Is Mass Murder Exceptionally American?

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charleston church

Makeshift memorial at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC to victims of the June 2015 mass shooting that left nine dead. Photo by Zack Carlson via Flickr

The recent tragedies in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, Texas, are causing many Americans to wonder, “Is this kind of mass murder peculiarly American?”

The facts suggest otherwise.

There is nothing exceptionally American about mass murder or even firearms mass murder —even though some of the rhetoric accompanying these tragic events portrays the U.S. as singularly plagued by them.

For starters: the FBI defines mass murder as four or more dead (including the killer) in one event, in one location. [FBI, Serial Murder: Multidisciplinary Perspectives for Investigators, 8]

Of course, we are excluding the genocidal mass murders that largely define the 20th Century (for example, the Turkish extermination of the Armenians; the Holocaust; Rwanda; among far too many).

The types of mass murder referred to here are crimes not committed by or with the acquiescence of governments.

Former President Barack Obama, for example, declared after the 2015 shooting at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C., that left nine people dead and three injured “this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries.”

He went on to say, “It does not happen with this kind of frequency.”

The implication was that the U.S.’s relatively laissez faire approach to gun control is at fault.

According to Politifact, the first sentence was incorrect, noting that between 2000 and 2014 there were 23 incidents of mass shootings in ten other countries besides the United States; though, it added, the second sentence was “not quite as wrong as the first claim.”

The more commonly accepted measure of crime is events per 100,000 population or dead per 100,000. Even then, the U.S. is only fourth on the list of mass-murder deaths per 100,000 people (0.15) compared to #3, Finland (0.34), #2, Norway (1.3), and #1, Switzerland (1.7).

Mass murders (as well as the far common ordinary murders) are disproportionately committed by persons with severe mental illness problems, whose actions are clearly a consequence of those problems—and the U.S. is not alone in suffering from the consequences of their actions, whether they involve firearms or not.

Christian Dornier

Christian Dornier. Photo via Wikipedia

A few examples over the last several decades:

Christian Dornier, 31, under treatment for “nervous depression,” murdered 14 people in three villages in eastern France. He was later found innocent by reason of insanity.

Eric Borel, 16, murdered his family with a hammer and a baseball bat, and then went on a shooting rampage in the nearby town of Cuers, France, in September 1995. He killed 12 in total beside himself.

In March 2002, Richard Durn murdered eight local city officials and wounded nineteen others in Nanterre, a suburb of Paris. Durn had a master’s degree in political science and “a long history of psychological problems.”

After his arrest, he was described as “calm but largely incoherent,” then leaped to his death through a window.

In April 2002, 19-year old Robert Steinhaeuser went into a school in Erfurt, Germany, and murdered 18 people before killing himself.

In April of 2011, Wellington Menezes de Oliveira went into a school in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, murdering 12 children, before killing himself. His suicide note was unclear, but a police officer described de Oliveira as a “hallucinating person.”

Later the same month, Tristan van der Vlis went into a shopping mall in Alphen aan der Rijn, the Netherlands, and shot six people to death. The Netherlands has very strict gun licensing laws; nonetheless van der Vlis had a gun license in spite of a history of brief mental illness hospitalizations and suicide attempts.

Countries with more restrictive gun control laws also have non-firearm mass murders, such as the five stabbed to death in Calgary, Alberta, in 2013. Matthew de Grood was found not criminally responsible because of “a mental disorder.

Australia is sometimes given as an example of the effectiveness of gun control for preventing mass murders such as the 1996 Port Arthur massacre which killed 35 people and wounded 23.

But Australia still has mass murders after that gun control law, such as the mass stabbing that killed eight siblings in Queensland, Australia, and blunt object mass murders such as one that killed five people in Sydney in 2009.

The mental illness often present in these tragedies, schizophrenia, is a genetic disease affecting about 1 percent of the population.

Obviously, not all mass murders fit into the mental illness category.

Some are acts of terrorism. A few fit no existing pattern. The recent mass murder in Las Vegas, for example, seems to be a Black Swan crime: a multimillionaire who engaged in meticulous planning with devastating loss of life (although lower than at least four other U.S. mass murders in the last three decades).

Eight terrorist mass murder attacks in Paris in 2016 resulted in 130 deaths, although only four of the incidents qualify as mass murders (15 dead at Le Carillion and Le Petit Cambodge restaurants, with firearms; five dead at Café Bonne Biere; 90 dead at the Bataclan concert hall, from firearms and grenades).

For many people, it is a surprise to find out that there are many mass murders committed with weapons other than firearms.

USA Today gathered data on mass murders (“defined [as] killing four or more victims”) committed in the U.S. from 2006 through 2010.

“A third of mass murders didn’t involve guns at all. In 15 incidents, the victims died in a fire. In 20 others, the killer used a knife or a blunt object,” the newspaper reported.

Mass murders by arson are also a problem in other countries:

Childers, Queensland’s Palace Backpackers Hostel was intentionally burned in 2000, killing 15.

The 2011 Quakers Hill Nursing Home fire killed 11, set by a nurse after police questioned him about drug abuse.

Other weapons besides guns and fire are also used. In the last few years, there have been multiple motor vehicle mass murders in Europe and Australia (84 murdered with a truck in Nice, France, 12 in Berlin, Germany, with a truck, three with a SUV, one by stabbing in London, five with a truck in Stockholm, 13 with a truck in Barcelona, Spain.


Clayton Cramer

While all of these were terrorist mass murders, others have been mental health-related (six murdered with car in Melbourne, Australia).

While our rates of firearms mass murder are higher than most other developed nations, we are not at the top of the list.

Including non-firearms mass murders might move us further down the list.

Clayton Cramer teaches history at College of Western Idaho. His ninth book, Lock, Stock, and Barrel, will be published by Praeger Press in February 2018. Readers’ comments are welcome.

16 thoughts on “Is Mass Murder Exceptionally American?

  1. The use of rates per 100,000 population is very misleading in this instance. In the Politico reference used to make the author’s point, it shows that from 2000-2014 Finland had 2 mass shootings, Norway and Switzerland 1 while the US had 133 with 487 killed and 505 wounded. America’s problem with mass shootings and homicides in general is an enormous problem that requires a more thoughtful national response.

    • The core issue is mental illness not being treated as the state mental hospital system was largely destroyed in the 1960s and 1970s. See my 1993 Connecticut Law Review article about this.

      The U.S. has a huge population compared to those other countries.

      • Clayton, intuitively, I’m inclined to agree that the core cause is lack of a comprehensive mental-health screening system and lack of mental hospital space to hold those discovered. Nevertheless, you didn’t address the point of small countries with 1 or 2 incidents. I think that point deserves to be addressed somehow.

        Suppose you had world consisting of one large country (US) and innumerable city-states (Vatican City, Singapore and the like). They have varying cultures and other circumstances. By pure chance, these city-states would have occasional incidents (mass murders in point here). The smaller the city-state the larger the rate per 100,000.

        We would like to say “Hahah! Many of these city-states have a rate/100k higher than that of the US!” And, it might be true; it might be culturally based, or something else. But, it’s just as likely to be a quirk in the fact that with a large number of tiny samples (city-states) statistics dictate that there are bound to be a few outliers that appear to be high rates of the incident.

        I’m not sure how – statistically – to deal with these cases. Possibly to artificially group countries with small populations until we have a group size that is much less susceptible to the troublesome phenomena. E.g., a “European Union of small European Countries”, an EU of a couple of big European Countries, an African union of Sub-Saharan Countries, an Asian Union of Small Countries, etc.

        If the phenomena of several mass-killings per 100,000 population still manifests after such an artificial aggregation then we can reach the same conclusion. All countries and cultures are vulnerable, and there is no support for a correlation with guns.

        • per 100, 000 is used for comparison because of ease of numbers.
          but the number itself it irrelevant.
          it is all about percentages of population.
          which does not change regardless of the number of people.

        • “They have varying cultures and other circumstances. ” Yup. America has a serious problem of murder in a few neighborhoods where young black men with long criminal histories murder other young black men with similar long criminal histories. Much of America has European levels of murder rates.

  2. Setting the standard at 4 or more dead (including the shooter) seems pretty low to define a “mass murder”. That threshold would seem to include any drug deal gone wrong. Also, one argument I commonly hear is that guns allow mass murders to be much more devastating than those committed with knives, vehicles, or blunt objects. I wonder how the statistics would compare if the threshold were raised, say to 10, 15, or 20 dead. Any insight on that?

    • Not knowing the reasoning ( if any ) behind the standard of 4 deaths, the cynic in me strongly suspects that it is intended to allow the inclusion of many gang/drug related shootings to inflate the numbers for political effect. Much the same as how the point is made that so many victims “know” their attacker without regard to the actual relationship, creating the impression that family and friends are primarily responsible.

  3. I notice that the actual rate numbers for the US and countries that have even worse rates than us aren’t sourced; and, more to the point, one of my friends immediately challenged that point when I shared the article on Facebook :-). Since I’m hoping you have the answer in your hip pocket, I’m asking before I try to dig them up myself — what’s the source on those numbers (the particular concern was how comparable they were)?

  4. Clayton, another historical arson case here in Australia was the Whiskey Au Go-Go blaze in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley in March ’73, killing 15 nightclub patrons. Two blokes were gaoled for the murders.

    The worst arson mass-murder of recent years is likely the 2011 Monterrey, Mexico casino attack?

    Interesting figures, thanks for the good article.

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