Jeremy Tarone
        Posted November 8, 2017 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

        There was a referendum to keep militia firearms in armouries but it did not pass.

    • Dave
      Posted November 8, 2017 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      The Swiss practice sounds like a perfect description of the “well-regulated militia” specified in the US constitution. Pity the US courts don’t share that interpretation.

    • Jeremy Tarone
      Posted November 8, 2017 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

      Switzerland citizens can choose to keep their militia weapon after finishing their service but if they do they must apply for a weapon acquisition permit. While they may keep their firearm at home they are not allowed to keep their ammunition at home. They are only allowed to receive and use it at a range. When they are finished they must turn in unfired ammunition.

      The same is true for serving militia members, they must pick up their ammunition at a local armoury. Most militia members can not keep ammunition at home.
      According to Wikipedia about 2000 militia specialists keep their ammunition at home for those “who protect airports and other sites of particular sensitivity”.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted November 8, 2017 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

        In other words, truly “well regulated”.


  5. Posted November 8, 2017 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    Your analysis is correct and possibly irrelevant. The other variables are significant. In a country in which guns are not freely available, how many candidates do you think exist to perform mass killings of people? In countries in which guns are not readily available, there cannot be lone perpetrators of mass killings in any number, hence you have a culture in which such a thing is rare.

    Imagine the Texas shooter going to the church armed with a rolling pin, or a steak knife, or a machete. How many deaths would we be talking about?

    The easy availability of guns has to contribute to higher death death tolls and has to facilitate cowards participating when they would not if it were required for them to come into an arm’s length distance with their victims.

    The guns don’t cause such crimes, but they sure as hell make them a whole lot easier for a greater segment of any population than, well, steak knives.

    There is a natural experiment under way: Australia. OZ had guns and then gave them up (or rather they were taken away). Guess what happened to the frequency of mass shootings? If this is a surprise to anyone, they will have checked their IQ at the door.

    Realize that extraordinary number of guns in the US exist because of greed and greed alone. There is no sound basis for the vast majority of them to be “in circulation.” The one’s purchased for personal protection almost never get used for that purpose (and often end up killing their owners more often that any perps attacking them).

    No one needs an AR-15 to go hunting (and millions have been sold). I could go on, but you do not need a rant here. I think anyone wanting a gun should have to prove they have a valid reason for owning it (plus any concomitant trainings at being able to do so) and they need to take full responsibility for any use made of that firearm, with or without their permission, including if the sell the thing.

    PS I am a former member of the NRA, back when its leaders were sane and not on the take from the manufacturers.

    • palefury
      Posted November 8, 2017 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

      Also FYI “personal protection” is not a valid reason to own a firearm in Australia

      valid reasons are http://www.police.vic.gov.au/content.asp?Document_ID=34439

    • Posted November 9, 2017 at 7:51 am | Permalink

      The guns don’t cause such crimes, but they sure as hell make them a whole lot easier

      I think that hits the nail on the head. It’s not just mass shootings: guns make it easier to commit suicide and to shoot somebody accidentally. Also, if two people on the street or in a bar havre an argument, it makes it a lot easier for one of them to get shot, if the other has a gun.

  6. Randall Schenck
    Posted November 8, 2017 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    It is all very good information and after you grind through all the statistics, that one about the kinds of guns is really the important one. No where in the civilized world to they make and sell assault rifles and semi-auto pistols like we do here in America. Also this is a relatively new movement in America. Using the Second Amendment as the excuse we seem not to be able to stop selling all kinds of people killing weapons and making it as easy as buying candy.

    Having just the old fashion hunting guns and six shooters just won’t do folks. We must have nothing but semi-automatic 30 cartridge clips for everyone. Yes, everyone who never hunts anything but suddenly needs these things for protection. Such an ugly and damaging way to live, we have never seen before.

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted November 8, 2017 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

      Had people read the Second Amendment and concluded that people had a right to own one smooth bore muzzle loading rifle for militia purposes only then the death toll would be lower I suspect.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted November 8, 2017 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

        Yes, I say for all the people madly in love with that second amendment, to the point of wanting to jump into bed with it and have sex, lets try this. Go back to James Madison’s day and all the guns available at that time. Say everyone can have all the guns they want, just like those made back in 1790. Then lets see what happens to the statistics.

        • Veroxitatis
          Posted November 8, 2017 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

          But since the purpose of the Amendment was to ensure that a tyrannical be kept in check by the citizenry, surely at the present time, in order to achieve parity, all citizens should have the right to acquire tactical nuclear weapons!!

          • Randall Schenck
            Posted November 8, 2017 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

            I’m thinking, if Madison knew about nuclear weapons he might have skipped the whole thing.

            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted November 8, 2017 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

              Nuclear weapons is a sort of reductio ad absurdum.

              But I think the idea of armed citizens resisting a despotic military became nugatory about the time it was found possible to mount machine guns on flying machines.


              • Posted November 10, 2017 at 11:22 am | Permalink

                Which is why I brought it up in an online discussion once years ago. My interlocutor (a Texan, for what that’s worth) insisted that the 2e had to be read as saying that civilians are allowed *any weapon for any reason whatever with no restrictions*. I asked about nuclear weapons, and he said yes, of course. NWs are weapons, after all.

        • biz
          Posted November 8, 2017 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

          Yes and while we’re at it the First Amendment should only apply to pamphlets and books. No free speech or freedom of the press on any form of media that wasn’t around in 1789.

  7. GBJames
    Posted November 8, 2017 at 1:25 pm | Permalink


  8. Posted November 8, 2017 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    I will tentatively make a suggestion. First, gun ownership in the US is not high because of the 2nd Amendment, it is high because it has a population that supports the 2nd Amendment (if that weren’t true it would be pretty easy to fix).

    So America has a culture that very much is a “Wild West” gun culture.

    This culture means that, if someone has a grudge against people or society, then they tend to decide to go out in a mass-shooting suicide.

    In other countries it’s just less likely that a grudge-bearing person would think like that because the culture is very different.

    That’s not to deny that the ease with which such a person can get hold of guns is also a big factor.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted November 8, 2017 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

      My immediate reaction:

      If US is unique because US is extraordinary (gun fetish culture) we would need extraordinary evidence.

      If US is unique because it is the endpoint of a distribution (lots of guns) we would need ordinary evidence.

      But of course that is a bayesian (opinion) Sagan-ism, not an actual likelihood comparison.

      • Craw
        Posted November 8, 2017 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

        It’s an interesting argument you make. There are more guns than adults, but you don’t draw the inference that a lot of people *like* guns. My own belief is that TVs are abundant because people like them, not because the lack o a ban causes them to proliferate. We don’t have a ban on Betamax players and they don’t proliferate.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted November 8, 2017 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

          “We don’t have a ban on Betamax players and they don’t proliferate.”

          Silly analogy. They’ve been replaced by VHS and now DVD. ‘We’ don’t have a ban on Colt single-action Army revolvers and they don’t proliferate either – for the same reason.

          Ignoring that false analogy, the fact that people *like* something is not necessarily an automatic reason for permitting it. Lots of people like pornography or drugs or helping themselves to other peoples’ money, should all those be unrestricted because people like them?


    • Veroxitatis
      Posted November 8, 2017 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

      How long does it take to outgrow a “Wild West gun Culture”?

    • Posted November 8, 2017 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

      Agreed, there’s a certain stereotype, too (A-Muricah! F**k yeah!). The US is generally a conservative country that also projects rugged individualism and vigilantism through its media. Of course, the Right Wing have their darkly comical black/white view where gun owners are always neatly sorted in good guys and bad guys, not realizing that these sprees are from a former good guy who turned bad guy.

      I think the US is more prone to “taking matters in own hands” ideology because the country is such fantastically vast, and the government always very far away. Add talk radio and the overall anti-government attitude of Americans when it comes to the insides of the country. They’ll dump their last money on the military, but when it comes to law and order, they want it done against the “bad guys” only but imagine themselves to be above the law, since they themselves are the “good guys”. That‘s where fiction is punctuated by the bloody reality.

      In a sense, entertainment seems to somehow be in tune with all of this, since rugged individualism (especially the Zombie genre, and superhero vigilantes) are popular. Maybe it’s a fluke, but I would not be surprised if there was a correlation. I don’t believe there is a strong causality from media to attitude, but popularity of such media might be a indicator of attitudes.

      Interestingly, foreign films seem much less about the rugged individual, and the protagonist violence is embedded in some government role (Sherlock? check. Scandinavian thrillers, check, etc).

      This perception might not hold up under scrutiny, and there might be all sorts of other reasons why else American films are more often about the lone vigilante/hero than foreign films, but for now I think there is something to this hypothesis.

  9. Pliny the in Between
    Posted November 8, 2017 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    Unrestricted access to military grade weaponry is obviously a huge part of the problem as it provides the high profile lethality craved by these guys, but I also wonder if the individuals who commit these crimes are essentially of the same personality type as those who are radicalized as terrorists? Is there something in our modern experience that can create single serving terrorists like we see with these mass shootings? That’s what they are – suicide terrorists.

  10. Jonathan Dore
    Posted November 8, 2017 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    “Would that we could repeal that Amendment, but of course that wouldn’t end the problem, for we’d still have to legislate firearm laws for each state under the amended Constitution, and in a populace that largely thinks they have the right to have guns.”

    Yes, without an amendment covering the issue it would simply devolve back to the states by default. So the answer is not simply to repeal the 2nd amendment, but to repeal it with an amendment that institutes the precisely opposite provision: that private citizens are *barred* from owning firearms. Much like the 19th amendment (prohibition), but for a more worthwhile cause.

  11. Brian salkas
    Posted November 8, 2017 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    Well, this answers many questions that I have been asking for a while. I used to make many of those types of arguments, but I think my mind has been completely changed now.
    I used to think Americans were just more prone to crime and guns were a side-effect not a cause, but that article seems to disprove that almost entirely. It helped to convince me that the article did not come across as accusatory, but instead as disinterested and heavy on empirical evidence. I would have likely pushed back harder if it were written in a more sententious manner.

    Now the question is not whether or not guns are the problem, rather it is how do we convince the adherents of the pseudo-religion that the 2nd amendment has become that guns are the problem. I say we use a combination of evidence, persuasion and respect. And of course we just need to scale our 2nd amendment back considerably as opposed to abolishing it all together. The later seems like a quixotic fantasy.

    • rickflick
      Posted November 8, 2017 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

      Not that long ago laws to restrict guns were put on the books. Some background checks were instituted and even the NRA favored that. A number of states had fairly restrictive laws.
      At that time it seemed likely that we would slowly build on that framework to come up with a reasonable set of national restrictions. Then, the tentative restrictions were lifted under pressure from, I assume, the hard right and the NRA under new management. We were headed in the right direction, but then the gun manufacturers figured out how they might maximize profits. Now it looks like we are locked in to a vicious cycle – a mass shooting triggers a binge of gun buying – leading to more shootings, etc. Stop the train I want to get off.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted November 8, 2017 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

        Oddly enough, some technological measures – guns electronically keyed to their owners, say – would potentially increase prices and profits (in the same way that Apple benefits from adding more and more gimmicks and charging stupid prices for the latest iThing). While other measures such as e.g. limiting magazines to 5 shots would surely not decrease profits significantly.

        I think in that respect though, the manufacturers are captives of the ‘slippery-slope’ paranoia that they helped to create.


    • Jonathan Dore
      Posted November 10, 2017 at 10:18 am | Permalink

      If repealing an amendment is a quixotic fantasy, then the machinery of the Constitution has ceased to function and what we’re left with is a quasi-Holy Text. I’m not American, but I hope the Americans here don’t feel they should give in to that.

      • Posted November 10, 2017 at 11:24 am | Permalink

        There is a segment of the US population which seems to be describable as holding the belief that “Jesus wrote two books, the Bible and the Constitution.”

  12. sensorrhea
    Posted November 8, 2017 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    There’s a healthy debate about whether or not this is true:

    “The real reason the Second Amendment was ratified, and why it says ‘State’ instead of ‘Country’ (the framers knew the difference — see the 10th Amendment), was to preserve the slave patrol militias in the southern states, which was necessary to get Virginia’s vote. Founders Patrick Henry, George Mason and James Madison were totally clear on that… and we all should be too.”

    • sensorrhea
      Posted November 8, 2017 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

      Pretty convincing argument against the slavery/2nd amendment theory:


    • Randall Schenck
      Posted November 8, 2017 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

      Interesting idea but no, I do not think so. The militia were always a state controlled institution. A standing army was a feared thing by most all anti-federalists. Madison and others in congress were doing this bill of rights thing to appease the anti-federalists. Therefore, the language, the first phase of the amendment, was a dog whistle displayed loudly for the paranoid anti-federalists and their fear of a standing federal army. Just look at it — A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state. This is what Madison was doing and there is nothing in history I know of to indicate he was any kind of a gun nut or gave two shits about guns. He was saying, without saying, there will be no standing army.

  13. Ken Kukec
    Posted November 8, 2017 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    Small price to pay for the comfort of knowing there are bands of armed sovereign citizens on the loose in Hicksville, ever-ready for battle with the jackbooted federal thugs coming to strip all our natural rights away.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted November 8, 2017 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

      Just maybe the light at the end of the tunnel is not that train coming at us, if the results of the elections in Virginia are telling of anything. All those gun packing republicans out there in rural Virginia will have nothing to shoot at but themselves. This is a once red but now blue state and will not be the last.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted November 8, 2017 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, and it was poignantly ironic that the Va. House delegate who bills himself as the “homophobe-in-chief,” the sponsor of a ludicrous proposed “bathroom bill,” got his ass handed to him by Danica Roem, the state’s first transgendered candidate.

        • darrelle
          Posted November 9, 2017 at 7:24 am | Permalink

          I’m being real cautious about it, but the VA elections have made me a tiny bit optimistic about the near future.

  14. Posted November 8, 2017 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    The fact that shootings are more common where there are lots of guns surprises me as much as drownings being more common in towns where there are lakes and rivers.

    I think it goes beyond Americans thinking they have a right to weapons. I think many of them think it’s their duty. Buying your first gun is a rite of passage akin to getting a driving licence or losing your virginity.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted November 8, 2017 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

      It is for some, that is for sure. But that license to drive is worth a thousands times more than a gun and losing your virginity will have you saying, What gun?

      • Mark R.
        Posted November 8, 2017 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

        And religion is antithetical to losing one’s virginity, so the religionists are going to keep their guns a wee bit longer than their more secular teenage counterparts. They’ll probably be holding them a wee bit tighter as well.

        • Craw
          Posted November 8, 2017 at 11:34 pm | Permalink

          Some religions are all about boinking. I think you can make the case Mormonism was about making Joseph Smith rich and getting him laid. I can think of several cults that get the leaders laid. One with the altar boys.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted November 8, 2017 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

      In Texas, they call that “doin’ the one-day Trifecta.”

  15. a-non
    Posted November 8, 2017 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    While I would love to know the answers to these questions, colour me skeptical about the quality of the science being presented here.

    How exactly are they defining mass shooting? They say “mass public shooting with four or more victims” but why four, does it matter? And what’s excluded by “public” here?

    For example, where’s Mexico on these graphs, or are they claiming there have been less than 10 incidents where four guys got shot since 1966 there? Or gang violence isn’t public? Drug wars are wars but Yemen isn’t? (How many researcher degrees of freedom is that so far?)

    I would also like to protest two familiar bits of trickery here:

    America’s gun homicide rate was 33 per million people in 2009, far exceeding the average among developed countries. In Canada and Britain

    First, suicides in England aren’t by gun, but suicides in America typically are, and are counted there as “gun homicide”. But suicide rates are another discussion entirely.

    Second, “among developed” is always an excuse to leave out all the other violent countries. Like Mexico, again, or Brazil.

    My favourite thought experiment here is this: what picture would your analysis produce if you included made-up countries, like CanadaMexico or SwitzerGuatemala or VermontBelize. Such pairings would be pretty wealthy and pretty violent (on average!). How sure are you that the huge and diverse USA isn’t more like these amalgamations than it is like the “among developed” countries you’re comparing it to?

    I’m not sure of the answer here, if we’re talking about the “going postal” type shootings then I agree there appears to be something unique going on. I’m just skeptical that studies presented here are really showing much more than this hunch, dressed up nicely.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted November 8, 2017 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

      I think you doth protest too much.

      This is gun science, not rocket science.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted November 8, 2017 at 4:12 pm | Permalink


      QUOTING YOU: I would also like to protest two familiar bits of trickery here: “America’s gun homicide rate was 33 per million people in 2009, far exceeding the average among developed countries. In Canada and Britain.” First, suicides in England aren’t by gun, but suicides in America typically are, and are counted there as “gun homicide”. But suicide rates are another discussion entirely.

      MY REPLY: Gun homicide rates DO NOT include suicides

      FIREARM-RELATED DEATH RATE per 1,000,000 pop

      USA [2014]
      Homicide: 36
      Suicide: 63
      Total: 99

      UK [2011]
      Homicide: 0.6
      Suicide: 1.5
      Total: 2.1

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted November 8, 2017 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

        Interesting – in both countries you’re 2+ times more likely to shoot yourself than be shot by someone else.

        Not sure if this is reassuring or not. Makes a bit of a nonsense of the “for protection” trope though.


        • Craw
          Posted November 8, 2017 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

          No it doesn’t. It doesn’t even address the issue of how often guns are used in self defense and how effectively. That’s relevant to whether guns are good for protection.

      • a-non
        Posted November 9, 2017 at 1:02 am | Permalink

        I’m sorry, you are correct re suicide. Somehow I tripped over them quoting per-million figures, not per-100K.

    • Craw
      Posted November 8, 2017 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

      The conflation of suicide and murder is indeed a problem. Another problem is looking at the gun murder rate rather than the murder rate, as of course there can be displacement effects. But worrying about these kinds of details gets you insulted, as you see.

    • Craw
      Posted November 8, 2017 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

      The 4 threshold is pretty standard, and it serves to separate the amorphous class “mass” from the wronged wife who shoots her husband and his lover. You can never get a precise definition of a mass killing, but the motives do differ and 4 seems a reasonable operational threshold.

      The distinction is important because while a knife or axe might make a suitable substitute for a gun in a one on one killing, guns are vastly more effective for killing a lot of people. Focusing on mass shootings let’s you look at the case where the hoped for effect of gun control will be most clear and beneficial.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted November 8, 2017 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

        Agreed it’s a useful distinction in the case of mass killings with (usually) semi-auto ‘assault rifles’ and the like.

        Not so relevant if the discussion centres around handgun control (other than, maybe, preventing the mass killings from skewing the relevant statistics).


        • Craw
          Posted November 8, 2017 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

          Well, two sides of the coin. The distinction is useful, so you look at the more relevant data in each case.

      • a-non
        Posted November 9, 2017 at 1:10 am | Permalink

        It’s not crazy to focus on groups, I agree, but it does introduce another researcher degree of freedom.

        I still find the data suspicious. Have there been less than 5 incidents in Iraq where 4 people were shot dead with a gun, since 1966? Or how are these being excluded?

  16. Posted November 8, 2017 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  17. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted November 8, 2017 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    “An Australian politician is trolling the United States for its rate of mass shootings, the highest in the first world, after the latest deadly incident at a church in Texas.

    “Dear US friends: here’s Australian mass shootings 1979-2016 (via @SimonChapman6). See if you can figure out when we passed our gun reforms,” Andrew Leigh, an Australian parliamentary member, wrote in a tweet on Monday.

    Leigh linked to a study published by the JAMA network last July that analyzes the drop in mass shootings after gun reform laws were past in Australia in which the government banned semiautomatic rifles and pump-action firearms while also starting a firearm buyback program.

    The report found that after gun control passed in 1997, no fatal mass shootings occurred on Australian soil and there was also a “significant” downward trend for total firearm deaths. Before such laws were passed, Australia had faced 13 fatal mass shootings between 1979 and 1996.”

  18. Veroxitatis
    Posted November 8, 2017 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    As always a very well argued piece, Jerry.
    In addition to the comparison with mass shootings in other countries and the simple homicide rate in these countries, there is another aspect relating to guns where the US stands out. That is the enormous tragedy of the considerable number of children killed by accidental discharge of a firearm, either by the child victim or another child. This is entirely due to adult negligence.

  19. Frank
    Posted November 8, 2017 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    The NRA is the biggest terrorist organization in the USA.

    As Dawkins said “Every country has its psychopaths. In US they have guns”.

    Also, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/more-guns-do-not-stop-more-crimes-evidence-shows/

    To be honest I don’t read any more articles about guns control in the US. The culprit is so obvious that only a brainwashed mind can’t see it.

  20. jhs
    Posted November 8, 2017 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    Having grown up in a country where no civilians can legally own guns, I don’t think that guns themselves cause violence. Violence, though may not involve guns, occurs in every country and everywhere. I do think that the availability of higher-powered firearms make the occurrence of mass killing more likely.

    The right to own lethal weapons still seems wrong to me even though I have lived in the USA for more than 30 years. I don’t have any viable solutions to the gun or mass shooting problem. Yet, the solution seems to be standing in front of me. Not gun control. No guns, ”simply.”

    Anyway, the analyses discussed in this post are performed using aggregated data for each country (the unit of analyses). They tend to give misleading conclusions about individual units such as mass shooting.

  21. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted November 8, 2017 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

    “This suggests that the guns themselves cause the violence.”

    Might be more correct to say that “the guns themselves enable the violence” ?

    In other words, we all have the same violent instincts (on average, pretty much, more or less) but a handy gun allows us to unleash them where, without the gun, it’s just much more work. I just can’t be arsed trying to strangle my annoying neighbour besides which, he’d probably just give me a good kicking. 😉


    • Craw
      Posted November 8, 2017 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

      They certainly enable the sudden extreme escalation. If you are carrying a gun and I piss you off enough you might just shoot me. If you have to go home for your machete you might cool off. We occasionally see road rage shootings for instance. Ever hear of a road rage garroting?

    • Posted November 10, 2017 at 11:30 am | Permalink

      Maybe, but there might also be something like the findings from the Stanford prison experiment at work – give someone access to a gun and they use it because of the environment etc. is different.

      Or if the prison experiment is wrong, maybe something closer to one of my areas – software. Generally testing of software ought to assume “if a user can do it, they will”. Gibsonian affordance? So (a guess) the same applies to other technology …

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted November 10, 2017 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

        That’s an interesting point. “Because we can” is rarely a valid logical argument, but it’s often a strong psychological one.

        Interestingly enough, in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novel Men at Arms, the ‘gonne’ is actively tempting people to use it. (That’s the sort of thing that would happen in the Discworld, of course).

        I agree with the software point too, though that’s probably more related to accidents and gun safety. There’s a parallel with one of my geek subjects, the history of railway and signal engineering – whatever safety procedures are in place, sooner or later a combination of human error, sometimes carelessness, and circumstances will lead to a disaster. It makes for fascinating reading.


  22. chris moffatt
    Posted November 8, 2017 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    “,,,But the United States has repeatedly faced the same calculus and determined that relatively unregulated gun ownership is worth the cost to society”.

    No. The fact is that changing the situation in the USA requires changing the constitution. No mean accomplishment and one that nobody seems to want to address.

    Another factor is that the people of the US have never gotten over their violent frontier mentality and still believe that complex issues can be simply solved with a well-placed bullet. How else to explain how a sordid gunfight between two groups of criminals can capture the popular imagination to the extent that at least four popular movies have been made about it (OK Corral).

    It’s not just the guns; it’s the violent mentality; It’s the violent culture as expressed in crime and especially in policing; it’s the kneejerk reactions on both sides; it’s a serious lack of knowledge about guns on the abolitionist side so they don’t know what in gun control makes sense; and especially ignoring the fact that many, if not most, victims of gunshots are suicides.

    America has serious issues about many things that a restriction of some kind on gun ownership will not and cannot address. But this is a nation that has always sought simple solutions to very complicated problems.

    • Posted November 9, 2017 at 4:38 am | Permalink

      There is also an American mentality that you are allowed to use deadly force to protect your property. An idea that (at least in the UK) was eliminated many, many years ago.

  23. Jay
    Posted November 8, 2017 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

    The Lankford article, which the NYT article relies on, is junk. The models inadequately control for probable confounders. They include no social, economic, or policial factors, without which no conclusion about an independent effect of gun ownership rate can be drawn.

    • Posted November 10, 2017 at 11:31 am | Permalink

      There was discussion above about “developed countries”, which seems to control for economics.

  24. Jake Sevins
    Posted November 8, 2017 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

    “Riddle of the Gun” by Sam Harris should be required reading for anyone who wants to opine on this topic. He does a great job laying out the unique problems this country faces now that hundreds of millions of guns are already in the hands of people who would die before surrendering them.

    • Veroxitatis
      Posted November 9, 2017 at 6:38 am | Permalink

      Thanks for drawing this to everyone’s attention. There is also a subsequent podcast wherein Sam discusses various points which have been made by readers.

  25. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted November 8, 2017 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

    The Declaration of Independence declares a “right to life”.

    The current reading of the 2nd Amendment conflicts with the earlier 1776 Declaration.

  26. bonetired
    Posted November 9, 2017 at 1:21 am | Permalink

    As an aside, Dan Hodges who is mentioned in the last paragraph, is Glenda Jackson’s son.

  27. Martin X
    Posted November 9, 2017 at 1:26 am | Permalink

    “so deeply instilled in America”

    One thing the last year has shown us is that things which are “deeply instilled” in America can evaporate in moments with the right motivation.

  28. Diane G.
    Posted November 9, 2017 at 1:58 am | Permalink

    WAY OT–I’m sorry–but I’m posting this here as this thread seems to have an especially large number of regular commenters.

    I have a Word Press problem–it is not letting me subscribe to any threads or to the website itself. I know others here have experienced the same thing, so consider this a plea to anyone who knows how to fix this–help!

    (Also, apologies to anyone who’s responded to any of my comments and has not received a reply. Obviously I can’t reply to what I don’t know about in the first place.)

  29. J. Quinton
    Posted November 9, 2017 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    “Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.”

    This is pretty much the same sentiment I expressed almost immediately after Sandy Hook.

    Americans value their guns more than their children (a 17 month old girl was killed in the most recent mass shooting).

    This should be our biggest embarrassment as a nation to the world, besides slavery and Jim Crow. And that tells you a lot about us as a country, since there are millions of Americans who feel that Jim Crow laws should still be in effect. Many who weren’t even alive during the civil rights era.

    Future generations, if they ever solve this problem by finally banning guns or by finally interpreting the 2nd Amendment correctly by actually having a regulated a militia with chains of command and other types of structure associated with militias, will look back on this point in our history with a deep sense of shame.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted November 9, 2017 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

      “Americans value their guns more than their children”

      Well, no (though I guess some of them might have a hard time choosing between their beloved guns and their kids if put to it).

      I think it’s more like “Americans value their guns more than anybody else’s children”. After all, they’re not going to shoot any children themselves, specially not their own, no sirree, they’re perfectly normal and reasonable people who would never go on a crazy killing rampage no matter how annoying the kids get. They’re the good guys. Everybody else is the bad guys.


  30. Christopher Bonds
    Posted November 9, 2017 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    It was drilled into me in high school (USA) that “driving is a privilege, not a right.” In other words, it’s something you earn as a result of showing responsibility. You have to be of a certain age, pass exams, and demonstrate that you don’t have any disabilities that would present a danger (e.g., blindness, inability to read signs, etc.)

    If you buy a gun at a gun show in America, you don’t generally have to do any of those things. I think that’s wrong.

  31. biz
    Posted November 9, 2017 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    As another commenter already mentioned, I am skeptical of this data. I find it close to impossible to believe that Brazil, Mexico, Hondouras, etc have not had more than 16 incidents where 4 people were shot in 20 years. Some countries’ data is missing.

    The thresshold of 4 fatalities to qualify as a “mas shooting” is itself dubious. It seems engineered to get the conclusion that certain people want (yes, I am aware that the FBI also uses this definition, but 4 gangland fatalities is most certainly not what is communicated by the term “mass shooting”).

    Also, how valid is the common asumption that the US should be compared with European countries? In terms of demographics, culture, size, settlement patterns, and historical development, is the US more like Belgium or more like Brazil? It is not obvious to me the answer is Belgium. Our homicide rate compares quite favorably to almost all of Latin America. Also Canada’s Nunavut territory has an insanely high murder rate in spite of having Canada’s gun laws.

    • Posted November 10, 2017 at 11:37 am | Permalink

      Nunavut has several other confounds:

      (1) Residual effects of colonialism – the population is mostly Inuit, who are (due to the creation of the territory) only recently regaining some autonomy
      (2) Small number-effects. Same as my reservations about the Pinker-Shermer thesis about the decline of violence: when there are such small numbers there can only “be” certain large numbers or nothing. For example, if you’re in a band of 20, there are no possibilities between 0 and 5% if one is counting homicides or equivalent. The largest “city” in Nunavut does not even have 8000 people!
      (3) Poverty, which is (needless to say) intersectional with (1).
      (4) Threshold effects in the *other* direction re: weapons. It is much more of a “hunting place” than many other parts of Canada.

      One would have to investigate carefully to see if one can learn anything from Nunavut.

  32. eric
    Posted November 9, 2017 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    Guns make killing easier.
    This is their blessing and their curse.
    Guns make killing easier.
    This why we give them to our soldiers…and our enemies do the same.
    Guns make killing easier.
    They allow small, weak, untrained victims to defend themselves against larger, stronger, martially trained aggressors, prompting the nickname ‘the great equalizer” (long before Reagan repurposed the phrase).
    Guns make killing easier.
    They also allow small, weak, untrained aggressors to murder lots of people at a rate they could never accomplish with their hands, or a knife.
    Guns make killing easier.
    They allow humans to kill at long range, a physically impossible thing for an unarmed human to do.
    Guns make killing easier.

%d bloggers like this: