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Mass killings dropped in 2020. Repudiate right-wing extremism to continue the trend.

There is now growing concern over the threat posed by heavily armed, white supremacist groups. We can't risk a repeat of hate-inspired massacres.

James Alan Fox
Opinion contributor
Published 5:01 a.m. ET Jan. 22, 2021

The end of the calendar year is routinely the time when journalists reflect on the political and social trends that emerged over the previous twelve months, including upward or downward swings in crime statistics.

So, what did 2020 signal in terms of our nation's scourge of mass shootings, which some observers had described as an epidemic before attention shifted over to a pandemic of far deadlier proportions? With apologies to Charles Dickens, the answer is seemingly (but not actually) contradictory: It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. It was a tale of two databases.

The past year has seen the fewest number of mass shootings in over a decade, according to statistics from the Associated Press/USA Today/Northeastern University Mass Killing Database. Using the long-standing definition of four or more victims killed within a 24-hour time frame, there were 19 mass shootings in 2020, down from 32 the year before. Nearly half of the incidents involved family members. Several others were associated with ongoing criminal activity, such as gang conflict and drug trade. Only two mass shootings were the type that embody the perceptions and fears of Americans an indiscriminate assault at a concert, restaurant, or other public setting. In this regard, 2020 had the fewest incidents since 2002.

Lockdowns and suffering

Back in 2019, after large-scale shootings at an El Paso Walmart and a Dayton nightclub over consecutive days plus several other killing sprees, people across the country were on high alert. Not surprisingly, a Harris Poll found that one-third of Americans avoided certain places or events for fear of falling victim to a mass shooting. Of course, in 2020, Americans avoided public places out of fear of a very different threat to their personal safety. Plus, lockdowns forced many public venues to shutter, making it unlikely, if not impossible, for there to be a mass shooting at a school, movie theater, or house of worship. Moreover, smaller gatherings may not be as enticing to a would-be assailant seeking infamy.

Another factor contributing to the welcome dearth of public massacres involves the mindset underlying the actions of rampage killers. Mass shooters tend to feel that they are the victims of injustice and suspect that all the breaks are going to other, less deserving individuals. However, in today's environment, lots of people are suffering, not just the angry and dispirited few who otherwise might seek to get even for their own misfortunes. It has become hard for them to view their own plight as unique or unfair.

In rather curious and stark contrast to the drop in deadly public massacres, 2020 appears to have been a record year in terms of incidents in which four or more victims were shot, but not necessarily killed. According to statistics from the Gun Violence Archive, there were just under 600 mass shootings last year an average of 50 per month, and the most since 2013, when such cases were first tallied. With the level of political and social discord at a fever pitch, sales of firearms sharply rising, widespread financial and personal hardship, and Americans suddenly having too much unstructured time away from work, school, and other organized activities, many idle hands are reaching for a gun in response to stress and interpersonal conflict.

The importance of how data is framed

While both approaches to tracking mass casualty gun violence are worthwhile as social indicators, the crucial distinction between injury and death is often overlooked, resulting in mass confusion about the prevalence of mass shootings. Among the nearly 3,000 rampage shootings since 2013 listed in the Gun Violence Archive, 48% involved no fatalities and another 29% had but one (some of which were the assailants themselves). Thus, less than a quarter of these mass shootings were multiple homicides and only 7% were mass killings.

When people hear of the hundreds of mass shootings each year tracked by the Gun Violence Archive statistics often reported as a contextual sidebar in news coverage of shootings with staggering death tolls they sometimes conflate the two types of incidents, fearing that devastating massacres like El Paso or Parkland are "the new normal." This is not to disregard the thousands of shooting victims who survived with injuries ranging from minor to life-threatening, but the more deadly mass shootings are fundamentally different and rare.

Although far less commonplace than perhaps most Americans believe, mass shootings with large numbers of fatalities attract massive amounts of news coverage. In fact, mass killings have appeared in the annual Associated Press list of the Top 10 stories every year from 2015 through 2019. The AP apparently chose not to produce a list for 2020, as so much of the news has been dominated by three topics: COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, and the presidential race. Had the AP published a Top 10 list for 2020, mass shootings undoubtedly would not have made the cut one silver lining to a very bleak year.

The calendar has now turned to a new year, with it comes growing concern over the threat posed by heavily armed, white supremacist groups. Without a total repudiation of right-wing extremism and associated conspiracy theories, we risk a repeat of the kind of hate-inspired massacres that we saw in Pittsburgh, El Paso and Charleston, South Carolina.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University and co-author of "Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder." Follow him on Twitter @jamesalanfox

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