Seven times this year, a gunman has opened fire in a U.S. public place, killing at least three people. One shooter is suspected of being a white supremacist. One was an Elizabeth Warren supporter. And two were black.
Yet fears over rising white nationalist attacks after the El Paso massacre threaten to obscure what studies describe as the big picture about mass killings: that they represent a small fraction of annual gun deaths, that they are not surging, and that about half are committed by whites, not a share out of line with the general U.S. populace.
A May 2018 policy brief by the Rockefeller Institute of Government at the State University of New York, which looked at any incident that resulted in deaths or injuries and excluded gang violence or terrorist activity, found that the perception that whites are responsible for nearly all mass shootings is a myth.
“Despite common misperceptions that all mass shooters are white, the findings indicate that while a majority are, this proportion is just over half of the perpetrators (53.9 percent),” said the study, noting that almost all were men. “More than one in four shooters is black and nearly one in ten is of Hispanic descent.”
Amy Swearer, senior legal policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, said about two-thirds of shooters are found to have serious mental problems but that the media coverage has focused on those with an ideological bent such as racism or nativism.
“The media attention that they get is disproportionate to really even the percentage they account for in terms of mass public shootings, and then mass public shootings in general get a disproportionate amount of coverage in terms of what they account for in number of deaths,” Ms. Swearer said.
That’s not to say white nationalism isn’t an issue, she said: “There have been quite a number of high-profile incidents, whether completed or thwarted, in the last couple of years by individuals with a white nationalist bent that are very concerning.”
The discovery of a manifesto that authorities believe is linked to the man accused of the El Paso attack describes a desire to counter the “Hispanic invasion of Texas.” The language fueled a liberal outcry against President Trump, who was accused of fomenting white nationalist sentiment with his calls for border security.
“We need to call out white nationalism for what it is — domestic terrorism,” Ms. Warren tweeted. “It is a threat to the United States, and we’ve seen its devastating toll this weekend. And we need to call out the president himself for advancing racism and white supremacy.”
The FBI has reported 850 domestic terrorism investigations, 40% of which involve racially motivated violent extremism, and most of those involve white supremacists, according to The Wall Street Journal.
The El Paso shooting followed the January massacre at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, the October attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue, and the April shooting at a San Diego synagogue by attackers professing white nationalist beliefs.
Sen. Cory A. Booker of New Jersey, one of Ms. Warren’s rivals for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, said on CNN: Mr. Trump “is responsible because he is stoking fears and hatred and bigotry.”
At the same time, the uproar over white nationalism has shifted the focus from what some researchers describe as the biggest drivers of mass shootings, including family breakdown, childhood trauma, mental illness, workplace crises, access to weapons and a fascination with previous shooters glorified in the media.
Warren Farrell, author of “The Boy Crisis,” said boys with minimal or no father involvement, or with “really messed-up families,” represent the vast majority of mass shooters, Islamic State recruits and the male prison population.
The Rockefeller study found that 96% of shooters were male, which is in keeping with other research.
“Boys without a sense of purpose start searching for other senses of purpose, and that may be in the form of God, and then it’s constructive usually, or that may be in the form of, ‘I want Americans to be America and I don’t want any immigrants to come into the country,’” Mr. Farrell said.
The Mother Jones mass shooting database, which defines such shootings at those resulting in three or more deaths, listed seven episodes so far this year, including the El Paso massacre, which left 22 dead.
Less than a day later, a gunman opened fire in an entertainment district in Dayton, Ohio, killing nine before he was slain by police. The shooter, who was white, called himself a pro-Satan “leftist” on social media and said he would vote for Ms. Warren.
Last year, the Mother Jones database listed 12 mass shootings. The suspects or offenders included five whites; five with Hispanic surnames (including accused Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz, who was adopted); one Asian American Army veteran, and one black woman.
In a 2017 report in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Northeastern University researcher Emma E. Fridel broke down mass killers — those who killed at least four people — by race and into three categories: family, felony and public.
She found white offenders committed 49.2% of the public mass killings — those committed in public places — and 47.9% of shootings of relatives or partners, but just 22.3% of the felony shootings, those that involve the commission of another crime. Black offenders committed 50.5% of felony mass killings, and the rest of those were listed as “other/mixed” race.
The vast majority of mass killings fall into the familial category, with public and felony mass killings each making up about 15% of the total, she said.
“People don’t think that their family member is going to kill them. They’re not afraid of their brother or father. They’re afraid of this mysterious person that will shoot up a mall or something like that,” Ms. Fridel said. “In reality, if you are afraid of being a victim of a mass shooting, the first person you should be looking at is your husband or your son.”
Whites made up about 72% of the U.S. population in 2010, according to the Census Bureau, though that number is expected to decline in 2020 and many Hispanics identify as “white” for census purposes.
Researchers have pushed back on reports that mass shootings are on the rise, stoked by headlines based on the Gun Violence Archive stating that there are “more shootings than days in the year,” as USA Today put it.
“We do hear this number that we’ve had more mass shootings than dates. That’s not mass killings, [which are] four or more people shot,” Northeastern professor James Alan Fox said on Fox News.
“Half of the time, no one’s killed,” he said. “Seventy-five percent of the time, at most one victim. I don’t want to say they’re not important; they certainly are. But they’re not mass killings. People get confused.”
Are mass killings on the rise?
“It’s been basically flat, no trend,” Mr. Fox said. “We have seen an uptick in 2017, 2018 and obviously this year. Whether that will continue, I certainly hope not. I wouldn’t conclude that we’re facing this big epidemic.”