Stopping Mass Shootings: What Works, What Doesn’t Work

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Annapolis, Md. rally to prevent gun violence, March 2013. Photo by MarylandGovPic via Flickr

While there’s no “quick fix” for the wave of mass shootings in the U.S., researchers have identified evidence-based approaches that can reduce their frequency, minimize casualties—and even in some cases prevent them from happening, according to a research and policy brief from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation (HFG) released Wednesday.

Some of the approaches have been advocated for years, but a set of 16 papers prepared by 40 scholars last year for a congressional briefing brought them together in a composite form to give policymakers, law enforcement, and health care professionals a menu of options to address what an editor of the collection called “one of the most alarming and defining crime issues of the 21st Century.”

Reviewing the papers for the HFG policy brief, freelance journalist Mark Obbie broke down the strategies into five areas that could shape future policy towards gun violence.

“The 16 articles cover a broad range of problems related to mass violence,” Obbie wrote. “But around the narrower question of mass public shootings, research suggests five policy areas that offer the greatest promise for prevention or mitigation.”

He listed them as:

      • Regulating high-capacity guns;
      • Restricting access to guns by high-risk people;
      • Creating effective early-warning systems for individuals who might commit mass violence;
      • Taking steps that could reduce fatalities and casualties; and
      • Establishing more robust data-collection.

The research review not only provided pointers to policies that evidence suggested had a chance to work; but to policies and strategies advanced by partisans on both sides of the issue that evidence showed weren’t working.

Obbie noted that the confusion over what defined a “mass shooting” both overstated and understated the problem. He cited figures showing that between 1976 and 2018, there have been 845 U.S. mass shootings, defined as gun homicides in which four or more persons died.

Such broadly defined events have actually declined in frequency over the past 20 years.

But since 2010, the number of attacks which left at least eight persons dead has grown, with the average number of victims increasing by 47 percent.

The sheer number of victims in these “high-fatality” acts of random indiscriminate violence is likely a direct result of the increased firepower of the weapons used: high-capacity, semi-automatic rifles or assault firearms, research suggests.

However, research also has produced skepticism about the solution most often advanced for these attacks: banning the weapons themselves. (An assault weapon ban passed by Congress in 1994 expired 10 years later.)

Instead, criminologists believe the most effective approach to limiting casualties is to restrict the purchase and sale of large-capacity ammunition magazines (LCMs). One researcher estimated that if LCMs were subject to restrictions, deaths and injuries in public mass shootings would decline by between one-third and one-half.

Background Checks

Another equally contentious policy debate over guns centers on how to prevent unstable or violence-prone people from obtaining them. While there is a consensus that background checks and other restrictions on firearms purchase will reduce the likelihood of unstable people obtaining firearms, there’s less agreement on how to identify those “high-risk” individuals.

One study of mass shooters between 2014 and 2017 found that more than one-third were already prohibited from owning guns due to prior felony or domestic violence convictions; yet they managed to “escape” the vigilance of authorities because of loopholes in the screening process.

A supposedly even tougher barrier—so-called “Red Flag” laws in which individuals at extreme risk of committing violence are identified by police, other authorities, or even family members, is similarly subject to evasion.

The shooter in this month’s FedEx killings in Indianapolis carried two legally purchased assault rifles even though he had been tagged as dangerous a year earlier by police who seized a pump action shotgun after his mother worried he might commit “suicide by cop.”

The research review indicated a need for more targeted strategies involving a combination of stronger enforcement of extreme risk protection orders (Red Flag laws) and other bans, universal background checks, and “closer monitoring of high-volume purchases of guns and ammunition,” Obbie wrote.

Identifying potential mass shooters in advance is also a possible means of prevention. One study found that nearly 80 percent of mass shooters in 2017 and 2018 made explicit threats or gave other indications of intent to carry out an attack.

In many cases, including school shootings, a declaration of intent to commit mass violence often goes unreported by teachers or fellow students.

Another controversial area is the link between mental illness and gun violence. Anti-gun control groups in particular say if more attention was paid early to people with troubled mental histories, there would be fewer mass shootings.

One study of mass shooters since 1976 found that more than 60 percent were diagnosed as seriously mentally ill and suicidal, but researchers warn that there is no evidence of a “causal link” between mental illness and armed violence.

“While most mass shooters do fall somewhere on the spectrum of mental illness, defined broadly, that’s merely a testament to how common mental illness is,” Obbie wrote in summing up research perspectives on the issue.

A more productive approach to identifying individuals who might pose a danger to others is through conducting a “systematic” threat assessment, which would involve early identification and reporting by family and caregivers. One researcher called it a “public health approach.”

“Even if an individual is not actively planning or preparing to carry out an attack, an effort to address the underlying conflict or problem can prevent the situation from escalating,” Obbie quoted the researcher, Dewey Cornell, as writing.

The Media and Mass Shootings

Another area considered by research was the link between media coverage and mass shootings. A number of shooters have demonstrated an interest in making a “name” for themselves by leaving a maximum number of casualties—in a kind of competition with earlier perpetrators of mass violence.

Many media outlets have already begun to address this issue by focusing as little as possible on the individual shooter while resisting some calls to omit the name or identification. Some public mass violence acts are also identified as “copy cat” events, inspired or fueled by previous horrific acts.

Research has shown that for some mass shooters “one certain way to achieve notoriety is by running up body counts,” Obbie wrote.

“A common aspiration among mass shooters, before and after their attacks, is their quest to be known for how many victims they left behind and an implicit or explicit competition with other mass shooters, phenomena that have grown alongside the variety and ubiquity of media platforms.”

Researchers have called not only for a nationwide policy of limiting the publication of names and photos of the shooters but an announcement in advance of the policy.

Proponents claim “it could result in deterring a substantial proportion of fame- and attention-seekers from committing public mass shootings, while removing the incentive for them to kill large numbers of victims to forge a legacy,” the policy brief noted.

But so far, there appears to be little evidence supporting the argument.

Some 15 separate policy recommendations for preventing or mitigating mass shootings were identified in the H.F. Guggenheim review.

In addition to the bans on high-capacity magazines, stricter background checks and enforcement of gun bans mentioned above, they included:

    • Banning bump stocks and trigger cranks;
    • Tightening the monitoring of gun and ammunition stockpiling;
    • Improving emergency responses, including speeded-up medical treatment for the wounded, to mass attacks;
    • Developing a national database to track mass shootings more comprehensively.

Obbie noted that researchers agreed that there was still a lot more to learn about the triggers of indiscriminate mass violence, but enough was known about the issue to take concrete actions to reduce the death toll.

”There is no easy solution or quick fix for these horrific events,” one group of scholars was quoted as writing. “Mass shootings have plagued our country, and they will continue to do so, for the foreseeable future.

“There are, however, measures that we can take to limit the harm and damage caused by these violent incidents as well as to prevent some shootings from ever taking place.”

The full HFG policy brief can be downloaded here.

Editor’s Note: The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation is a supporter of The Crime Report.

3 thoughts on “Stopping Mass Shootings: What Works, What Doesn’t Work

  1. Ban everything – really.
    But no reference to lawfully armed citizens acting to stop a perp…
    This has happened many times in the last decade in active shooter situations.
    Sometimes the only people that saved lives are armed citizens but the media will never report such – its not their agenda or narrative.

  2. “The shooter in this month’s FedEx killings in Indianapolis carried two legally purchased assault rifles”

    No, he didn’t.

    If you can’t discriminate between “assault weapons,” “assault rifles,” and “sporting rifles,” you have no claim to expertise that would qualify you to provide advice on this subject.

    Why do you find it not worth mentioning that these mass shootings almost without exception occur in locations posted as “gun-free zones,” guaranteeing the murderer that no potential victim will be equipped to oppose him? And that a number of these murderers are known to have passed up unposted sites in order to commit their depredations in a posted one because it was safer for them personally?

    Addressing that effect is easy, violates no one’s rights, and has the potential to bring a quick end to the problem, yet forgive me for predicting that you will entirely avoid considering it.

  3. In the USA there is the Second Amendment. ” Shall not be infringed.” The options listed might work and they could and would be abused. By tyrants and power hungry political factions.

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