The massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, seems to fit what we know about the tragic pattern of mass shootings. Once again, the shooter was white, male, and socially isolated. And in keeping with a number of deadly mass shootings in the past, this one took place in an affluent suburban community not unlike Newtown, Connecticut (where the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting happened), or Columbine, Colorado.
We have data on the kind of person who typically commits a mass shooting. A database compiled by Mother Jones tracked 98 mass shootings between 1982 and 2018, and shows that 96 percent of mass shooters since 1982 were male and nearly 60 percent were white. (Note: the database defines a mass shooting as an incident in which four or more victims are killed by an attacker.)
But while there seems to be a profile of a typical mass shooter, we have far less information on the kinds of communities that have fallen victim to these tragic events. As we reported after the Las Vegas massacre last October, the geography of mass shootings is widely spread across America.
Thinking about some of the tragedies that have been widely covered in the news, one might assume that mass shootings are more likely to happen in affluent, white communities. But are these places really at higher risk?
To dig into this, my colleague Patrick Adler at the Martin Prosperity Institute analyzed the demographic data of communities across America that have experienced mass shootings, including at schools. His analysis is based on Stanford University’s database Mass Shootings in America, which includes data on 307 mass shootings in 223 places, occurring between 1971 and 2016. Mass shootings are defined here as incidents in which there are three or more shooting victims (but not necessarily any fatalities). Roughly a quarter of these events were school shootings, while the majority, fully 76 percent, took place outside of schools.
The upshot of Adler’s analysis: The places that suffer mass shootings run the full gamut of American communities. Some are small, affluent, white suburbs. But the reality is that these tragedies occur in large cities and small towns; in rich, poor, and middle-class places; and in racially mixed as well as predominantly white communities.
The first chart below shows the income levels (measured as average household income as of 2016) of the communities that have experienced mass shootings. The chart reveals that mass shootings happened in towns where household incomes exceeded $180,000 a year, including Montclair and Ridgewood, New Jersey; Garden City, New York; and Ladera Ranch, California. They also happened in middle-class communities, where household incomes averaged $63,500 a year, such as Wilmington, Delaware; Wichita, Kansas; and Conway, Arkansas. And they happened in less advantaged communities like Muskegon Heights, Michigan, and Morven, North Carolina, where the median household income was just over $30,000.
Overall, the communities that have experienced mass shootings are more or less middle-class, with a mean household income of $65,900. That is slightly below the average household income for the nation as a whole ($77,866). About 34 percent of communities where the shootings occurred had an average household income of between $40,000 and $60,000 per year, and in another 26 percent, the average was between $60,000 and $70,000.
Mass shootings happen less often in both very poor ($30,000 to $40,000) and very rich ($131,000 or more) communities—together, these income brackets account for just under 10 percent of mass shootings. The communities that have witnessed these tragedies are more or less on par with the national average for poverty, too. The poverty rate was 10 percent in the communities where mass shootings have occurred, compared to 11 percent for the nation as a whole.
Mass shootings happen in communities of all sizes and types: big cities, midsized suburbs, and small towns. (Adler’s data is based on the Census definition of “places,” which are distinct from the more widely used Census definitions of urban and rural areas.)
Just 11 percent of mass shootings have occurred in places with more than 500,000 people, and only 3 percent took place in cities of more than 1 million. At the other end of the scale, 13 percent of mass shootings have occurred in towns of fewer than 2,500 people. The clear plurality, 33 percent, was in communities of between 10,000 and 50,000 people.
Despite the fact that many mass shooters are white, the places where mass shootings have happened are actually a bit less white than the country as a whole. Since 1971, mass shootings have occurred in largely white communities such as Salisbury, Pennsylvania; Platt, South Dakota; and Chelsea, Michigan; and in places that are heavily non-white, such as Detroit and Honolulu. They have also happened in places that are closer to the national average in terms of their racial and ethnic diversity, like Seattle and Grand Rapids.
As Jed Kolko has written, “’Normal America’ is not a small town of white people”—and the places where mass shootings have occurred aren’t, either. On average, these communities are 65 percent white, compared to 72 percent white for the nation as a whole. In fact, the burden of mass shootings has fallen slightly heavier on communities that have a higher share of African Americans, on average.
While African Americans make up 12.6 percent of the U.S. population on the whole, they make up 17 percent of the population in communities that experienced mass shootings. These places are also slightly less Hispanic than the U.S. as a whole. America is 16 percent Hispanic, but these communities are about 14 percent Hispanic, on average.
That’s the long and the short of it: These appalling events happen in Everytown, America—across U.S. cities and towns of all sizes, income levels, and categories of racial and ethnic diversity. Any of us, and any of our children, could be victims.
It seems hard to believe that our political leaders will make long-overdue changes to our gun laws. But this time may be different. As the students of Stoneman Douglas organize for gun control alongside other high schoolers across the nation, we may be seeing a critical turning point on this life-and-death issue—for our kids, and for all of us.
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