Mass killings in the U.S. were committed once every two weeks between 2006 and 2010—the last year for which FBI data is available.
Recent mass shootings at schools, theaters, shopping malls and workplaces have revived the gun control debate in America.
A Mother Jones analysis of 62 mass shootings in the U.S. since 1982 found that 2012 was particularly lethal—a finding consistent with other publications.
Together, the Aurora, Colo., movie theater rampage and Sandy Hook Elementary massacre claimed 40 of the 72 fatalities of 2012’s seven mass shootings.
All seven shootings involved semiautomatic handguns and high-capacity magazines that had been purchased legally, and all seven suspects had shown prior signs of mental illness.
Barack Obama is among those who suggest lax gun regulations are partly to blame.
This week, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, will propose a bill renewing the 1994 Federal Assaults Weapons Ban.
The ban, which expired in 2004, prohibited manufacturing assault weapons—any semiautomatic rifle with a bayonet and pistol grip—for sale to private citizens. It also limited magazines to a 10-bullet capacity.
Feinstein said the proposed bill would ban 100 weapons by name and others based on design characteristics. It would also exempt 900 weapons.
Opponents of gun control legislation, led by the National Rifle Association, argue such measures are ineffective and an overreach of government.
The sale and ownership of guns and magazines made prior to the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban were exempted from its provisions, and an estimated 1.5 million assault weapons and 24 million magazines were already in private hands at the time of its passage.
Many have questioned the ban’s effectiveness because of its loopholes and vagueness. Nor did the ban prevent the 1999 Columbine High School massacre that claimed 15 lives, including both shooters.
Guns in schools
Schools account for 12 of the 62 mass shootings during the past 30 years.
In response to gun violence, lockdown policies for active shooters are nearly universal in schools and workplaces.
Some gun rights supporters argue this is the wrong approach. They argue that schoolteachers and college students eligible for concealed carry permits should be allowed to bring concealed weapons to class.
Some argue that lawful citizens who carry concealed weapons deter crime. The NRA and other groups point to instances where criminals have been stopped by armed civilians.
Among them is Students for Concealed Carry, a national organization with organizers listed for nine Missouri colleges, including UMKC.
However, no such student group exists on campus, according to Gina Lichte, student services coordinator for UMKC Student Affairs.
UMKC graduate Patrick Shami said he proposed creating a UMKC SCC group in spring 2011, his senior year.
Shami said the group cleared Student Government Association’s Constitution Committee but failed the SGA General Assembly vote. He declined to comment further.
Firearms are banned on UMKC’s campus in accordance with state, local and University of Missouri System regulations.
Many question whether or not students and teachers would have enough training to handle an armed shooter scenario.
Michael Bongartz, Chief of the UMKC Police Department, is among them.
“I promote that law enforcement should be the only ones who have weapons on campus,” he said. “We receive hundreds of hours of training in the academy on the use of firearms. When you look at concealed carry, it’s minimal training.
“The odds are that they aren’t going to be as accurate or aren’t going to go through as many scenario-based trainings. There’s always the scenario that if the police arrive, that person could be mistaken as a hostile intruder.”
Bongartz said weapons infractions are rare on campus and that they are punishable by criminal charges and university discipline.
“Because of events over the past 10 years, [people know] the severity of the punishment and that it would follow them for the rest of their lives,” he said.
The last two weapons-related arrests on UMKC property were made in 2009 and 2010.
According to Jeff Traiger, Assistant Dean of Students, when weapons are found on campus, the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management appoints a Primary Administrative Officer to collect information from multiple sources.
The PAO then makes a recommendation on how to proceed with sanctions as part of an informal disposition. This could lead to a meeting with the Student Conduct Committee, which would decide any penalty.
Legal questions, enforcement problems persist
Allen Rostron, a Constitutional law professor at UMKC, said the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller decision affirmed that individual gun ownership is protected by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Rostron said the ruling protects the right to bear “arms that are in common use among the people,” a standard left open for interpretation.
He noted that Antonin Scalia, one of the court’s conservative justices, wrote in his opinion that machine guns aren’t in common use.
Rostron said there is much debate over the degree to which the federal government, states and local jurisdictions can regulate firearms.
Some states, including Missouri, limit local jurisdictions’ control over guns.
To purchase from a licensed gun dealer anywhere in the U.S., one must pass a background check for criminal convictions and mental health. But even with background checks in place, that is no guarantee databases are accurate and complete or that weapons won’t be stolen or sold illegally.
Buyers can circumvent background checks in many states by purchasing firearms from private sellers at gun shows.
“People will say that they’re selling from their private collection and that their collection happens to really big,” Rostron said. “A lot of people are getting away with it.”
And with an estimated 270 million civilian firearms, the U.S. has the highest civilian gun ownership rate in the world—by far.
It is impossible to know exactly how often unauthorized concealed carry occurs, but the 2009 and 2010 weapon arrests by the UMKC police show that it happens.
“Comparing it to drunk drivers, we can do checkpoints,” Bongartz said, “but there are no types of weapons checkpoints. We investigate it when we’re on calls.”
Rostron agreed enforcement can be problematic.
“Guns are very movable,” he said. “When a place like New York, Chicago or D.C. attempts to have a particularly strict gun law, it tends to be undermined by the illegal movement of guns.”
Rostron, who worked for the Brady Campaign to Reduce Gun Violence for four years shortly after the Columbine massacre, said he hopes for reasonable measures that can beef up background checks and keep guns away from criminals and those with severe mental illness.
“You have a right to have a gun, but with rights come responsibility,” he said. “Having a gun is both a right and a privilege, like having a driver’s license.”
Yet he acknowledges gun control’s fleeting public support and doubts that a renewed federal assault weapons ban can find Congressional support.
“There was quite a bit of momentum after Columbine,” Rostron said, “but then it dissipated and people moved on to other things. This year, you’ve had not one, but a string of things that got people’s attention.”
Mountains vs. the molehill
Mass shootings are more common in the U.S. than any other developed country, but they account for a mere drop in the bucket of all firearm deaths.
“People have a tendency to focus on a big event,” Rostron said. “People worry a lot more about plane crashes than they do about car crashes, even though far more people die in car crashes every day.”
Five-year FBI data from 2010 includes 71,945 homicide deaths, but only 774 mass murder victims.
In 2010 alone, firearms were used in 19,392 suicides, 11,078 homicides and 606 accidental killings.
Kansas City has witnessed more than 100 murders—mostly shootings—in each of the past five years.
Rostron said people often associate urban neighborhoods where frequent shootings occur with drugs and gang activity.
“There’s an attitude on the part of some people that a lot of those [killed] might be bad people anyway,” Rostron said. “They see it as criminals killing criminals. There’s a racial element to some extent. Gun violence is a particular problem if you’re a young African-American male.”
By contrast, mass shooting victims and suspects are predominately white.
At UMKC, neither mass shootings nor local homicides seem to have a profound impact on student safety concerns, according to Bongartz.
“You would have to ask the students, but the ones I talk to feel very safe here,” he said.
Bongartz also stated that calls from students and parents concerned about safety are infrequent, although records of such calls are not kept.
He said the area his department patrols—which extends east to Troost and south to 55th Street—has less crime than other nearby neighborhoods.
“It’s pretty much saturated with law enforcement officers [from UMKC and Rockhurst] and that prevents a lot of crime,” he said.