Keeping mass shootings in perspective

Police walk outside the Tops grocery store on Sunday, May 15, 2022, in Buffalo, N.Y. A white 18-year-old wearing military gear and livestreaming with a helmet camera opened fire with a rifle at the supermarket, killing and wounding people in what authorities described as “racially motivated violent extremism.” (AP Photo/Joshua Bessex)

A mass shooting at a Buffalo supermarket has left 10 people dead and several injured. A shooting outside a Milwaukee Bucks basketball game left 21 people injured, while a shooting outside a Laguna Woods church left one dead and five injured. These events beg the question, can such heinous events be predicted? 

They cannot.  

Our research group studied this question and discovered that the timing of mass killings in the United States can indeed be modeled. Their timing follows patterns that can be analyzed to provide a window into their general frequency. However, the model also indicates that their specific timing is unpredictable. This means that once such an event occurs, the time until the next event is unknown. Even when several such events occur in rapid succession, this does not forbode more or less events in the future. When the next such event occurs remains anyone’s guess.

The motivations behind mass shootings are varied. The shooting in Buffalo is being investigated as “racially motivated violent extremism” targeting African Americans, according to federal officials. The mass killing at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 targeted Jews. The mass killing at an Orlando gay nightclub in 2016 targeted LGQBT members. In contrast, the mass killing at a Boulder grocery store in 2021 had no obvious target population. 

Independent of who is targeted, the concern for everyone in the country is that any group of people are vulnerable to being targeted for violence. Given that a single individual can perpetuate such events means that the problem lies not with how the event is executed, but with who is executing the event. 

Firearms are an efficient tool to execute a mass killing. With them, many people can be targeted in a short period of time. Other weapons, such as knives or bats, are also effective to inflict harm but cannot wreak the same scale of damage over a short time period. 

The Gun Violence Archive reports 202 mass shootings so far in 2022, where each such event involved at least four people shot or killed during a single incident, excluding the shooter. The FBI definition of a mass shooting is more stringent: an event resulting in four or more people killed during a single incident, also excluding the shooter. Using the FBI definition, the 202 events drops to nine mass shootings over 19 weeks, a rate of around one every two weeks, which matches historical trends.

Redefining what constitutes a mass shooting does not make it any less heinous. It does, however, place such events into perspective. For example, a total of 214 people were killed during the 202 shooting incident, far less than the average daily number of COVID-19 deaths in May, or the number of drug overdose deaths in an average day in 2021. Even considering the total of 855 people injured during these 202 shootings, by comparison, over 8,000 people on average are injured every day in automobile accidents.   

The purpose of this data analysis exercise is not to minimize the egregiousness of mass shootings, no matter how one defines them. Its purpose is to place all such events into the appropriate perspective, providing a background for addressing all causes of death and injury in a complex society. 

What transpired in Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Orlando and Boulder are all unacceptable. Knee-jerk reactions to respond to a single incident with system wide changes is not the answer. This includes gun control measures and social media accountability legislation. Although many such calls have merit and are worthy of consideration, discussing them in the aftermath of a highly visible mass shooting incident is far too emotionally charged to lead to effective and appropriate changes. The best time to discuss any such legislation is when there is no urgency to do so. 

Just as the automobile industry continues to add vehicle features to keep people as safe as possible, so must we all remain engaged in our surroundings to keep ourselves, our loved ones and our fellow citizens safe. Everyone has a say in this matter, and everyone has a responsibility to help maintain a safe environment for all. Vigilance continues to be our best protection and safeguard.  

Sheldon H. Jacobson
, Ph.D., is a professor in computer science and the Carle Illinois College of Medicine at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Jacobson is a data scientist and applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based decision-making to evaluate and inform public policy. He coauthored the paper “Random Acts of Violence: Examining Probabilistic Independence of Mass Killing sin the United States.” 

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