In the United States, gun control has long been a political hot topic. But the past year is making the issue harder to ignore. In 2019, U.S. mass killings were the highest ever recorded, with most of them being mass shootings. With the U.S. entering a new decade, it's possible that the early 2020s will be defined by gun violence, too.
You may remember when 22 people were shot in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. Or when, the very next day, nine people were shot in Dayton, Ohio. While horrific, these two instances don't capture the full scale of mass shootings in the U.S, because most incidents never made national news like these two did.
A dataset compiled by The Associated Press, USA Today, and Northeastern University recorded 41 mass killings in 2019. For the purpose of the database, the term "mass killing" refers only to instances where four or more people are killed, excluding the perpetrator.
Although the database began collecting information in 2006, AP reported that research going back to the 1970s shows there was no other year with as many mass killings as 2019.
It's important to note that the database solely looking at total deaths per incident can leave out a lot of mass shootings. For example, three people were murdered at the mass shooting in Gilroy, California, so it wouldn't make the list — even though 17 people were wounded in the attack.
By contrast, when looking at mass shootings specifically, organizations like the Gun Violence archive also take into account the number of people injured. GVA defines a mass shooting as when four or more people, excluding the shooter, are killed or injured. In that case, the Gilroy shooting would be recorded.
As a result, the total mass shootings are much, much higher than recorded mass killings. In fact, the GVA recorded 410 mass shootings as of Dec. 27, beating out the previous high of 382 in 2016.
Understanding what's behind the increase in mass killings is hard for a few reasons. To start, AP reported that most incidents involve people who knew each other, like situations of domestic violence. Those cannot be examined in the same way as shootings that take place in public areas.
When it comes to mass shootings specifically, the government hasn't funded research since the 1990s. Although that may change with Congress now possibly putting $25 million towards gun violence research, the funding dearth has contributed to a lack of understanding.
Research is being done outside of the federal government, though. In 2015, one study found that mass killings involving guns are inspired by similar events. Notably, as politicians like President Trump try to blame mental illness for these incidents, the study “found no significant association between the rate of school and mass shootings and state prevalence of mental illness.”
There is also the issue of white nationalism rising in the public sphere. A few of the year's highly publicized mass shootings had blatant links to white supremacist ideology. According to The Atlantic, the El Paso shooter allegedly wrote a manifesto citing the shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, which explicitly targeted worshippers at mosques, as inspiration.
Mass killings — and mass shootings — are not going away by themselves. Moving into the 2020s, it's time for the U.S. government to begin seriously listening to communities directly impacted by gun violence, as well as the advocates who have long called for change.