Five Misconceptions About Mass Shootings

2017 was the deadliest year in U.S. history for public mass shootings, according to a new FBI report. But the way we think about the shooters is often incorrect. Lisa Dunn from Guns & America, a new public media reporting project, has this fact-check.

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Jul 5, 2018 · 3 min read

More than 100 people were killed in 30 incidents in the U.S. last year. That’s the largest number ever recorded by the FBI in a one-year period. In the wake of the mass shooting at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, 1A spoke with University of Alabama Criminologist Adam Lankford and Marisa Randazzo, former chief psychologist of the U.S. Secret Service and currently managing partner at SIGMA Threat Management, about what we actually know about mass shooters and why they commit these horrific crimes.

Misconception: Mass shooters have a specific profile that can easily be spotted ahead of time — they are all loners.

Truth: Marisa Randazzo explains “there’s actually no useful profile of a mass shooter but there’s a lot we can look at in terms of behavior.” For example, the FBI report finds that while the 63 active shooters examined in the study couldn’t be linked based on demographics alone, “62 percent of the shooters had a history of acting in an abusive, harassing, or oppressive way (e.g. excessive bullying, workplace intimidation); 16 percent had engaged in intimate partner violence; and 11 percent had engaged in stalking-related conduct.”

Misconception: Mass shooters are mentally ill and that’s why they commit these horrific crimes.

Truth: Adam Lankford says this is a common misconception about mass shooters. In fact, the vast majority of people with mental illness never commit violent crimes. Just 25 percent of active shooters in the FBI report had ever been diagnosed with mental illness. And according to a 2016 study published by the American Psychiatric Association, mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent less than 1 percent of all yearly gun-related homicides.

Misconception: Mass shooters commit their crimes because they just snap without any warning

Truth: The FBI study found that active shooters take time to plan and prepare, with 77 percent of the shooters spending a week or longer planning the attack.

Misconception: Angry people make threats and most of these don’t end up in violence so there’s no way to predict or prevent a mass shooting.

Truth: Mass shootings are extremely rare — they make up less than one percent of all U.S. gun homicides — and it is hard to predict which individuals will actually become violent. However, there are certain observable behaviors that have been found to characterize a majority of mass shooters. For example, the FBI report notes that on average, each active shooter studied displayed four to five concerning behaviors over time that were observable to others around the shooter. And Marisa Randazzo says mass shooters typically go beyond just threats — she suggests observing whether someone who is making threats is also acquiring firearms or tactical gear.

Misconception: Most mass shooters buy their firearms legally, making gun regulations moot.

Truth: Seventy-five percent of the mass shooters studied by the FBI legally purchased or possessed the firearm used in the crime. But state laws vary widely on who is qualified to buy a gun and when it must be surrendered to law enforcement. For example, a handful of states have laws barring people convicted of criminal stalking from purchasing a firearm; others require registration of certain “long guns” (a firearm that is fired while braced against the shoulder such as a shotgun or rifle) like the one the Annapolis shooter used; and 11 states now have so-called ‘red flag’ laws that allow law enforcement or family members to petition the court for a temporary gun violence restraining order against an individual who they believe is dangerous.

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1A is the midday news show from @WAMU885 and @NPR, hosted by Joshua Johnson. Find the podcast at npr.org/1a.

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