The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
This morning in Paris (!), President Obama said at a news conference, "I mean, I say this every time we've got one of these mass shootings; this just doesn't happen in other countries." Is his statement true?
In one sense, the answer would be "yes." President Obama's statement was in the form of: "Every time X happens, I say Y." As a historic self-description of Obama's own rhetoric, Obama's statement is mostly true, but only in recent years. When President Obama was running for national office in 2007 through November 2012, he never used mass shootings to compare the United States unfavorably with other countries. Nor did he use mass murders as an occasion to make political demands for gun control. This was his rhetorical approach from the Virginia Tech murders in April 2007, through the Aurora theater murders in July 2012.
However, as President Obama explained to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in March 2012, "After my election I have more flexibility." This was an accurate prediction, and not just about foreign relations. After winning reelection in November 2012, President Obama in December 2012 used the Newtown, Conn., murders as the basis to make gun control the primary focus of his political efforts through April 2013. He has promised that gun control will be his top priority during his final year in office. When commenting on mass murders in the United States, President Obama has repeatedly claimed that such crimes do not occur in other countries.
Thus, the President's Dec. 1 statement is mostly accurate as a self-description of what he frequently says, at least from December 2012 onward.
Is the president's statement about "other countries" accurate? No. For example, on Nov. 20, 2015, mass shooters attacked a hotel in Mali, murdering at least 19 people.
Although President Obama has relatives in Kenya, his statement suggests a lack of awareness of events there. On April 2, 2015, criminals murdered 142 students at the University College Campus of Garissa, in northeastern Kenya. Among the other mass shootings in Kenya in recent years are those as Lamu (29 murdered, July 5-6, 2014), Mpeketoni (53 murdered, June 15-17, 2014), Majembeni and Poromoko (15 murdered, two days after Mpekoni) and the Westgate Mall in Nairobi (67 murdered, Sept. 21, 2013). Kenya, by the way, has extremely strict laws against the possession or carrying of firearms, as well as bows, as I detailed in a Quinnipiac Law Review article with Joanne Eisen and the late Paul Gallant.
On Saturday, Boko Haram attackers murdered four people in Nigeria, and four more in Niger. Last weekend, four Egyptian policemen were murdered in a drive-by shooting. As reported by CBS News the day before Thanksgiving, "Two massacres that killed 15 people in less than 12 hours rocked Honduras and left the country's top cop in tears on Wednesday."
Perhaps President Obama does not know about the above events or believes that for some reason that mass shootings in Africa, Asia or Latin America don't "count." This is a surprising perspective for someone who, in his autobiography, claims to have closely studied the works of radical anti-colonialist "Franz [sic] Fanon" and to have spent much time discussing "Eurocentrism" with his Columbia University friends.
Suppose we accept the president's implicit premise that "other countries" includes only the most-developed countries of the West. With this limitation, what is the accuracy of his statement that "these mass shootings; this just doesn't happen in other countries"? Plainly false, especially considering that the president was speaking in Paris, the site of multiple mass shootings on Nov. 13 and of the Charlie Hebdo mass shootings in January.
More generally, an October article in the Wall Street Journal looked at mass shootings in 14 countries from 2000 through 2014. The article reported the research of professors Jaclyn Schildkraut (State University of New York Oswego) and H. Jaymi Elsass (Texas State University). They are co-authors of the forthcoming book "Mass Shootings: Media, Myths, and Realities," to be published in 2016 by Praeger. All of the countries had one or more mass shootings in this period, but the United States had by far the most. In terms of per capita fatalities, the United States was fourth, after Norway, Finland and Switzerland. Another article, at the Independent Journal website, provides a "Rampage Shooting Index" for 10 countries, covering 2009-2013. Again, the United States is first in total number of incidents, and sixth in per capita fatalities. (Behind Israel and Slovakia, as well as the previously mentioned nations). Updating the index to account for 2015 would put France ahead of the United States. (French data are reported in the I.J. article, but not the Wall Street Journal article.)
According to the Wall Street Journal article, Schildkraut and Elsass identified only two mass shootings in Mexico in 2000 through 2014. This seems inconsistent with the facts on the ground, such as the Nov. 10 Associated Press article "Third mass shooting in 3 days kills 6 people in southern Mexico." I doubt that Professors Schildkraut and Elsass are unaware of the situation in Mexico; their database may exclude killings perpetrated by gangsters. They have stated that their database excludes terrorist attacks, but this exclusion causes problems of its own. According to the U.S. Code, "terrorism" means violent criminals acts which "Appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping." 18 U.S.C. § 2331. By this definition, the Columbine High School murders were certainly terrorism, and the recent attack on Planned Parenthood may be as well. So are many other notorious mass shootings in the United States and elsewhere. Regardless of definitional boundaries, the broader point of the Schildkraut and Elass research is consistent with all the other data: The United States has more mass shootings than other most-developed nations, and a lower per capita fatality rate than at least several of them.
It would be interesting if the data were expanded to fully account for mass shootings in nations such as Mexico, Brazil, South Africa and Nigeria, where the homicide rate is far higher than in the United States. If we say that having an economy as "developed" as a member of the Organization for Economic Co‑operation and Development is what constitutes a "developed" country, then the U.S. gun homicide rate is about in the middle for "developed" countries.
As President Obama pointed out today, he has repeatedly made the same claim about "other countries" and mass shootings. When he did so last June, Politifact examined the issue, including the research of Professors Schildkraut and Elsass. Politifact rated the Obama claim "Mostly False." Yet he continues to make the claim, speaking in a city with repressive gun control and which only 18 days ago suffered a horrific series of mass shootings. President Obama's second book touted his "audacity," and the president's remarks today demonstrated chutzpah.