The recent mass shooting at a South Florida high school sparked a nationwide movement seeking stricter regulations on firearms and ammunition. Gun advocates have pushed back, arguing that guns aren’t the problem. But underlying the whole debate is the perception that mass shootings have become common, and that all students are at great risk from the next mass shooter. Statistics tell a different story: Mass shootings, while heartbreaking, are still an extremely rare occurrence. Yet in the aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas H.S. shooting, there seems to be a rush to do something — anything — to remedy this problem. Some have called for the abolishment of the Second Amendment, while others want to put an armed guard in every school in the U.S., and/or arm teachers. Before we rush into action, it would help to clarify the statistics behind mass shootings to put things in perspective.
1,081: People killed in mass shootings in the U.S. since 1966
This figure comes from an April 2018 Washington Post report. The paper admits the definition of “mass shooting” is very arbitrary; for the WaPo’s study, the paper looked at 151 mass shootings since 1966 in which four or more people were killed, in most cases by a lone shooter, but in some cases by a pair of shooters. The study doesn’t include gang activity, botched robberies or shootings in private homes.
So while one could argue that a shooting that kills a couple of people is also tragic and worthy of our attention, it’s the big mass shootings that get our attention. And based on that stat, deaths from those shootings are extremely rare, roughly 21 per year. To further put that 1,081 figure in perspective, 664 people were shot to death in Chicago in 2017.
16: Mass shootings in U.S. schools since 1982
This number comes from a comprehensive Mother Jones report on all U.S. mass shootings since 1982. That works out to one every couple of years. One dubious statistic circulated immediately after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas H.S. shootings claimed there had already been 18 shootings at high schools in the first few weeks of 2018. That statistic spread throughout social media and was even reported by many major outlets as fact. As USA Today noted, “Fake stats like that make finding a solution to the real problem of gun violence, which has actually struck American schools at least six times this year, that much harder. Amping up fears, and muddying the search for fixes that can cut back the senseless violence, only undermines efforts to reconcile the real concerns of parents and the legitimate desire of civil rights advocates to protect the Bill of Rights.”
162: People killed in mass shootings in schools since 1982
This statistic also comes from the Mother Jones report. Those shootings have claimed a total of 162 lives. To put that figure in perspective, 818 bicyclists died in accidents in 2015, many of them children. In terms of overall gun-related deaths, that’s fewer deaths than occur in an average weekend in the U.S. EverytownResearch.org notes that an average of 96 Americans are killed each day in gun-related incidents.
$4 billion: Estimated cost to put an armed guard in every U.S. school
After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, public sentiment backed putting an armed guard in every school as a way to deter or stop shootings. In fact, 53 percent of Americans, thought that would be a “very effective” step, with Democrats, Republicans and Independents supporting that equally. One of the common complaints about this measure is the projected cost, but a 2012 study by The Atlantic found that an armed guard could be added to all the schools that don’t already have one for around $4 billion nationwide. This would almost certainly have to be funded at the national level, because many smaller school districts would not be able to afford adding security. Yet $4 billion is little more than a rounding error in some federal programs. This could be done if there were political will.
It may seem heartless to some to discuss these tragic shootings almost in actuarial terms, but some of the proposals being floated in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas H.S. shooting (abolish the Second Amendment, ban all semi-automatic rifles) are totally out of proportion to the problem. Beyond that, they may have little effect on deterring potential future shootings.