Perception Diverges From Reality on Mass School Shootings

Media coverage of such horrific events as the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, can make some people feel that these things happen far more often than they do. Three years ago, on the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, Colorado, The New York Times ran an article noting that public perceptions of school safety are largely at odds with what the data shows .

“The unique horror of mass shootings,” the Times reported, “means they occupy a central place in parental fears and in the nation’s political debate over gun access and school safety, though they remain rare.” Most gun-related deaths – 54% in 2020 – are suicides. Mass shooting victims account for less than 1% of all gun deaths, and there have been 13 mass shootings in schools since 1966. These data points are cold comfort to those mourning the victims of the Uvalde shootings, but they should inform any public order response being considered.

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There are an estimated 400 million guns in circulation in the US, leading gun control advocates to conclude that school shootings are an inevitable consequence of having so many guns around. Correlation is not causation, however, and research has not found a causal relationship between changes in gun ownership rates and changes in the levels of firearm-related school violence. A recent analysis of Rand Corporation’s firearms database by University of Oklahoma’s Daniel Hamlin found significant increases and decreases in gun incidents in schools during periods when gun ownership rates have remained relatively stable.

Gun violence outside of school tells a similar story. Gun ownership rates in rural areas are higher than in urban areas, but our cities tend to be far more violent. Whites are far more likely to own firearms than Blacks or Hispanics, yet gun violence is far more common among the latter two groups. Additionally, advocates of additional gun laws ignore that shootings continue to plague places like Chicago, which already has some of the toughest gun restrictions in the country. How passing more gun laws or taking guns away from law-abiding people will deter criminals is a question they cannot answer.

Gun control advocates in the US like to make selective comparisons with other countries, such as Japan, where both gun ownership and gun crime are lower than in the US. However, lower gun ownership does not necessarily mean lower levels of violent crime. For example, gun ownership rates are significantly higher in Switzerland and Austria than in Germany, although the Swiss and Austrians have lower homicide rates than the Germans. Likewise, Russia and Mexico have stricter gun control laws than we do, as well as higher homicide rates.

In the two decades leading up to the pandemic, legal US gun sales rose while violent crime fell. Covid-19 has undoubtedly helped reverse crime trends, but the pandemic cannot explain everything. Anti-police sentiment had already increased following deadly high-profile encounters between police and black suspects. With the blessing of progressive Democrats and most of the media, activists have sought to reduce police resources and scapegoat law enforcement for social inequality.

Ironically, the same people who are campaigning for additional gun restrictions have worked to undermine the police officers tasked with enforcing new gun laws, and they have commended prosecutors in San Francisco, Philadelphia, New York and elsewhere who vowed repeat offenders not to be prosecuted.

Low-income black people are the most common victims of violent crime in this country. If you lower the quality of policing in their communities, you’re not helping the cause. And gun restrictions that make it harder for law-abiding black people to defend themselves and their families can only make a bad situation worse.

Sensational killings – particularly those occurring during an election year in a deeply divided nation – are bound to be exploited by political partisans. But if policymakers want to do something constructive in response to what happened in Uvalde, they might first make sure they’re not barking up the wrong tree. In a nation with as many firearms as this, where gun ownership is part of our tradition and protected by the Constitution, forced confiscation or voluntary disarmament are neither practical.

Deterrence is the more realistic option. Misbehaving students may be suspended and possibly expelled. Psychiatric services can be improved. Armed security forces may be deployed. No one thinks turning schools into strongholds is ideal, but turning schools into gun-free zones can make them a magnet for mass shooters. When you’re worried about someone shooting back, sometimes you think twice about taking the first shot.

Journal Editor’s Report: Intense political factionalism returns. Images: AFP/Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

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