Mass Shootings

Making Sense of Mass-Shooting Statistics

James Alan Fox vs. Mother Jones

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He wrote the book.

Last month I wrote a post here casting doubt on the claim that the number of mass shootings in the United States has been increasing. One of the criminologists I cited was James Alan Fox, an expert on mass murders who teaches at Northeastern University in Boston. Another was Grant Duwe, who works for the Minnesota Department of Corrections. I also noted in passing a Mother Jones feature that came to a different conclusion than I did, and I linked to Michael Siegel's criticisms of the Mother Jones piece.

Now Fox has written his own critique of the Mother Jones article, arguing that the magazine's decisions about which crimes to count and which to ignore are "hard to defend." Duwe, meanwhile, has presented a count of mass public shootings. Looking back at 2012, he reports that there were more of these incidents than usual last year but also that this was preceded by a 12-year decline. (Both Fox and Duwe are dealing in raw numbers, not incidents or casualties per capita, though Fox does address the country's population growth in the comment thread below his essay.)

As I noted in my original post, clusters of these crimes occasionally occur close together, a phenomenon Fox attributes to a mix of copycatting and coincidence. It's too soon to tell whether Duwe's figure for 2012 represents a new trend or another cluster, but Fox offers a good reason to expect the latter:

What is abundantly clear from the full array of mass shootings, besides the lack of any trend upward or downward, is the largely random variability in the annual counts. There have been several points in time when journalists and other people have speculated about a possible epidemic in response to a flurry of high profile shootings. Yet these speculations have always proven to be incorrect when subsequent years reveal more moderate levels.

The year 1991, for example, saw a man kill 23 people at a cafeteria in Killeen Tex., and a disgruntled graduate student murder five at the University of Iowa, along with other sensationalized incidents. The surge in mass killings was so frightening that a rumor spread around the nation that there would be a mass murder at a college in the Northeast on Halloween. Fortunately, October 31 came and went without anything close to a massacre taking place.

Two years later, in 1993, the nation was shaken by a series of workplace shootings, which encouraged a number of syndicated talk shows to air special programs about "ticking time bombs at the office." Despite the sudden spike in workplace homicide, the incidence of workplace murders actually declined throughout the 1990s.

In his 1999 book Random Violence, which I recommend highly, the sociologist Joel Best points out that "criminologists usually doubt claims about crime waves. Crime waves, they say, are really waves in media attention: they occur because the media, for whatever reason, fix upon some sort of crime, and publicize it." Genuine spikes in crime do occur, of course, but the press has a habit of spotting patterns that aren't there. That's worth remembering in all kinds of contexts.

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  1. Well, it’s one thing to sense patterns that are really just coincidence…that’s just how we perceive things as humans, and not dishonest at all. It’s quite another to delve into the data and cherry pick the stuff that supports the patterns you sensed. That’s dishonest, obviously

    1. But don’t you know that you can interpret the data on shootings in such a way to conclude that every 30 minutes in America a child is shot?

      It’s true! Some pinko at Talking Points Memo told me so!

  2. The media engages in corpsefucking? Mother Jones cherrypicks their corpsefucking to push an agenda? This is shocking, I would never have believed it!

    The Newtown shooting has fully exposed these ghoulish fuckers for what they are: repulsive opportunist scum. They always have been, and they will continue to be; count on it.

    1. Disaster Capitalism!

      Never let a good crisis go to waste.

      1. I’m going to start using the term ‘Disaster Capitalism’ to describe this

        “Dianne Feinstein is nothing more than a disaster capitalist.”

  3. Biden is officially in full-retard campaign mode, will hold fireside-Google+Hangout to talk gun control.

    1. They just can’t stop. Since they are pretty much doomed to failure, we can at least laugh at their impotent obsession.

  4. The media always never make a big deal about angry inner city black teens shooting each other, only when angry or crazy white teens from upper middle class families do. People develop a skewed perspective of things becoming a particular epidemic based on what the racist media chooses to report or not report.

    Likewise, cute little white girl murders like Jon Benet Ramsay and Caylee Anthony will consume the media for months, but nobody gives a damn about Mariha Smith, a five-year old Detroit girl who was kidnapped and murdered.

    1. There really is nothing more racist than a progressive.

  5. So no trend change since 1976 for events but population has increased 44%.

    1. ARE YOU SERIOUS?

      There have been, like, a million shootings, in, like, the last could months, or something. That’s like, the definition of “trend.”

      Why do you hate science?

      1. “could” = “couple”

        Derp.

      2. Bill Nye is why I hate science.

        1. Good answer.

          Mr. Wizard FTMFW.

  6. If reporters understood statistics and probability, they’d stop being reporters and get better jobs.

    1. Many scientists would love to make the amount of money Anderson Cooper makes. Heck, with a local TV news anchor having a median salary around 100k, I am not sure there would be much incentive to move to a career in research for many of the journalists that drive things in terms of public perception.

      😉

  7. Mr. Fox does believe that the events are random. But not having seen his actual paper, I wonder how it cross references events with shootings? Today there were five shootings reported so far, not related to criminal activity, drugs, gang violence etc. Some of them did not have the prerequisite three people die to show up on Mr. Fox’s graph. Just the same there were five reported so far. We have had numerous already this year and from what the evidence available to the public points to is a breaking down of emotionally and mentally disturbed people in response to the rhetoric and vile vitriol being slung around by politicians and the media. Politicians and the media don’t seem to care about the damage they are doing using fear tactics to sell their point of view or story. Add to them the small but very vocal group of people who believe the worst in our government and corporations who are quite willing to trumpet their conspiracy theories and simple hate message as loudly as they can on the internet, and you have a pressure cooker tailor made for the people having these breaks now.

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