National violent crime trends for the past two decades show reassuring declines in some respects; however, incidents of extreme violence seem to be escalating in both magnitude and frequency. In reality, there is a lack of consensus regarding trends of mass killings. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics has reported a five-year national decline in violent crime, with the homicide rate decreasing by 0.7 percent between 2010 and 2011. In addition, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reported an 11.6 percent decline in work-related homicides during that same time frame and a much greater decline, 46.7 percent, in that statistical category since 1997.
Moreover, after a discouraging two-year incline, the National Law Enforcement Officer Memorial Fund Research Bulletin reported – in a preliminary analysis of 2012 firearms-related fatalities of police officers – a 32-percent decline since 2011.
To put those numbers into a more understandable context, it should be noted that the Federal Bureau of Investigation distinguishes mass murders – defined as four or more victims killed during the same incident with no distinctive time lapse between the individual murders – from serial and “spree” killings as measured by three separate categories: the number of victims involved; the proximity of the separate killings; and the time of each killing. The FBI definition takes into account, therefore, various scenarios ranging from protracted incidents at a single location to a continuing murderous engagement (that also may become mobile).
Are There Any Actual Trends in Mass Murders?
The apparent increase in mass murders may be the result of greater societal awareness stemming from the wide range of 24/7 media coverage now available, and that phenomenon might itself lead to certain misperceptions about such trends – if they actually are trends. On 20 December 2012 the Associated Press released a poll showing that coverage of the 14 December 2012 shooting of 20 school children (and six adults) in Newtown, Connecticut, was voted as the “top news story” of 2012. Certainly, the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass murder is a tragedy that touched the hearts of every American. Even so, it is difficult to measure mass murder in quantifiable terms because, although certain similarities can been identified of what superficially might seem to be more or less “similar” events, no two mass-murder incidents are really alike. The actual number of incidents fails to account for a number of variations in the separate killings involved, but there seems to be little doubt that most high-casualty school killings in the United States, and globally, have occurred within the past 20 years.
Noted criminologist James Allen Fox of Boston’s Northeastern University stated in a December 2012 article published at Boston.com that not only is there no typical “pattern” involved, but also that there actually has been no increase in mass killings over the past three decades. Fox’s studies indicate, rather, a relatively steady trend of about 20 mass murder incidents in the United States annually since 1976. However, according to other research carried out by Dale Archer, a medical doctor and psychiatrist, there has in fact been a rise in mass murders since the 1980s, when averages increased from one to two mass murders per decade to nine in the 1980s, 11 in the 1990s, and 26 or more since 2000.
John Klofas of the Rochester Institute of Technology reported in 2009 that mass-murder “trends” appear to be cyclical – with “waves” of such killings occurring in the 1920s, the 1930s, and the 1960s. Klofas also suggested that a “contagion effect” might be a contributing factor to this “distribution” pattern. Three other researchers – Thomas Bowers, Eric Holmes, and Ashley Rhom of The Pennsylvania State University-Harrisburg – said, in an article published in the October 2010 issue of the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, that “our current understanding of the phenomenon indicates these [mass-murder] incidents are not peculiar to only western cultures, and appear to be increasing.” Because the measurements and definitions of a mass murder even differ across various studies on the topic, the results postulated by those studies also may vary in certain particulars.
Whether or not the number of mass-murder incidents per se is in fact rising, the media coverage of those incidents is clearly increasing – in both scope and depth. When social media are included in the measurement of media coverage, the trend sharply escalates. However, the quality and reliability of social media are still very subjective by nature and difficult to measure. That factor alone translates into an increased opportunity for misinformation and/or emotionally driven dialogue on almost any major topic – including the issue of mass killings.
Media – Situational Awareness or a Contributing Factor?
The reasons behind most mass killings continue to elude law-enforcement efforts at predictive intervention. Moreover, before the widespread use of social media, awareness of these terrible incidents was much more localized. The deadliest school massacre in U.S. history, in fact, remains the little known 1927 “Consolidated School Massacre” in Bath, Michigan. The Bath School tragedy involved explosives rigged by a “lone wolf” killer – ironically, a trusted member of the school board – who used the explosives to kill 45 victims (and injure 58 more). Very few Americans living outside of the northern Midwest region of the country ever learned of this incident.
Even today, very few Americans have ever heard of the historical “waves of mass murders” studied by Klofas. However, in the 21st century, mass killings of any type are flashed immediately across the numerous news outlets and social media sources now available not only by the “traditional” print and broadcast media but also by the internet and smart phone apps. Information transmitted by social media today is accompanied by high-definition color imagery and on-site video, with audio recordings. There also is no shortage of blogs that individual citizens can use to broadcast their opinions – with unfettered emotional context included.
In addition to the bombardment of news about mass killings in the United States and other nations throughout the world, most media outlets with easy access to graphic information also cover global terrorism. Complicating the situation even further is the fact that, even in the context of political dialogue, there is a struggle in making clear distinctions between acts of terrorism and workplace violence – the 2009 Fort Hood shooting rampage is an obvious example. Of course, from a would-be assailant’s perspective in planning and rationalizing murderous acts, perhaps any distinction is moot. Clearly, though, there is an abundance of evidence that suggests considerable internet-sourced influence on a significant number of mass killers in the 21st century.
This trend is not uniquely American, of course. Anders Breivik, the convicted murderer in the 2011 Oslo, Norway, massacre that took the lives of 77 people, seems to have been deeply influenced by the world as he perceived it through the internet; he not only planned his attack through internet research but also determined the specific tactics he would use. In the Far East, where many nations prohibit the ownership of firearms, there have been numerous incidents of mass attacks involving edged weapons, including swords, knives, and machetes. Some of these attacks have targeted school children – e.g., the 14 December 2012 attack on Chenpeng Village Primary School in China in which 22 children were wounded by cuts and stabs as classes were just starting. Over the past decade, there also has been an escalation in “catastrophic” attacks such as: (a) the 2004 hostage incident at Beslan School No. 1 in the Russian republic of North Ossetia that resulted in more than 300 deaths, including 156 children; and (b) the 2008 multiple attacks in the downtown area of Mumbai, India, that claimed more than 160 lives.
When enhancing preparedness and response measures to address mass murders, another concern is the previously mentioned “contagion effect” caused by mass media reports on the methods and tactics assailants may use. Along with other potential contributing factors, the ease by which a person contemplating murderous acts can co-opt the tactics used by terrorists and mass killers in previous violent incidents should be carefully considered. Society’s holistic approach to coping with mass killings perhaps should expand to include a broad spectrum of threat scenarios employing simple, cross-adaptable, response techniques to rapidly avoid, mitigate, and defeat such threats.
If nothing else, preparedness planning for such threats should include specific strategies for: deterrence; early detection; and multi-layered defeat – concentrating on the denial of access and/or the denial of targets. A concerted, continuing, and community-wide inclusive approach can make a significant difference in countering the current casualty trends in mass killings – and keep those trends from escalating to higher levels in the future.
For additional information on:
John Klofas, 15 May 2009, “Summary of Research on Mass Murder,” visit http://www.rit.edu/cla/cpsi/WorkingPapers/2009/2009-11.pdf
Thomas G. Bowers, Eric S. Holmes & Ashley Rhom, October 2010, “The Nature of Mass Murder and Autogenic Massacre,” visit http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11896-009-9059-6
Dale Archer, 28 July 2012, “Mass Murders Are on the Rise,” visit http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/reading-between-the-headlines/201207/mass-murders-are-the-rise
A list of “Mass Shootings in the United States Since 2005,” 14 December 2012, visit http://www.bradycampaign.org/xshare/pdf/major-shootings.pdf
James Allen Fox, 19 December 2012, “Top 10 Myths About Mass Shootings,” visit http://boston.com/community/blogs/crime_punishment/2012/12/top_10_myths_about_mass_shooti.html
Associated Press, 20 December 2012, “AP poll: Mass shootings voted top 2012 news story,” visit http://www.ap.org/Content/AP-In-The-News/2012/AP-poll-Mass-shootings-voted-top-2012-news-story
Joseph W. Trindal
As founder and president of Direct Action Resilience LLC, Joseph Trindal leads a team of retired federal, state, and local criminal justice officials providing consulting and training services to public and private sector organizations enhancing leadership, risk management, preparedness, and police services. He serves as a senior advisor to the U.S. Department of Justice, International Criminal Justice Training and Assistance Program (ICITAP) developing and leading delivery of programs that build post-conflict nations’ capabilities for democratic policing and applied modern investigative techniques. After a 20-year career with the U.S. Marshals Service, where he served as chief deputy U.S. marshal and ERT incident commander, he accepted the invitation in 2002 to become part of the leadership standing up the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as director at Federal Protective Service for the National Capital Region. He serves on the Partnership Advisory Council at the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (IADLEST). He also serves on the International Association of Chiefs of Police, International Managers of Police Academy and College Training. He was on faculty as an instructor at George Washington University. He is past president of the InfraGard National Capital Region Members Alliance. He has published numerous articles, academic papers, and technical counter-terrorism training programs. He has two sons on active duty in the U.S. Navy. Himself a Marine Corps veteran, he holds degrees in police science and criminal justice. He has contributed to the Domestic Preparedness Journal since 2006 and is a member of the Preparedness Leadership Council.