Is the “American Dream” to Blame for Mass Shooting Epidemics?

September 17, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Table of guns for sale.
Photo credit: M&R Glasgow (CC BY 2.0)

The first-ever global empirical investigation on mass shootings analyzes why the US makes up 5 percent of the world’s population but has 31 percent of its public mass shooters.

Watching the news these days can be more disheartening than informative. Broadcasts are peppered with heart-wrenching accounts of mass shootings taking the innocent lives of school children, moviegoers, church folk— the list goes on.

The United States is often condemned for its pro-gun culture since countries that criminalize gun possession tend to have fewer senseless killings. Now, the first-ever global empirical investigation linked to mass shootings determines why the US holds the number one spot for mass shooters among its population.

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While the US only comprises about 5 percent of the world’s population, it hosted a disproportionate 31 percent of public mass shooters globally from 1966 to 2012, according to a press release on the new research. Interestingly, a 2007 Small Arms Survey confirmed that the top 5 countries in firearms owned per capita are the United States, Yemen, Finland, Serbia, and, surprisingly, neutral Switzerland. But the US skyrocketed to the top of the chart with 88.8 average firearms per 100 people — over 30 points higher than Yemen’s second place average of 54.8.

Study author Adam Lankford, associate criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama, claims that his quantitative assessment of 171 countries provides empirical evidence that “a nation’s civilian firearm ownership rate is the strongest predictor of its number of public mass shooters.” This assertion was supported by the fact that all five countries with the highest rate of gun ownership also ranked in the list of top 15 countries with the highest rate of public mass shooters per capita.

“That is not a coincidence,” says Lankford. While this relationship between firearm ownership and mass shootings has long been speculated, Lankford’s study provides hard evidence of a “positive association between the two.”

The data used in the study came from the New York City Police Department’s 2012 active shooter report, the FBI’s 2014 active shooter report, and multiple international sources. With these resources, Lankford explored how public shootings in the US differed from those in other countries. He found that over half of the shooters in the US used at least two weapons, while shooters in other countries were 3.6 times less likely to use multiple weapons.

"Given the fact that the United States has over 200 million more firearms in circulation than any other country, it's not surprising that our public mass shooters would be more likely to arm themselves with multiple weapons than foreign offenders," Lankford said.

Another dark peculiarity of American mass shootings was that the shooters were more likely to choose schools, factories or warehouses, and office buildings as their areas of attack. In other countries, shooters were more likely to strike in military settings, like bases, barracks, and checkpoints.

Sadly, the “American Dream” may be a huge driving force behind America’s extremely high number of public mass shootings. Our culture compels individuals to dream of one day attaining great success and wealth, when in reality, these things don’t come that easy. Frustrations from lack of equal opportunity can nurture hatred toward the strains of a capitalist society and those who can thrive in it.

Lankford also speculates that mental health issues like depression, schizophrenia, paranoia, and narcissism are important factors in America’s problem with gun violence. “Other countries certainly have their share of people who struggle with these problems, but they may be less likely to indulge in the delusions of grandeur that are common among these offenders in the U.S., and, of course, less likely to get their hands on the guns necessary for such attacks,” he says.

So, the grand takeaway from this study? Lankford contends the most obvious implication is that, “the United States could likely reduce its number of school shootings, workplace shootings, and public mass shootings in other places if it reduced the number of guns in circulation.”

This approach is supported by evidence of success in Australia. Following four public mass shootings in the late 80s and early 90s, Australia rapidly instated comprehensive gun control laws that reduced the country’s total number of firearms by 20 percent. Since then, Australia has yet to experience another public mass shooting.

Bottom line: lower gun circulation, fewer mass shootings. It’s not rocket science.

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