Mass Shootings by the Real Numbers

posted on August 30, 2018

Is Adam Lankford, the author of a paper claiming that 31 percent of mass public shootings in 171 countries took place in the U.S. between 1966 to 2012, the next Michael A. Bellesiles?

In Arming America, a book published in 2000, Bellesiles used fake research data to make the claim that during the early period of U.S. history, gun ownership was uncommon and that a culture of private gun ownership did not arise until the mid-19th century. When Bellesiles’ research was challenged, he said he lost his papers in a fire. Nevertheless, his research was soon shown to be a fraud. Though Bellesiles’ claim got a tremendous amount of favorable coverage from the mainstream media before he was challenged, his public shaming was so complete he even lost his job as a professor at Emory University.

A new research paper titled “How a Botched Study Fooled the World About the U.S. Share of Mass Public Shootings” by John Lott’s Crime Prevention Research Center could do the same thing to Lankford, who is an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Alabama.

When the Crime Prevention Research Center sifted through the numbers of shootings in the world, it relied on news accounts and police reports to make sure its accounting of incidents showed actual mass shootings. The organization even used linguists to check news accounts in other languages.

“I have never seen academic research that is so completely wrong,” said Lott, after completing his 437-page study of mass shootings all over the world. “I have rarely run into an academic who has refused to answer even the most basic questions. Even when we use coding choices that are most charitable to Lankford, his 31 percent estimate of the U.S.’s share of world mass public shootings is cut by over 95 percent. By our count, the U.S. makes up less than 1.43 percent of the mass public shooters, 2.11 percent of their murders and 2.88 percent of their attacks. All these are much less than the U.S.’s 4.6 percent share of the world population. Attacks in the U.S. are not only less frequent than in other countries, they are also much less deadly on average.”

Lankford, like Bellesiles, received a huge amount of coverage from the mainstream news media mostly treating his research like it was a death blow to gun-rights arguments. These same media outlets didn’t question the research, as it fit neatly into their narrative that America is a wild and deadly place because of having a citizenry with a right to bear arms.

Lott’s paper says, “Lankford claims to have ‘complete’ data on such shooters in 171 countries. However, because he has neither identified the cases, nor their locations, nor even a complete description on how he put the cases together, it is impossible to replicate his findings.”

Normally, researchers make data available for peer review. Lankford didn’t.

“It is particularly important that Lankford share his data because of the extreme difficulty in finding mass shooting cases in remote parts of the world going back to 1966,” said Lott. “Lack of media coverage could easily lead to under-counting of foreign mass shootings, which would falsely lead to the conclusion that the U.S. has such a large share.”

When asked how he did his own research, Lott said, “Other governments simply don’t report crime in as much detail as our government does. Forty-five percent of countries don’t even report the share of murders that are committed with guns. They just report total homicides. Other governments around the world don’t systematically report the number of cases where multiple people were murdered. It isn’t that these cases don’t occur; it is just that they don’t put out annual reports on this information.

“We had to go and look at news stories [for data],” said Lott. “So we used computerized databases of news stories, relied on the University of Maryland GTD reports and hired people who have expertise in different languages (Spanish, French, Russian, Chinese) to read police reports. Yet, despite collecting 1,448 mass public shootings outside the U.S. over 15 years, we are still sure that we have missed many cases.”

Lankford’s study reported that from 1966 to 2012, there were 90 public mass shooters in America and 202 in the rest of world. “We find that Lankford’s data represent a gross undercount of foreign attacks,” said Lott. “Our list contains 1,448 attacks and at least 3,081 shooters outside the United States over just the last 15 years of the period that Lankford examined. We find at least 15 times more mass public shooters than Lankford in less than a third the number of years.”

Lankford’s “research” was cited by the Obama administration as a justification for its preferred gun-control policies. Actually, given the massive U.S. and international media attention Lankford’s work received, it is critical that this issue be balanced with other studies. If, that is, we hope as a nation to make the best policies possible to stop mass shooters.

Lott used the same definition of “mass shooting” as Lankford said he used. It is the same definition that the FBI used for 30 years, up until 2013. To be a “mass shooting,” according to this definition, at least four people must be killed in a public place and the shooting must not be part of a gang fight or some other crime, such as a robbery. 

“Lankford’s unwillingness to provide even the most basic information to other researchers raises real concerns about Lankford’s motives,” said Lott.

In its conclusion Lott’s paper says, “The massive difference in the number of cases that we have discovered and what Lankford claimed points to either extreme sloppiness or possible fraud. His refusal to share his data, his paper and even methodology details, suggests that he may have known that his study contained dramatic flaws. After compiling this data for the 15 years from 1998 through 2012, the last 15 years studied by Lankford, it is clear that he missed an enormous number of cases. We have found almost seven times more cases in 15 years than Lankford claimed to find in 47 years. The United States is well below the average country regarding either the frequency or murder rate from these attacks or their deadliness.”

Lott also said, “Lankford’s claim that higher rates of gun ownership are associated with more mass public shooters completely disappears when this more complete data on mass public shooters is used.”

An academic researcher calling out another like this is unusual, which is why this has the feel of the Bellesiles’ case.

Lott’s research is available for all to see. Maybe a few in the media will, at the very least, demand that Lankford now make his research public for comparison.


Warren Zeiders
Warren Zeiders

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