As your intrepid correspondent reported yesterday, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has built her argument for a new assault weapons ban on two major premises, the first and most important of which merits careful scrutiny: Mass shootings have increased in the past few years.
Is she correct?
The answer seems to be a qualified no. The Federal Bureau of Investigation distinguishes a mass shooting as the killing of four individuals in a single incident, not including the assailant. In the past few months, Mother Jones has spearheaded the progressive technocratic campaign to demonstrate that mass shootings are increasing. However, criminologist James Alan Fox of Northeastern University has repeatedly pushed back, against Mother Jones and in general.
His recent analysis of FBI Crime Statistics concluded that mass shootings were fairly flat between 1976 and 2011, with no remarkable recent increase (his chart here). 2011 is the most recent year for which data are available. 2012 may have been a particularly bad year -- Mother Jones places the number of mass shooting deaths at 151, more than any year on record -- but Fox questions the magazine's methodology. Even if there were 500 such deaths last year, they would comprise a tiny proportion of total gun homicides, which have, if anything, gently fallen in recent years (chart here; note that the horizontal axis is not to scale). Fox speaks as a man of science, not ideology. He authored a post called "NRA's flawed strategy" and reflected in his response to Mother Jones:
The only silver lining to the tragedies of 2012 is that they have generated considerable momentum for tackling the root causes of mass murder. Whether the sense of urgency is sustained long enough for change in law or policy to be implement remains to be seen.
He concluded a January 2011 op-ed for USA Today by saying:
Notwithstanding the worn-out slogan that "guns don't kill, people do," guns do make it easier for people to commit murder. And semi-automatic guns, like the Tucson assailant's out-of-the-box spanking-new Glock, make it easier to commit mass murder.
The FBI appears to be a year away from releasing statistics that would authoritatively ground this debate in fact. In the meantime, Dr. Fox’s admonishment against alarmism appears prudent.
CORRECTION: The article previously stated that 2010, not 2011, was the most recent year for which data are available. Changes have been made to reflect this fact.