your guide to mass shootings in America

Mother Jones has collected data on mass shootings over the last thirty years and compiled it into a nifty timeline. (You can read about their criteria for selection and the sources of their data here.)

A couple of things stand out to me. One is that, as I hypothesized here, it would appear that, generally, armed citizens do not react decisively to end mass shootings. Skimming the data, I found only one case (the 1982 “welding shop shooting” by Carl Robert Brown) in which a bystander successfully took down the attacker by shooting him — and even in that case, the bystander shot Brown well after he had left the shop and was making his escape by bicycle. (Yes, “bicycle.” The story is worth reading.)

There were other cases in which bystanders took down the shooter without guns. Three people tackled Jared Loughner as he was reloading — which makes them serious badasses if you ask me but doesn’t really support the idea that guns would have helped the situation. (Indeed, one bystander was armed — and almost shot the wrong guy.)

(As for the rest of the shooters in MJ’s timeline, the vast majority either committed suicide or were shot by the cops. Almost all the rest were arrested.)


The other interesting thing about the timeline is looking at where shootings happen. A large majority happen at private workplaces. As I mentioned in one of the other posts, even people who like and own guns may not carry them everywhere — especially not onto the assembly line or into the office. This is true partly because some workplaces have a no-weapons policy, and partly because in many workplaces it would feel weird or be socially awkward to carry a weapon. This is especially true in the many, many workplaces where a work uniform makes it impossible to carry discreetly, or where the physical demands of the work itself don’t easily permit carrying or accessing a weapon. It may be that some combination of private rules, social pressure, and practicality is operating to keep people from bringing guns into the workplace — which may also explain why armed citizens so rarely stop mass killers.

Of course, such considerations have little to do with gun control laws, which means that even if you think guns stop crime, making guns and concealed carry lawful is only half the story. To make an “armed citizenry” theory really compelling, you’d have to make people feel so confident that more guns = better public safety that no one — not her co-workers, not her employer, and not the customers — would blink if the barista at Starbucks was wearing a hip holster. I don’t know that we’re ever going to get to that point. So there are always going to be lots of effectively gun-free areas in our society. Gun activists can lament the wrong-headed hoplophobia of their countrymen, but I doubt they’re going to move the needle very much.


Finally, without comment and solely for your amusement, this comical tale, from Columbus, OH, of a fellow who attempted to bring his gun to the movies. And his knives, and his medical supplies….

Scott A. Smith, 37, had no intention of causing harm or inducing panic when he brought the weapons to a Saturday showing of “The Dark Knight Rises,” said his attorney, Matthew Bruce.

“With the recent shooting in Colorado, and the other incidents around the country in regards to threats, he felt that he needed protection,” Bruce said….

The theater manager first noticed Smith and the beige bag he carried over his shoulder, [Police Lt. Ray] Arcuri said. When approached, Smith told the manager it had medical supplies inside. He then showed the manager a portion of the bag that didn’t reveal the weapons.

[An] off-duty Westlake police officer also noticed Smith and his bag. After checking with the manager, the officer followed Smith into the empty theater.

The officer said Smith consented to a search inside the theater. Arcuri said the officer was more familiar with the bag, and knew where to look when he found a loaded 9 mm Glock pistol with two extra loaded magazines, Arcuri said. The officer also found three knifes [sic] in the bag and another knife on Smith, he said….

Arcuri said Smith, who did not have a concealed carry permit, should not have brought any weapon to the theater.

“Our job is to protect the community,” he said of police. “It’s not his role. If there’s a gun, it’s because our officers brought it. It’s not his job to bring the gun, it’s ours.”

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4 Responses to your guide to mass shootings in America

  1. Eric says:

    I hadn’t heard of Carl Robert Brown before your post, but several of other things stood out to me in the story:

    1) the individual who took Brown down was apparently trying to fire a warning shot over his head… and missed; and–

    2) –he then–again, apparently unintentionally–ran Brown over with his car for good measure; although–

    3) –while the inadvertent gunshot wound in the back was evidently fatal (or more fatal than being run over with a car), it wasn’t so fatal that Brown didn’t almost get off a reply shot just before being accidentally (if it was accidentally) run over with the car.

    Hrm. Yeah, the whole thing sounds exactly like the kind of scenario the “If only more people were armed, this tragedy would have been averted” crowd has in mind….

    • Eric says:

      (Argh! I started with “a couple of”, realized I had three things, meant to change it to “several”, but ended up with “several of”. Grrr. I is irritated at myself.)

    • thehandsomecamel says:

      Right — I mean, I think there are multiple factors that make it comparatively hard for the average citizen, even if armed, to take down an armed shooter. One of them is that even if you have a gun, you haven’t necessarily been thinking about shooting people the way the crazy guy has. So you’re less prepared. Another is that not everybody who has a gun has good aim and a steady hand. And then when you get to weird, slightly comic scenarios like the bicycle getaway and shooting from a moving car, I think it’s just very unlikely that it’s going to unfold the way you want. (Though running the guy down with the car seemed like a pretty good move.)

      And, you know, after the actions of the passengers on United 93, I would never want to denigrate the capacity of ordinary people to act bravely in a crisis. There’s definitely room in the world for that. But it does seem like it doesn’t happen as often as we’d hope in our fantasies. (I, myself, had fantasies of taking down a copycat killer while watching Dark Knight in the theater. But I knew, deep down, that they were probably silly.)

      • Eric says:

        I do think that almost any group of citizens would do what the passengers on United 93 did. But I also think context is everything in this kind of thing: there’s a basic situational difference between being trapped in a flying tube with nowhere to go and the certain knowledge that you will die (along with hundreds or thousands of others at the target site) if you don’t act and might not die if you do (and can at least save the people on the ground, maybe); versus being in a movie theatre surrounded by gunsmoke and panic and the survival-dominant parts of your brain telling you to just run or hide.

        Not to take anything away from the heroes on United 93, but let’s be honest: it’s easier to be a hero when you have absolutely nothing to lose, not even your now-possibly-worthless life. It’s a lot easier to become the main guy in Red Badge Of Courage when there’s a whole 180° of not-getting-shot-at over your shoulder.

        Somewhat coincidentally, I stumbled across some interesting and provocative articles on the psychological costs of killing, here; the author notes in at least one article that sociopaths don’t have the hangups about killing other human beings that unconditioned neurotypicals have: most ordinary people who haven’t been trained to shoot at human-shaped targets will balk at ever doing so.

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