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Why the U.S. Has 31% of the World's Mass Shootings

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Part of it has to do with gun laws, but maybe it's because we're American

The U.S. is home to 5% of the world’s population, but has had 31% of the public mass shootings worldwide between 1966 and 2012, according to a new study presented at the American Sociological Association meeting. “That is not a coincidence,” says study author Adam Lankford, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Alabama, who believes his new study on the topic is the first to confirm that there’s something strongly American about public mass shootings. A lot of that, he’s found, has to do with gun ownership.

Lankford quantitatively analyzed various reports, from the New York Police Department’s 2012 active shooter report, the FBI’s 2014 active shooter report, and international sources including the United Nations and the World Health Organization. He focused on public mass shootings, defined as those that took place in a confined, populated space and resulted in the deaths of at least four people.

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Lankford found a strong correlation between gun ownership in America and violence. The U.S. ranks first in gun ownership in the world, with surveys suggesting the rate to be 88.8 firearms for every 100 people in America, or 270 million total firearms within borders. (At a distant second is Yemen, with 54.8 firearms per 100 people; the numbers tumble after that.) There have been 292 public mass shooters who have killed a minimum of four people between 1966 and 2012. And when you narrow shootings down to just those that occur at school and work, American incidences account for 62% of global cases.

Lankford wanted to understand why Americans were so much more likely to be public mass shooters. His findings suggest a theory that points to two quintessentially American factors: gun culture and exceptionalism.

Being American, for a large swath of people, can be traced to the Second Amendment’s guarantee of a right to bear arms; 65% of Americans believe it is their right to own firearms.

But an even more significant contributor may be the very reason some experts think the U.S. has been so successful: its strong sense of exceptionalism and individualistic culture, something that American kids are taught from an early age.

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“There is this notion that in general, America is exceptional in a variety of ways in terms of our history: the degree to which we fought for independence, being the first and most successful country of our kind,” Lankford says. “If you teach your kids, ‘You can accomplish anything you want if you put your mind to it,’ it might be setting them up to fail.”

Achieving a sense of fame and success isn’t always a good thing. The idea of fame is a repeating motif in public shooters’ confessions and manifestos, Lankford says. “The media gives these attackers what they want, and they want fame.”

Globalization, too, has a role to play. Consider the dominance of Hollywood and entertainment in the lives of young people worldwide, which is largely American and often violent. “We’re exporting mass shootings as well, and attackers around the world are copying what’s happening here,” he says.

Lankford acknowledges there’s still a lot we don’t know about gun violence. The analysis he ran excluded other gun crimes, like homicides involving three or fewer people, and suicides. Domestic violence and gang violence often fuel these shootings and they remain largely misunderstood, though most experts agree firearm ownership is a big contributor to these crimes.

There’s a silver lining, however. Because the U.S. has a preponderance of public mass shootings, the country is more prepared than any other to deal with them, Lankford says. He points to Columbine and Sandy Hook as events that shaped enforcement procedure. “When Columbine happened, it took three hours to respond, in part because we didn’t know how to respond,” he says. “Do you prioritize helping people flee? Do you secure the perimeter? Do you go in and disable the active shooter? We now know you have to make sure the active shooter no longer is active,” he says. “At least we know how to deal with this.”

Family members gather around Albert Vaughn’s coffin to say goodbye. “Lil Al” was beaten to death with a baseball bat by Nathaniel Tucker. The conflict began when Vaughn, 18, confronted Tucker’s cousin, who had gotten into an argument with Vaughn’s younger brother. Englewood, Chicago, 2008. Carlos Javier Ortiz
In Memory of Nugget. Seven years after the death of Siretha White, her family celebrates her birthday. She would have been 18 years old that March. Siretha’s family never got to cut the cake at her 11th birthday party, the day she was killed. Englewood, Chicago, 2013. Side caption: Siretha White’s cake, on what would have been her 18th birthday. Carlos Javier Ortiz
The Bud Billiken parade, the oldest African-American parade in the country, kicks off the new school year and celebrates black life in Chicago. Washington Park, Chicago, 2013. Carlos Javier Ortiz
Alex Arellano, 15, was shot and burned after being hit with bats and then struck by a car that was chasing him. Gage Park, Chicago, 2009. Side caption: Burn marks in the gangway where 15-year-old Alex Arellano was murdered. Carlos Javier Ortiz
Girls in the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side attend a block party to celebrate the lives of Starkeisha Reed, 14, and Siretha White, 10. Starkeisha and Siretha were killed days apart in March 2006. The girls’ mothers were friends, and both grew up on Honore Street, where the celebration took place. Englewood, Chicago, 2008. Carlos Javier Ortiz
A view of the historic Oak Woods Cemetery on Chicago’s South Side. Oak Woods Cemetery is the final resting place of many of the young people who are victims of violence in Chicago. Joseph Briggs was one of eight people killed in a weekend of shootings that left more than 40 people wounded. Briggs, who turned 16 in April 2012, was shot in the head during a drive-by shooting while he was sitting on his front porch. Greater Grand Crossing, Chicago, 2012. Carlos Javier Ortiz
The mother of Fakhur Uddin, a 20-year old college student who was bound with duct tape and shot in the back of the head inside his family’s Philadelphia store, collapses to the ground and weeps as police investigate the scene. Germantown, Philadelphia, 2008. Carlos Javier Ortiz
Angry community members, business owners and church pastors marched through Chicago’s South Side to protest the overwhelming numbers of murders that took place in October of that year. Greater Grand Crossing, Chicago, 2009. Carlos Javier Ortiz
Rapper Young DBoy Low and his friends shoot a video with the help of Project Spitfire, a nonprofit that uses music to help young people break free of the vicious cycle of gangs, drugs and violence. The group pairs young musicians with professional producers who help them record songs and videos. Bronzeville, Chicago, 2011. Side caption: Rapper Young DBoy Low shoots a video with Project Spitfire, a non-profit that uses music to help young people break the cycle of violence. Gun imagery permeates the imagination on a video shoot. Carlos Javier Ortiz
Boys play in an empty lot where homes once stood. Today, all that remains are trees and broken glass surrounded by abandoned homes. Englewood, Chicago, 2007. Carlos Javier Ortiz
Kids jump off a trampoline during a block party. Auburn Gresham, Chicago, 2013. Carlos Javier Ortiz
Arthur Burgess, 19, of the 500 block of East 32nd Street, was shot on a cold winter night and died at the scene. His friend was shot twice but survived. Englewood, Chicago, 2009. Carlos Javier Ortiz
Albert Vaughn was the neighborhood guardian, the older teenager who would play ball with the younger kids and try to keep them safe from trouble. About 50 of his friends and family members gathered to remember “Lil Al” on the block where he was killed. Englewood, Chicago, 2008. Carlos Javier Ortiz
Members of St. Sabina Church in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood pray to end violence in Chicago. More than 40 young people have been murdered in the neighborhood since 2006. Auburn Gresham, Chicago, 2013. Carlos Javier Ortiz
Chicago’s lakefront is a frequent hang-out for youth during the summer months, but many young people have never been outside of their neighborhoods, let alone to the beaches along the lake. Near South Side, Chicago, 2006. Carlos Javier Ortiz
Victims of violence are often memorialized with T-shirts made by their friends and relatives. This is a photograph of a victim for use in his memorial T-shirt. Lawndale, Chicago, 2008. Carlos Javier Ortiz
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