The Mass Murder Problem

By Hillshafer, David | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

The Mass Murder Problem


Hillshafer, David, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


OKLAHOMA CITY, COLUMBINE, VIRGINIA Tech, Sandy Hook. The list of mass murders in America grows and grows. Why? And what can we do about it? I have a personal interest in the problem of violence and mass murder. I was in Oklahoma City at the time of Timothy McVeigh's bombing of the Federal building. I joined the Air Force on September 11, 2001. I served a tour of duty in Kabul, Afghanistan, where periodic terrorist attacks and occasional mass murders were a fact of life. I would like to bring to bear on this problem both my personal experiences with human violence and my scientific training as an aerospace engineer and data analyst.

In this article I have aggregated large amounts of data from reputable sources with an aim toward providing evidence-based suggestions for possible solutions. First, I sampled data in the public domain from Wikipedia, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), published research papers, reputable news media outlets, and firsthand accounts. I also interviewed police officers, doctors, and social workers.

We begin with the definition of mass murder as four or more murders at a single location (a school, workplace, home, or public place) during the same incident without any pause in between. (1) We can then consider how mass murderers select their targets. Using aggregated data from Wikipedia (2) for the U.S. from the 1800s to the present, schools were selected primarily by teenagers (peaking at 17), other people's homes ("Home Intruder") were selected primarily by people in their 20s (peaking at 25), public places were selected by people in their 30s (peaking at 35), and workplaces and one's own home ("Familicides") were selected by middle-aged people (peaking at 40). Notable Incidents (like the Oklahoma City Bombing) and Soldier Fratricides were included later in the mass murder dataset, but were too few to be statistically significant on their own (Figures 1 and 2).

In other words, people still in school tend to select a school, people with a family at home tend to select their home, people with a job tend to select their workplace, people who are out of school but don't have a job or family tend to select other people's homes and public places. This probably means that a person who commits mass murder selects their location based on targets of opportunity.

Even though most people who commit mass murder were never in the military, such target selection is military, gang, or terrorist (as opposed to civilian) in nature. In civilian life, one person might attack another person to remove an obstacle to a desired outcome (such as killing someone during a robbery) or to retaliate (such as killing a person after being attacked). In the military, gangs, and terrorist organizations, people attack other people based on their association with a leader or organization (such as attacking an outpost because it is controlled by an opposing military and not because of anything the individuals being attacked did or will do). This is a legal distinction that might not exist in the mind of a person who commits mass murder (or warring gangs or terrorist organizations), but it is important to note that people who commit mass murder appear to be operating as if under military rules of engagement.

Common Elements of Mass Murders and Murderers

Mass murders were committed primarily by a single attacker (98.6%), whose average age was 34.4 and when a second attacker was present, both were typically young men (average age of 19.4). Attacks killed 9.0 people and injured 9.6 people on average, excluding the attacker. Many of the attackers were related to at least one victim (38%), and a few also killed animals (3.1%). Wikipedia data does not indicate the sex of the attackers, but judging based on first names and additional Google searches (where available), 90% were men, 6% were women, and 3% were unsolved. …

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