What Explains U.S. Mass Shootings? International Comparisons Suggest an Answer

The New York Times |Source: Adam Lankford, The University of Alabama (shooters); Small Arms Survey (guns). Note: Includes countries with more than 10 million people and at least one mass public shooting with four or more victims.

When the world looks at the United States, it sees a land of exceptions: a time-tested if noisy democracy, a crusader in foreign policy, an exporter of beloved music and film.

But there is one quirk that consistently puzzles America’s fans and critics alike. Why, they ask, does it experience so many mass shootings?

Perhaps, some speculate, it is because American society is unusually violent. Or its racial divisions have frayed the bonds of society. Or its citizens lack proper mental care under a health care system that draws frequent derision abroad.

These explanations share one thing in common: Though seemingly sensible, all have been debunked by research on shootings elsewhere in the world. Instead, an ever-growing body of research consistently reaches the same conclusion.

The only variable that can explain the high rate of mass shootings in America is its astronomical number of guns.

Photo

Outside the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Tex., after a mass shooting on Sunday. Credit Callie Richmond for The New York Times

A Look at the Numbers

The top-line numbers suggest a correlation that, on further investigation, grows only clearer.

Americans make up about 4.4 percent of the global population but own 42 percent of the world’s guns. From 1966 to 2012, 31 percent of the gunmen in mass shootings worldwide were American, according to a 2015 study by Adam Lankford, a professor at the University of Alabama.

Adjusted for population, only Yemen has a higher rate of mass shootings among countries with more than 10 million people — a distinction Mr. Lankford urged to avoid outliers. Yemen has the world’s second-highest rate of gun

ownership after the United States.

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