Does The United States Really Have More Mass Shootings Than Other Countries?

PolitiFact rates President Obama's claim that other countries don't have mass shootings at rates comparable to America"Mostly False."

PolitiFact rates President Obama’s claim that other countries don’t have mass shootings at rates comparable to America”Mostly False.”

In his June 18, 2015, remarks from the White House, Obama said, “Now is the time for mourning and for healing. But let’s be clear: At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it.”

A flurry of PolitiFact readers — some of them prompted by articles objecting to Obama’s claim — wrote to us to ask us to check it, so we did.

An important point to make right off the bat is that many of the critics have pointed to the first part of Obama’s claim — that “this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries.” As we’ll explain, the critics have a point here — mass violence, including mass shootings, happen in a wide variety of countries.

However, the critics have truncated the quotation, leaving off the next sentence — that “it doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency.” That’s also not fully correct, but it’s not quite as wrong as the first claim.

The White House argues that Obama’s second sentence qualifies the first, and added that PunditFact rated Mostly True the claim that “Americans are 20 times as likely to die from gun violence as citizens of other civilized countries.” However, that claim refers to gun violence generally, not mass killings specifically, the topic of Obama’s comment.

For a look at the statistics, we checked with two researchers, Jaclyn Schildkraut of the State University of New York in Oswego and H. Jaymi Elsass of Texas State University. They have been collecting and analyzing mass-shooting incidents in 11 countries, covering the period from 2000 to 2014. Aside from the United States, the countries they studied are Australia, Canada, China, England, Finland, France, Germany, Mexico, Norway and Switzerland. (They also looked at less-developed countries, but we will exclude those since Obama specifically mentioned “advanced” countries.)

Schildkraut and Elsass shared the summary information from their database with PolitiFact. Here’s their table:

mass-killings-by-country

The chart does show that the United States has more mass shootings — and more people cumulatively killed or injured — than the other 10 nations combined, partly because it has a much bigger population than all but China.

Still, using this data, it’s easy to dispense with the first claim Obama made — that “this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries.”

Over the decade and a half studied, the researchers found 23 incidents of mass shootings in the other 10 countries, resulting in 200 dead and 231 wounded. In the United States over the same period, there were 133 incidents that left 487 dead and 505 wounded.

[…]

In sum, then, Obama is wrong to say that “this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries.” Clearly it does happen elsewhere, and not in trivial numbers. Seven of the countries saw double-digit numbers of people killed in mass shootings during that period.

By contrast, the second part of Obama’s claim — that “it doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency” — isn’t entirely off-base.

We compared mass shooting incidents across countries is to calculate the number of victims per capita — that is, adjusted for the country’s total population size.

Calculating it this way shows the United States in the upper half of the list of 11 countries, ranking higher than Australia, Canada, China, England, France, Germany and Mexico.

Still, the U.S. doesn’t rank No. 1. At 0.15 mass shooting fatalities per 100,000 people, the U.S. had a lower rate than Norway (1.3 per 100,000), Finland (0.34 per 100,000) and Switzerland (1.7 per 100,000).

We’ll note that all of these countries had one or two particularly big attacks and have relatively small populations, which have pushed up their per-capita rates. In Norway, that single attack in 2011 left 67 dead by gunfire (plus additional bomb casualties). Finland had two attacks, one that killed eight and one that killed 10. And Switzerland had one incident that killed 14.

Still, while the United States did rank in the top one-third of the list, the fact that three other countries exceeded the United States using this method of comparison does weaken Obama’s claim that “it doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency.” In at least three countries, the data shows, it does.

[…]

Elsass warned PolitiFact of a few caveats about the data. While they believe their database “to be among the most exhaustive compilations available,” Elsass noted that it may not include every instance of mass shootings. It also doesn’t include every example of mass killings — just those committed by firearms, even though mass stabbings are not uncommon in such places as China. Finally, their database doesn’t include acts generally considered to be terrorism, such as the attack in Paris on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

“If these were included, we are likely to see something much different statistically as there have been a number of very high-profile terrorist attacks in Europe, some including the use of firearms, that are excluded from the current analysis,” she said. But in all likelihood, this would only make the case against Obama’s claim stronger.

While this analysis is interesting, I think PolitiFact’s ruling is too harsh on the president. First off, while they’ve come a long way in recent years, I wouldn’t include China or Mexico on the list of “advanced countries.” Second, Mexico is in the middle of what amounts to a civil war; it’s not a valid case to examine ” this type of mass violenc.” Third, even if we did include China, I wouldn’t trust their data.

Beyond that, while deaths per capita is a perfectly reasonable metric—and the one I would have chosen a priori to test Obama’s claim—it’s not the only one. Given that the president’s claim was about frequency, he’s clearly right: the United States had 133 incidents while none of the other countries has more than 6.

FILED UNDER: Guns and Gun Control, Quick Takes
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Mark Ivey says:

    I live in Germany, Germany has had 2 mass shooting in the last 10 plus years.

    German gun control is harm reduction. It’s a thing…

  2. John Peabody says:

    Ah. Okay, as soon as everyone reads this, the world will be better, then.

  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Politifact is a complete waste of money and oxygen. Seriously, really?

    Over the decade and a half studied, the researchers found 23 incidents of mass shootings in the other 10 countries, resulting in 200 dead and 231 wounded. In the United States over the same period, there were 133 incidents that left 487 dead and 505 wounded.

    This is worse than saying the statement about Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan “ending Medicare as we know it” mostly a lie when in fact that is exactly what it would have done. These people would contribute more to political discourse in this country if they took up panhandling.

  4. Tony W says:

    Way to miss the whole point Politifact. The bigger question, and the one Obama wants answered, is what to do about people who feel that the current state of affairs is just fine.

  5. Hal_10000 says:

    The point here is that mass shootings are extremely rare events and so you can play with the stats to draw whatever conclusion you want. I noticed this in some of the stats used a few years ago — if you played with the years and the countries just write, you could make the US look really bad (culminating in Mother Jones’ deeply flawed claim that mass shootings are on the rise). Norway had one awful incident and is a small country. That distorts their statistics.

    The focus on mass shootings is news driving the debate. These represent less than one one thousandth of the gun violence in the United States. Overall, gun violence is way way down from its awful 90’s peak — without any significant gun control. But I guess stories about how many fewer young black men are ending up face down in our inner cities isn’t new worthy.

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  6. JohnMcC says:

    I agree with our friend from Missouri that Politifact is the next thing to useless. I would also hold that the table shows that the U.S. has had 133 opportunities to figure out how to NOT have mass shootings and failed miserably. In ’96 there was a mass shooting in Australia. They changed their gun laws. They have not had a similar massacre since.

    Of interest: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/06/20/america-gun-laws_n_7624088.html

  7. Sherparick says:

    Politifact, taking pedantic nit-picking to the ultimate limit.

  8. Franklin says:

    Some nut in Graz, Austria just drove his van into people repeatedly at some event this past weekend, killing 3 and injuring 34 or so. But the interesting thing was a quote from an organizer of the event:

    “It is believed that this sort of thing happens only in America,” said the security chief at the Red Bull Ring, “but unfortunately it can happen anywhere.”

    Ouch.

  9. Franklin says:

    Also, I agree that Politifact is “mostly wrong” here. Of the countries supposedly worse in per-capita crime, it’s easy to dismiss them. The single incidents in Norway and Switzerland could easily be classified as outliers in a statistical analysis, and Dr. Joyner is correct about Mexico and maybe even China. Finland had a whole 2 incidents, which gets a tiny bit closer to statistical relevance.

    It appears that the casualties per incident is higher in other countries, for unknown reasons. Maybe American shooters have worse aim or something, but whatever the reason, it makes our per-capita rate look relatively better than those other countries.

  10. Paul L. says:

    It is pathetic that progressive Obots here defend Obama’s false statement.
    “This Kind of Mass Violence Does Not Happen in Other Advanced Countries”

    Actually, President Obama, Mass Killings Aren’t Uncommon In Other Countries

  11. JohnMcC says:

    @Paul L.: Such an honor when the self-identified King of Idiots makes an appearance in our humble establishment.

  12. Paul L. says:

    @JohnMcC: Can always recognize a member of the Royal Court from the Kingdom of Idiots.

  13. Pinky says:

    The problem with fact-checking sites is that they blend the precise with the vague. They’ll take a specific statement and investigate exactly what it says and whether the facts agree with it, then they’ll assign the statement 3 Pinocchios or “partially false” or some such. In this case, the President could have easily made factually accurate statements to support his position, but he didn’t. That’s on the speechwriter.

  14. Gustopher says:

    I think all Politifact has really shown is that other countries have better mass murderers than we do, but we still have more. It’s the classic quality vs. quantity dilemma.

    Why, in the greatest nation on earth, are our mass murderers being upstaged by people in Norway?

  15. gVOR08 says:

    Are you kidding me? This looks like a chart of military spending. There’s us, and there’s everybody else who totaled up don’t equal us.

    Drop China like James suggests ’cause a) who believes them and b) their huge population distorts any per capita comparison; and Mexico because drug war (largely our fault), and if my quick arithmetic is correct, compared to the TOTALS for the remaining 8 countries we have:
    – 1.2 times their population
    – 7.8 times as many incidents
    – 3 times their dead
    -1.9 times their total victims
    and a homicide rate 3 times the worst of them (also discounting Norway ’cause Brevik).

    Nothing to see here folks. Culture, blahsinnercities, whatever. Keep moving.

  16. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Franklin: Pikers. Here in America we arm our psychos with Bushmaster rifles and 100 round drum magazines filled with armor piercing ammo.

    Maybe American shooters have worse aim or something,

    Breivik certainly set a high bar. Our psychos have some serious work to do in catching up.

  17. Paul L. says:

    @gVOR08:
    Coulter On Gun Violence: ‘If You Compare White Populations, We Have The Same Murder Rate As Belgium’
    Still waiting for that claim to be debunked. Even Media Matters will not try. Just complain that it is insensitive and racist.

  18. michael reynolds says:

    Our emergency rooms probably do a better job with GSW having so much more experience.

  19. michael reynolds says:

    @Paul L.:

    Do you live in an all-white country?

  20. Franklin says:

    @Gustopher: Heh, that’s what I was trying to say in my last paragraph. But you said it better!

  21. Pinky says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: How many mass shooters use Bushmaster rifles, large magazines, and armor-piercing bullets?

  22. Matt says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Could you at least keep your ridiculous talking point somewhat remotely grounded in reality? Most rifle bullets are considered “armor piercing” and that includes the vast majority of hunting ammo.

    True military grade armor piercing bullets are ineffective as hunting rounds due to the complete lack of expansion. True military grade armor piercing bullets are difficult and expensive to obtain as a civilian.

  23. Matt says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: @Pinky:

    Oh the FBI crime database has all kinds of information including weapons used in murders.

    Scary black guns? >1% of murders
    Handguns 50% of murders
    Knives are 12.5% of murders
    Hands, feet, fist are 5.3% of murders
    blunt, hammers etc are 4.1% of murders
    Asphyxiation / choking is used in .8% of murders.

    Yes the number of people murdered with scary black rifles is about the same as people murdered by asphyxiation aka choking to death.

    The vast majority of people murdered knew their murderer. The vast majority of murders are passion of the moment or related to other criminal activities (gangs/drugs/etc).

    So if you’re not involved romantically with a gun owner and you aren’t involved with illegal activities you’re much more likely to die of a 100 other things unrelated to guns.

  24. Paul L. says:

    @michael reynolds:
    Since according to Democrats no amendment is absolute how about a Law that only white people can own guns?

  25. bill says:

    whats mexico doing in that graph? not only is it not a “civilized” country but they only show 2 mass shootings and 13 dead?! who keeps those stats? do they omit the cartels or something?

    @Mark Ivey: that makes up for the past 2 world wars i guess? but seriously, what works in germany may not work here- they don’t have a 4th world country on their southern border.

  26. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    “Mass shootings” are a very small percentage of the homicides in the United States. Brazil has a VERY high homicide rate, but these mass shootings(Unless we are talking about mass shootings by drug gangs or by the cops) are relatively rare.

    I think that there is a cultural issue here.

  27. Bob @ Youngstown says:

    Given that the president’s claim was about frequency, he’s clearly right:

    But if your political agenda does like the analysis, just pretend you don’t understand what the word “frequency” means.

  28. gVOR08 says:

    @Paul L.: If you had the stones to come out and say what I’m forced to assume you’re clumsily implying I might be tempted to respond.

  29. Matt says:

    @Andre Kenji de Sousa: Of course there’s a cultural issue here. The USA overall is more violent then most of those countries listed. Just take a gander at the other violent crime statistics.

  30. al-Ameda says:

    In economics there is Say’s Law, that essentially postulates that supply creates it’s own demand. In our culture it is the same with guns.

    We love our guns and we’re not much interested in regulating the supply and easy availability of guns. The result is that we will put up with the occasional mass shooting, which, until we take this stuff seriously, is almost as inevitable as an annual outbreak of influenza.