The Volokh Conspiracy

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


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 disproportion for this set of mass shootings is minor.