Rampage Killing Facts and Fantasies
by Dr. John Lott, Jr., Yale University Law School 

(from the Washington Times, April 26, 2000)

The media has a natural inclination to report only dramatic events, preferably with a dead body, while ignoring potentially tragic events that are avoided. This has created a bad image of gun ownership, for the defensive use of guns, such as preventing murder or theft, is just not newsworthy.

Lately, however, these fears have been further reinforced by an unusual amount of false or misleading statistics from sources like the Clinton administration. The press simply has not been critical enough in questioning the numbers they are given. However, in a recent case, the press itself now is the source of fraudulent statistics.  

In a major 20,000-word series of articles this month on "rampage killings," the New York Times declared its own research "confirmed the public perception that they appear to be increasing." Indeed, the Times reported that exactly 100 such attacks took place during the 50 years from 1949 to 1999, with more than half (51) during the five years from 1995 to 1999. With such an apparently huge increase, they concluded: "the nation needs tighter gun laws for everyone." Since I have extensively researched mass shootings (together with Professor Bill Landes at the University of Chicago), it was immediately obvious that the Times had simply left out most cases prior to 1995.

The omissions were major: For instance, the Times claims that from 1977 to 1995 there was an annual average of only 2.6 attacks where at least one person was killed in a public multiple victim attack (not including robberies or political killings). Yet, our own research uncovered more than 6 times as many cases-an average of 17 per year. It is only by consistently counting recent cases and ignoring most old ones that the Times was able to show that mass killings have been on the increase. Contrary to their figures, there is no upward national trend at least since the mid-1970s. The data show lots of ups and downs, but with no generally rising or falling pattern.

When questioned over the telephone, Ford Fessenden (a database reporter at the Times and the author of the first article in the series) admitted the Times staff had concentrated on mainly getting the cases for recent years and that for the early years they only got the "easily obtainable" cases. One hundred simply seemed like a convenient stopping place. When he asked how long it had taken us to conduct our study, I told him "a couple of thousand hours." His reaction was there was "no way" the Times could have devoted that much time to the project. Mr. Fessenden also acknowledged he was familiar with our research and that the article may have given the false impression the Times staff was the first to compile this type of data.

The Times' claim that attacks increased in the late 1980s and coincided with the time the "production of semiautomatic pistols overtook the production of revolvers" is wrong, for there was no such increase in the late 1980s. In fact, the opposite was occurring. The number of public shootings per 10 million people fell from 1 in 1985 to .9 in 1990 to .5 in 1995. The Times' assertion about pistols makes as much sense as blaming the Brady Law for supposed increase in "rampage killings" during the mid-1990s.

Should "tighter gun laws" be required, as asserted by the New York Times? The Times staff conclusion reflects its dismay over the supposed increase in deaths, which they found averaged 33 per year between 1995 and 1999. Unfortunately, they simply assume tighter gun laws would save lives. However, existing research indicates murder and other crime rates tend to rise with the reforms being advocated.

The proposed rules are particularly useless at stopping these "rampage killings." My research with Mr. Landes examined a range of different policies, including sentencing laws and gun laws (such as waiting periods, background checks, and one-gun-a-month restrictions), to see what might deter these killings. While higher arrest and conviction rates, longer prison sentences, and the death penalty reduce murders generally, neither these measures nor restrictive gun laws had a discernible impact on mass public shootings. We found only one policy that effectively reduces these attacks: the passage of right-to-carry laws. But the Times does not even mention this measure.

Giving law-abiding adults the right to carry concealed handguns had a dramatic impact. Thirty-one states now provide such a right under law. When states passed right-to-carry laws, the number of multiple-victim public shootings plummeted below one-fifth, with an even greater decline in deaths. To the extent attacks still occur in states after enactment of these laws, such shootings tend to occur in those areas in which concealed handguns are forbidden. The drop in attacks in states adopting right-to-carry laws has been offset by increases in states without these laws.

The New York Times blatantly manipulated its numbers in order to claim a dramatic increase in "rampage killings" and promote a gun-control agenda. There also were other biases in their numbers. Too bad the real world doesn't work the way the Times reporters think it should. That is what real research helps us discover. 

(John Lott Jr. is a senior research scholar at the Yale University Law
School. The second edition of his book "More Guns, Less Crime:
Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws" will be published in June.)