Why Are Mass Shootings Increasing Even While Gun Violence is Decreasing?

The massacre in the Washington Navy Yard on Monday that resulted in the death of 13 people, including shooter Aaron Alexis, was another tragic incident in a long list of similar attacks. It has been called the deadliest mass shooting in the U.S. since the tragic incident Sandy Hook Elementary School last December. 

And yet, despite recent high-profile cases of mass, indiscriminate murder at gunpoint, instances of gun violence have actually shown a dramatic decline. While horrific, violent mass shootings have been covered extensively by the media, broader instances of gun violence have gone down by a whopping 49% since a peak in 1993.  

This is only part of the picture. In the context of the decline in gun violence, the hysteria-inducing, horrifying type that occurred on Monday appears to be on the rise. The definition of the term "mass shooting" has been contested as some use the term "rampage" or "spree" killing, while others exclude family-related incidents. A mass shooting is when a shooter has indiscriminately fired on individuals in an isolated building or public area. These have become all too common. Of the 12 deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history, seven have taken place since 2007, according to counts made by the Washington Post. At this rate, this decade is becoming one of the deadliest in history.

A series of infographics published in the Boston Globe illustrates just how widespread mass shootings have become in the country in recent years. Often perpetrated by young and middle-aged men, many of whom have been diagnosed with or are suspected to have some sort of mental health issue, mass shooters have indiscriminately killed approximately 214 innocent people in America since 2007.

Locations of Mass Shootings in the U.S. since 1998

(via Boston Globe)

(via Boston Globe)

Mass shootings are nothing new in America. In 1949, more than 50 years ago, shooter Howard Unruh indiscriminately killed 13 people (including three children) in the streets of Camden, N.J. in an incident known as the "Walk of Death."

Mass shootings are also not unique to the United States. Horrific, bloody killings like these have tainted modern global history. A Norwegian killer topped the list when he posed as a police man and massacred more than 80 people at a youth camp in July 2011, which is the biggest mass shooting episode in modern history to date. When the U.S. mourned the loss of 13 innocent victims in the November 2009 Fort Hood shooting, mass shootings also occurred at a German school and in the British countryside

Adding Monday's horrific episode at Washington D.C.'s Navy Yard to the list indicates that these instances have been particularly bloody, and frequent, in America since 2007. 

(via Mother Jones)

The hope is that recent mass shootings are isolated, tragic acts that do not portent broader trends in America. A particularly bloody few years resulting from indiscriminate gun attacks may not necessarily indicate an overall rise in such incidences. In fact, a sharp decline occurred since the bloody attack in Columbine High School that killed 12.  

But the recent figures are not good. 2012 was a particularly devastating year, marked by shootings sprees in Newtown, Conn., Aurora, Colo., among others. Monday's shooting at the Navy Yard adds to a list of tragic cases that have already killed dozens this year. 2013 is poised to be yet another chart-topping year.

Frequent, bloody episodes plaguing this decade remind us that we need to better understand these horrific acts in order to ensure we do not enter a new era defined by them. The nation can (and surely will), usher in 2014 hotly debating the merits and drawbacks of possible policy responses aimed at preventing future mass shootings. The gun control debate is not pretty as it often results in few feasible policy options. The issue deserves a thoughtful, holistic response that addresses a range of difficult questions, not only about gun policy but also about related issues like building security and mental health. While the issues are exceedingly difficult to address, in light of a particularly tragic and numerous cases of mass shootings in recent years, it is crucial to gain a better understanding of where, when, and why individuals resort to this particular type of violence.