June 19, 2015 — On June 17, nine people were killed when Dylann Roof allegedly opened fire in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center and Harvard Youth Violence Prevention Center, weighed in on the topic of gun violence and mass shootings.
Are mass shootings becoming more common in the U.S.?
Most shootings of four or more people are usually in homes and other private settings, and are related to family violence. These do not seem to have been increasing. But mass public shootings have become more common. These shootings, in more public places and often of strangers, have been increasing over the past five years.
How does the U.S. compare with the rest of the world?
I compare us to our peer countries, the other high-income countries. The U.S. is average in terms of non-gun violence and non-gun crime. But we have many more guns, and much weaker gun laws, and thus far more gun deaths (e.g., gun homicides and overall homicides) than other developed nations. Not surprisingly, we also have many more mass shootings per capita.
What explains the increase in mass shootings in this country? Have we made any progress in preventing such tragedies?
I don’t know if anyone knows why mass shootings have increased in the U.S. Some of the increase may be copycat killings due to the massive news coverage of both the shootings and the shooter.
We don’t seem to be making much progress on mass shootings. Other developed countries have responded to their mass shootings by tightening up their gun laws. Australia, for example, reportedly had 13 gun massacres in the 18 years before the Port Authur tragedy in 1996. The government’s response to that tragedy was a massive mandatory buyback program of semi-automatic long-guns and a tightening of their gun laws. In the 18 years since Australia has not reported a single mass shooting. In the U.S., recent mass shootings have led states with relatively strong gun laws to strengthen them, but in states with weak laws, the laws have been weakened even further. At the federal level, there has been no progress in strengthening our very weak (by international standards) gun laws.