Study claiming U.S. accounts for one-third of mass shootings ‘botched’
A shock 2016 study argued that the U.S. accounted for nearly one-third of all mass shootings, sparking global headlines about the dangers of an American gun culture.
Now another researcher says the original study “botched” the data.
John R. Lott Jr., president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, crunched the numbers and said his count shows that the U.S. had less than 3 percent of the world’s mass public shootings over a 15-year period.
That is smaller than the 4.6 percent of the world’s population that the U.S. accounts for — and way less than the 31 percent of global mass shooters that Adam Lankford, a professor at the University of Alabama, claimed in his widely publicized studies.
“If you fix the data, you get the opposite result from him,” Mr. Lott said. “He has the United States way out there, all by itself in terms of mass public shootings. He’s simply wrong. The United States, when I go through this, ranks 58th in the world in the rate of mass public shootings and 62nd in the world in terms of murders from mass public shootings.”
Mr. Lott said he tried to get Mr. Lankford to disclose his data but the professor won’t share it with him or other researchers, making it impossible to double-check the original claims or to figure out why Mr. Lott’s numbers are so different.
Mr. Lankford’s research, first released in 2015 and presented to the American Sociological Association in 2016, garnered stories from The New York Times, Newsweek, CNN and The Washington Post, among dozens of others, that said it was proof, as CNN put it, that “the U.S. has the most mass shootings.”
Mr. Lankford studied the period from 1966 to 2012 using data from the New York City Police Department’s active shooter report, a 2014 FBI active shooter report and some foreign accounts.
He identified 292 incidents worldwide in which at least four people were killed — the FBI’s definition of a mass murder. Of those, 90 were in the U.S. — 31 percent of the total among 171 countries.
The professor also found that shooters in the U.S. were more likely to arm themselves with multiple weapons and more likely to attack at schools and business locations.
Mr. Lankford, who claimed to be the first to attempt a global survey, said his results suggested there was something to the American psyche that left people disaffected when they failed to achieve the American dream. He said they turn to violent outbursts with firearms.
“It may thus be the lofty aspirations and broken dreams of a tiny percentage of America’s students and workers — combined with their mental health problems, distorted perceptions of victimization, delusions of grandeur, and access to firearms — that makes them more likely to commit public mass shootings than people from other cultures,” he postulated in his 2015 paper.
Yet he has failed to post the data on all 292 shootings. Early academic critics said it’s easy to find data for U.S. shootings but trickier for tracking incidents in foreign countries.
Mr. Lott, meanwhile, turned to data from the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database and followed up with Nexis and web searches to try to catch cases that the database missed.
He said good data exist only for recent years, so he looked from 1998 to 2012 and found 1,491 mass public shootings worldwide. Of those, only 43 — or 2.88 percent — were in the U.S. Divide that by per capita rates, and the U.S. comes in 58th, behind Finland, Peru, Russia, Norway and Thailand — though still worse than France, Mexico, Germany and the United Kingdom.
Looked at from the number of victims in those shootings, the U.S. again ranks low, with just 2.1 percent of mass shooting deaths, Mr. Lott said.
He has released a 451-page appendix detailing each of the shootings and his thoughts on how he classified it, and he shared his data with other academics, including, he said, Mr. Lankford.
The professor, though, told The Washington Times that he wasn’t going to get drawn into a back-and-forth over the issue.
“I am not interested in giving any serious thought to John Lott or his claims,” he said in response to an email seeking comment.
Another professor, Carl Moody, an economist who studies crime at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, said Mr. Lott got it right.
“When I saw John Lott’s paper, I went to the Global Terrorism Database … and counted the number of mass shootings in the U.S. compared to everywhere else. Lott is right,” he said by email.
He added: “By the way, anybody can do this. The GTD database is free and available to all.”
Mr. Lott said his study still overstates the U.S. problem compared with the rest of the world.
He said it’s easy to get good data about shootings in the U.S., but tracking down attacks in far corners of the globe is tough. In some countries, he said, violence is so common that shootings of four people — the minimum for a mass public attack — merits little or no coverage.
Then there are places such as the Solomon Islands that suppress news reports “The police made it clear that since their nation gets most of its revenue from tourism, they saw little benefit to providing this information,” he said.
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