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Year Sees Most Mass Shootings on Record

Mass shootings continue their assault on America—but little action is taken

Twenty-two killed in El Paso, Texas.Phil Helsel, “Suspected Gunman in El Paso Walmart Shooting Pleads Not Guilty to Attack That Killed 22,” NBC News, October 10, 2019, https://perma.cc/3498-2WW8.[/foonote]Twelve killed in Virginia Beach, Virginia.[footnote]Gary A. Harki, “Virginia Beach Police Correct Mass Shooting Timeline,” Virginian-Pilot, October 22, 2019, https://perma.cc/8QP8-EB3GNine killed in Dayton, Ohio.Alejandro de la Garza and Michael Zennie, “Dayton Shooting Lasted Just 32 Seconds and Left 9 Dead. Here's the Latest on the Tragedy,” Time, August 4, 2019, https://perma.cc/B6CV-PGW7.And hundreds others killed in smaller mass shootings that occurred with regularity throughout 2019.Gun Violence Archive, “Mass Shootings in 2019,” accessed December 30, 2019, https://perma.cc/U26P-2USR.By the end of the year, the gruesome tally was in: the year saw the highest number of mass killings in America on record, with 211 lives lost in 41 incidents—most (33) involving firearms.Lisa Marie Pane, “US Mass Killings Hit New High in 2019, Most Were Shootings,” Associated Press, December 23, 2019, https://perma.cc/SQF9-VLUYThat number comes from a database compiled by the Associated Press, USA Today, and Northeastern University that counts incidents in which four or more people are killed excluding the perpetrator.Ibid.(The Gun Violence Archive, which defines a mass shooting as an incident in which four or more are killed or injured, reported more than 400 killed.)Gun Violence Archive, “Mass Shootings in 2019,” accessed December 30, 2019, https://www.gunviolenceahttps://www.gunviolencearchive.org/past-tolls.Mass killings increased even as the homicide rate in the nation continues to decline.Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), “FBI Releases 2018 Crime Statistics,” press release (Washington, DC: FBI, September 30, 2019), https://perma.cc/Z76Y-B256; and Timothy Williams, “Murder Rate Drops Across U.S., But Not in All Large Cities,” New York Times, September 30, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/30/us/fbi-crime-data.html.

The second-largest mass shooting of 2019 occurred on the last day of May, when a long-time city employee who had resigned just hours earlier opened fire inside his workplace—a municipal building in Virginia Beach.Harki, “Virginia Beach Police Correct,” 2019.Carrying two semi-automatic handguns and extended ammunition magazines, the 40-year-old man killed 11 of his co-workers and a contractor who was at the city offices to get a permit.“Probe Offers No Clear Answers for Virginia Mass Shooting,” Associated Press, November 13, 2019, https://perma.cc/4KYG-NK48.The shooting, which occurred on all three floors of the building, only stopped when police exchanged gunfire with the shooter, killing him.Kate Andrews, Christopher Mele, and John Eligon, “12 Killed in Rampage at Municipal Center in Virginia,” New York Times, May 31, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/31/us/virginia-beach-shooting.html.

Two of the largest mass shootings of the year occurred over one weekend in August. On Saturday, August 3, a 21-year-old man opened fire with an assault rifle at a crowded Walmart in El Paso, Texas, killing 22 and injuring two dozen others ranging in age from two months to 82 years old.Chas Danner, “Everything We Know About the El Paso Walmart Massacre,” New York Magazine, August 7, 2019, https://perma.cc/3VGL-ELPH.Police said the man, who was charged with capital murder, wanted to shoot as many “Mexicans” as possible and had posted a hate-filled screed online just moments before the shooting.Jim Schaefer and Tresa Baldas, “Inside the El Paso Shooting: A Store Manager, a Frantic Father, Grateful Survivors,” El Paso Times, August 10, 2019, https://perma.cc/SN9A-GDCW; Helsel, “Suspected Gunman in El Paso Walmart Shooting,” 2019; and Campbell Robertson, Mitch Smith, and Rick Rojas, “The Aftermath of Shootings in Ohio and Texas,” New York Times, August 5, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/05/us/mass-shootings.html.He pleaded not guilty at an October hearing, although his arrest warrant states that he told police “I’m the shooter” when he turned himself in.Cedar Attanasio, “El Paso Mass Shooting Suspect Pleads Not Guilty in 22 Deaths,” AP News, October 10, 2019, https://perma.cc/WJ65-MUH8.

Then, less than 15 hours later, nine people were killed and more than two dozen injured in Dayton, Ohio, when a man armed with an assault rifle opened fire in a downtown area.Danner, “Everything We Know,” 2019; Campbell Robertson, Julie Bosman, and Mitch Smith, “Back-to-Back Outbreaks of Gun Violence in El Paso and Dayton Stun Country,” New York Times, August 4, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/04/us/mass-shootings-dayton-el-paso.html; and de la Garza and Zennie, “Dayton Shooting Lasted Just 32 Seconds,” 2019.The entire shooting lasted just 32 seconds, ending when police shot and killed the 24-year-old man as he tried to enter a crowded bar to continue his rampage.de la Garza and Zennie, “Dayton Shooting Lasted Just 32 Seconds,” 2019.

In the aftermath, President Donald Trump made formal remarks stating, “In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy.”Robertson, Smith, and Rojas, “The Aftermath of Shootings in Ohio and Texas,” 2019.But he also called for changes to mental health laws, calling the shooters “mentally ill monsters.”William Wan and Lindsey Bever, “Are Video Games or Mental Illness Causing America’s Mass Shootings? No, Research Shows,” Washington Post, August 5, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2019/08/05/is-mental-illness-causing-americas-mass-shootings-no-research-shows/.He proposed the regulation of violent video games and an expansion of the death penalty.Aaron Rupar, “‘Mental Illness and Hatred Pulls the Trigger’: Trump’s Speech About Shootings Ignored the Real Problem,” Vox, August 5, 2019, https://perma.cc/Y8AE-K9LE.But he downplayed the role guns played, saying that “mental illness and hate pull the trigger, not the gun.”Wan and Bever, “Are Video Games or Mental Illness,” 2019.Experts quickly decried the connection to mental illness.Kristen Jordan Shamus, “Trump Said ‘Mental Illness and Hatred Pulls the Trigger’ in Mass Shootings. Experts Beg to Differ,” Detroit Free Press, August 10, 2019, https://perma.cc/W3HP-QT8E.In fact, people with serious mental illnesses commit just 3 percent of all violent crime, and they are far more likely than the general population to be its victims.James L. Knoll and George D. Annas, “Mass Shootings and Mental Illness,” in Gun Violence and Mental Illness, edited by Liza H. Gold and Robert I. Simon (Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 2016), 81-104, 90, https://perma.cc/DB7D-75TQ; and Treatment Advocacy Center, A Background Paper from the Office of Research & Public Affairs: Victimization (Arlington, VA: Treatment Advocacy Center, 2016) (collecting studies), https://perma.cc/8EYP-62LY.

Even so, the Trump administration began considering a controversial proposal to study whether mass shootings could be prevented by using technology like smartphones and smartwatches to monitor people in order to predict violence.William Wan, “White House Weighs Controversial Plan on Mental Illness and Mass Shootings,” Washington Post, September 9, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/white-house-considers-controversial-plan-on-mental-illness-and-mass-shooting/2019/09/09/eb58b6f6-ce72-11e9-87fa-8501a456c003_story.html.The idea alarmed critics, who cited civil liberty concerns and the risk of false positives, but the proposal appeared to be well-received by the White House.Wan, “White House Weighs Controversial Plan,” 2019; and Jacqueline Alemany, “White House Considers New Project Seeking Links Between Mental Health and Violent Behavior,” Washington Post, August 22, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/08/22/white-house-considers-new-project-seeking-links-between-mental-health-violent-behavior/.

There was little movement on addressing federal gun laws, however. Despite continued cries for the government to act—and efforts by Democratic lawmakers to impose more robust background checks and a ban on assault rifles—Congress again failed to make any changes to federal gun legislation in 2019.Deirdre Walsh, “Congress’ Fall To-Do List: Guns, Spending, Drug Prices, Trade, Investigations,” National Public Radio, September 9, 2019, https://perma.cc/F4QB-6YW2.

But elsewhere in America, the shock of the August mass shootings propelled others to say enough is enough. A month after the shooting at its El Paso store, Walmart, which had already stopped selling handguns, decided to quit selling ammunition for handguns and military-style rifles.Letter from Doug McMillon, CEO, Walmart, Inc., to Walmart Associates, “McMillon to Associates: Our Next Steps in Response to the Tragedies in El Paso and Southaven” (Bentonville, AR: Walmart, Inc., September 3, 2019), https://perma.cc/J3YR-FADS.The company asked its customers to refrain from openly carrying guns in its stores and called on Congress to improve background checks and consider an assault rifle ban.Michael Corkery, “Walmart to Limit Ammunition Sales and Discourage ‘Open Carry’ of Guns in Stores,” New York Times, September 3, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/03/business/walmart-guns-ammunition-sales.htmlLater in September, leaders of about 150 companies—including Airbnb, Condé Nast, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Lyft, Postmates, Twitter, Uber, and Yelp—signed a letter calling on the U.S. Senate to pass gun control legislation, saying it is “unacceptable” to do nothing.Nathan Bomey, “150 Business Leaders Call on Congress To Take ‘Common-Sense’ Action On Guns,” USA Today, September 12, 2019, https://perma.cc/5K3J-PB3T.And a string of retailers joined Walmart in asking that customers stop openly carrying firearms in their stores.Mahita Gajanan, “U.S. Stores Are Asking Customers to Stop Openly Carrying Weapons—But Can They Actually Enforce a Restriction on Guns?” Time, September 6, 2019, https://perma.cc/7SBX-74BC.

As the list of mass shootings in America grew longer, people were increasingly worried about themselves or a family member becoming a victim. In a Gallup Poll taken in the wake of the two August shootings, 48 percent of U.S. adults answered that they were very or somewhat worried about this, compared with 39 percent in 2017 and 38 percent in 2015.Megan Brenan, “Nearly Half in U.S. Fear Being the Victim of a Mass Shooting,” Gallup, September 10, 2019, https://perma.cc/C5KJ-ZR5S; Frank Newport, “Four in 10 Americans Fear Being a Victim of a Mass Shooting,” Gallup, October 18, 2017, https://perma.cc/FL6V-99JQ; and Art Swift, “Americans More Worried About Terrorism Than Mass Shootings,” Gallup, December 16, 2015, https://perma.cc/T35H-GVTP.