The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent


Race and Mass Shootings


I often urge my students to always read, quote, and cite original sources, rather than relying even on seemingly trustworthy intermediate sources (such as law review articles or court opinions). Not everyone has the luxury of time needed to do that, I realize. But if you can do it, you should.

I was reminded of this when I saw this passage from one of the top law journals in the country (emphasis added):

2. Disparate Rates of Crime Commission?

The second possible explanation for racial disparity in past-arrest rates is a difference in the underlying incidence of crime. This possibility arises because crime is the product of complex social and economic determinants that, in a race-and class-stratified society, may also correlate with demographic traits. Where that is so, the incidence of a given type of crime may vary among demographic groups. A number of recent studies have found, for instance, that contemporary white and Hispanic college students use illicit drugs at significantly higher rates than African American and Asian students. White men have committed the vast majority of mass shootings in the United States during the last thirty years. [Footnote: Number of Mass Shootings in the United States between 1982 and November 2018, by Shooter's Race and Ethnicity, STATISTA, [].]

But when one goes to the source, one sees that it reports 107 mass shootings, for 103 of which the shooter's race was indicated. But of those 103, 60 were white: 58%, hardly a "vast majority." And if there is a "disparate rate[] of crime commission" here, it shows that non-Hispanic white shooters were underrepresented, though not by much: Non-Hispanic whites were roughly 70% of the population at large at the midpoint of the date range (2000). (Men, of course, were vastly overrepresented, as they are for basically all violent crimes, but white men were not, compared to men of other groups.) See this post for more.

I'm pretty sure this was an honest mistake, both by the author and the cite-checkers. Perhaps it might have been influenced in some measure by ideological blind-spots, of the sort to which all of us are vulnerable; but such mistakes happen to everyone (doubtless including me, in some of my articles).

That, though, is the point: Even seemingly credible sources, such as a serious scholar in a serious academic journal, make errors. If you're writing on the subject and relying on the source, don't let their errors become your errors: Read, quote, and check the original source, going as far back in the chain of citations as is feasible.