Mass Shooters by Race and Hispanic Ethnicity: Not Far off from the Population as a Whole

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It's not clear to me how useful it is to identify the racial and ethnic breakdown of mass shooters—but it is pretty clear that it's not useful to misidentify that breakdown. And the suggestion I've seen from various people (one example here) that mass shooters are disproportionately white does seem to be a mistake.

Here, for instance, is the data based on the Mother Jones database of 121 mass shootings from 1982 to 2021 (unlikely, given the source, to be influenced by conservative ideology), compared to the 2000 Census statistics on the population as a whole (on the theory that it should roughly approximate the population average from 1982 to 2021):

Race % of mass shooters % of population
Asian 6.6% 3.6%
Black 17.4% 12.3%
Hispanic 8.3% 12.5%
Native American 2.5% 1.0%
White Non-Hispanic 54.5% 62.6%
Other 4.1% 7.9%
Unspecified/Unclear 6.6%

Of course, there's a lot of fuzziness along the edges. For instance, I calculated the white non-Hispanic percentage of the population in 2000 by subtracting Hispanics from whites, but some Hispanics might be nonwhite. The "other" numbers, which for the census data include people who describe themselves as multiracial, are likely not directly comparable, and in any event it's not clear just how the Mother Jones data draws the line as to who is classified as "other" or unspecified. There's also likely some uncertainty about the race and ethnicity of some of the killers.

And of course much depends on the definition of mass shootings; Mother Jones appears to define it as "a single attack in a public place in which four or more victims were killed." If that is broadened, for instance to shootings with fewer fatalities, the numbers might change (likely with the black percentages increasing, to reflect the higher homicide rates among blacks more generally).

Still, the bottom line seems clear: Non-Hispanic whites don't seem to commit mass shootings at greater than their share of the population. The groups that appear overrepresented are blacks and Asians, but the gaps there are fairly small and may be skewed by just a handful of shootings (given that the denominator is 121, 8 of which were by Asians and 21 by blacks). Of course, I'm not the first to note this; see, e.g., this 2017 Slate article (Daniel Engber), also based on the Mother Jones data.

Naturally, one disproportion is utterly vast: Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming majority of all mass shootings are committed by men (just as males are generally more violent, to my knowledge in all human societies, and for that matter among our cousins the chimpanzees). But for race, the disproportions for this set of mass shootings is minor.

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  1. Every time I see any mass killing tabulation, I am reminded ofthis page. He didn’t like that limit of 4 dead, and decided to investigate mass killers who were stopped before they could reach the critical count of 4, and thus were missing from most statistics. What he found was interesting:

    The average number of people killed in mass shootings when stopped by police is 14.29

    The average number of people killed in a mass shooting when stopped by a civilian is 2.33

    The theory being that when you have to wait for cops to show up, there’s a few minutes to keep on killing, whereas if a civilian on the spot returns fire, the killers usually commit suicide right then, and have either no victims, or at any rate less than four.

    Thus the statistics show a huge bias against civilians who stop mass killers, practically make them invisible.

    He looked at public shootings of strangers: not family, not co-workers or bosses. I have seen no other pages like his, or similar studies, and have no idea how well his facts hold up. But it sounds entirely reasonable.

    1. So what’s the average when the shooter stops on their own?

      1. I’m not sure that would be a particularly useful statistic, considering how rarely public shootings of strangers end this way. I can only think of two offhand (the Charleston Church shooting, and the recent Atlanta Spa shootings, giving an average of 8.5)

    2. It’s a fascinating page because it fundamentally declares that a “mass shooting” doesn’t exist in the presence of the so called “good guy with a gun”. In a few words, you can’t stop a “mass shooting” with a “good guy with a gun” because it almost never escalates to a “mass shooting”. Part of the leftist narrative is that “mass shootings” aren’t stopped by the “good guy with a gun” could easily be countered that the shooting doesn’t become a “mass shooting”. I find that quite interesting.

      1. I have been arguing that for years. Mass shootings are never stopped by civilians because if they succeed, then it was not a mass shooting and if they fail, then it was a mass shooting which they did not stop. Heads they win, tails you lose.

        Further, by forbidding civilian carry, their will be fewer mass shootings that they fail to stop.

  2. It was sad to see the media jump on the Boulder shooting when the pictures suggested it was a white guy. I got a lot of screen grabs from “news” articles suggesting he was a “white supremacist” with an “automatic weapon.” Now, not so much. Funny how news articles won’t even mention his name (when you go on any major news site archives every article about a white shooter prominently features the shooter’s name).

    But that is the “media” for you in 2021. I’m sure “reporters” are just sitting around salivating for the next mass shooting, fingers crossed it was a white guy who posted something pro-Trump on his social media one time.

    1. Not sure what you’re talking about, I see his name in every article I read about it. In fact, it seems that the Boulder shooter has supplanted the Atlanta shooter in coverage ever since it happened.

  3. I’ll go further into the weeds — how do we know that this wasn’t Islamic Terrorism? Can we trust the FBI to tell us the truth when it doesn’t meet their political agenda?

    And what is also unusual here is that this is (I believe) the first instance of a responding police officer being killed. Usually these cowards don’t engage armed police officers (or armed civilians) who can shoot back, this one did. Strange…

    I’m not going to find facts that aren’t there, but this perp does meet the general “Islam is oppressed” model of Islamic terrorism…

  4. Why limit to public places? Is work place violence on a military base (restricted access) then by t considered a mass shooting? Or is it intentionally fuzzy to allow judicious inclusion or exclusion of events?

    Why not have a ratio of victims of mass shootings? Or some mapping of mass shooter race to victim race?

    What are they trying to prove?

  5. The other thing is that mass shootings (like shark attacks) are newsworthy because they are rare. The CDC/NIOSH says that 90-100 Americans die each year from bee stings and scorpion bites which I believe is way more than the mass shooting deaths.

    Back in the ’80s, before airbags, more cops were killed each year in cruiser wrecks than from gunshots. No one ever said that, but it was true (and part of why departments started instituting high speed pursuit policies).

    This is an interesting website, and while I can’t vouch for their statistics, they look about right. https://gunsources.com/mass-shooting-statistics-list/ A *lot* of Americans die each year — very, VERY few from mass shootings.

    1. It’s like plane crashes — horriffic, but rare and statiatically inconsequential.

      Any first year sophist can jump in with the automatic rhetoric, “Tell that to the victims!”

    2. The other thing about mass shootings, is that a fair fraction of them are copycat crimes. Extensive coverage of one mass shooting usually triggers a spate of them.

      From the media’s perspective, this is actually a plus: Covering the news gives them more news to cover!

  6. Prof. Volokh,

    Did you run the “race” definitions by Prof. Bernstein?

    It seems like he has a thing about these.

    1. I think a lot of David’s criticisms of various race definitions make perfect sense, especially when it comes to analyze race- and ethnicity-based preference systems in education, employment, contracting, and the like.

      But you go to blogging with the statistics you have, not the statistics you wish you had; and if you’re going to do statistical analysis based on race and ethnicity, you have to accept a good deal of vagueness and uncertainty.

  7. Do the nuances of chimpanzee violence explain the improbably male, strikingly White roster of participants selected by a movement conservative blog with an academic veneer? Is it useful — for this blog’s management or for anyone else — to consider why this blog is so White and so male?

    1. I would guess it’s “so white”, because it reflects the fact that academia, in a predominantly white country, is also predominantly white.

      1. Bad guess. If you’re trying to help the management of the Volokh Conspiracy, you are failing.

    2. Maybe now that Janice Rogers Brown has retired from the bench, she can contribute a few blog posts.

    3. Do the nuances of chimpanzee violence

      I see no reason to drag your family into this.

  8. The recent shootings of Asians earned me a couple anguished emails from schools about how awful white men are, I mean how we need to stand with the Asian community in this time of fear. Meanwhile the Asians I know didn’t even mention the incident. They don’t work in massage parlors. The shootings of unspecified (at the time) race in Colorado generated no email because school officials couldn’t figure out how to spin the story without being able to classify the shooter and victims.

    I have been reading this week about male competition in rodents. You find male aggression far beyond the primates, and even the mammals, and it seems to me much more common in the animal kingdom than female aggression. Though I haven’t read the chapter on female competition in rodents yet. And I think in today’s gender-neutral or fluid society it is fashionable to blame society rather than genetics for male differences.

  9. There are no racial differences in mental illness. An Eskimo paranoid is the same as a Pygmy paranoid. Pygmies live in huts in villages. Their mentally ill people live in trees outside the village. They are homeless, a lifestyle preference. Unlike Americans, Pygmies have family loyalty and are willing to care for their mentally ill relatives. Homelessness is the preference of the person. Attempts to end homelessness are naïve about the internal obstacles.

    About 10% of murders around the world are committed by paranoid people. That is 80000, and 1500 in the US. Paranoid people are high functioning. They have a problem with their false beliefs about being threatened. There is no arguing, The beliefs are fixed. Only medication can slowly change them.

    The Supreme Court decision ending involuntary treatment based on medical necessity, and requiring a dangerous act is 100% the cause of most of these highly preventable mass shootings. Most showed signs of serious mental illness for years. See the Wikipedia article on Cho, the Virginia Tech rampage murderer. See his video on YouTube. If you like rampage killings, thank the stupidest people in the country, the Supreme Court. These know nothing, Ivy indoctrinated, big government, rent seeking, dumbass lawyers set national policy about a difficult technical matter. They listened to other lawyers, not to doctors, nor to the families. Families are the most frequent victims of paranoid people, because of proximity.

    Terrorists are screened and mentally normal. They are enemy combatants.

    Brief review:

    https://www.treatmentadvocacycenter.org/key-issues/violence/3626-serious-mental-illness-and-mass-homicide

  10. The lawyers here brought up primate aggression. It is the number one function of the rule of law to control it. Yet, this failed profession allows 5 million violent crimes a year, and 15000 murders. These have surged under Democrat jurisdiction.

    I have surveyed other profession to take over control of crime in the nation. It was a unanimous no. The lawyer is stuck with this function. You are going to have to improve your practice. This is a hard multi-factorial subject, why not ask for help from people who know more.

    One technical saving grace is the opiate overdose crisis. The deceased have a low recidivism rate. It will be killing the entire violent birth cohort soon, for you lawyers. It will make you look good. But you still stink at what you are supposed to do.

  11. Mass shootings are defined by the FBI as an incident where three or more people are shot. Surprisingly, Mother Jones left out data that would contradict their narrative. Just do a cursory search, you’ll find plenty of mass shootings not included in their data.

    1. It’s a pretty useless statistic. Two rival gangs have a shootout and it’s a mass shooting. It’s also not what people think of.

  12. The Mother Jones database is not good source for accurate assessment of race breakdown of shooters. It purposefully removes gang and other “normal” criminal activity inspired mass shootings, removes cases based on IPV despite many mass shootings starting with IPV-based single target but shooter also hurts the target’s coworkers, relatives, etc,, removes mass shootings that start in private but the go public, excludes multiple shooters, etc. Note MJ then breaks it rules to included some high profile shootings that violate these restrictions like the Columbine H.S. shootings with 2 shooters. These exceptions are not well explained but might be because these fit the narrative that MJ’s database rules are designed to push. You end up with very different conclusion than EV if you use a broader definition of mass shooting sure as simple “more than X (usually more than 3 or 4) victims shot in short period of time.”

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