The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

There’s only one surefire answer to the problem of mass shootings

Here is a look at shooting sprees that killed dozens in the U.S. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

On Jan. 1, 2007, the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history was the 1991 massacre of 23 people at Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, Tex. George Hennard, the gunman, fit an all-too-common profile: A white man in his 30s, he exhibited signs of emotional instability and a hostility toward women. Hennard reportedly ignored some men during his rampage to target women.

The mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Tex., on Sunday night ended with a higher death toll than Hennard’s. Authorities say Devin Kelley, 26, entered a church and began shooting those attending the service, killing at least 26 men, women and children. Kelley, also a white man, had served in the Air Force until he was court-martialed on accusations that he had assaulted his wife and child.

This seems like a consistent pattern: Young, white men with demonstrable backgrounds of mental instability or violence against women taking the lives of as many people as possible. But the picture is more complicated than that.

As you know, the massacre in Sutherland Springs was not the new modern record-holder for the most people killed in a mass shooting. In fact, it comes in fifth. Since January 2007, there have been four shootings in which more people were killed than were slain on Sunday night.

Two of those four mass killings — in Las Vegas last month and at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., in 2012 — were also committed by white men. The other two — at Virginia Tech in 2007 and in Orlando last year — were not. Of the five deadliest incidents, only Kelley had faced legal sanctions for domestic violence. Only two, the attackers at Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech, had demonstrable records of mental health issues.

There are a lot of qualifiers that are important here. The first is that the shooters in Las Vegas and Orlando and at Virginia Tech also had anecdotal incidents in which they’d stalked or abused women. The other qualifier is that these are just the five deadliest incidents.

America doesn’t agree on what constitutes a mass shooting more broadly. The FBI defines a mass killing as the deaths of three or more people in a public place. The Gun Violence Archive tracks another metric: incidents in which four or more people are struck by gunfire.

According to the archive’s data, there have been 307 such incidents in 2017 alone. There have been 54 days this year in which at least 10 people have been killed or wounded in such incidents. More than 2,000 people have been killed or injured in total so far this year.

That death total rose despite the long-term drop in gun violence in the United States since its peak in the 1990s.

Mother Jones magazine compiles data on incidents that meet the FBI’s definition. A review of those incidents over the past five years offers a complicated picture. (Mental health issues are largely taken from Mother Jones’s analysis; domestic violence records are from Washington Post analysis of news reports.)

Suspect Location Ethnicity Age Mental health Dom. violence record
Adam Lanza Newtown, Conn., Dec. 2012 White Under 30 Yes
Kurt Myers Herkimer County, N.Y., March 2013 White Over 30
Dennis Clark Federal Way, Wash., April 2013 Nonwhite Under 30 Yes
John Zawahri Santa Monica, Calif., June 2013 White Under 30 Yes
Pedro Vargas Hialeah, Fla., July 2013 Nonwhite Over 30
Aaron Alexis Washington, D.C., Sept. 2013 Nonwhite Over 30 Yes
Cherie Lash Rhoades Alturas, Calif., Feb. 2014 Nonwhite Over 30
Ivan Lopez Fort Hood, Tex., April 2014 Nonwhite Over 30 Yes
Elliot Rodger Santa Barbara, Calif., May 2014 White Under 30 Yes
Jaylen Fryberg Marysville, Wash., Oct. 2014 Nonwhite Under 30
Sergio Valencia del Toro Menasha, Wis., June 2015 Nonwhite Under 30 Yes
Dylann Storm Roof Charleston, S.C., June 2015 White Under 30
Mohammed Youssuf Abdulazeez Chattanooga, Tenn., July 2015 Nonwhite Under 30 Yes
Chris Harper Mercer Roseburg, Ore., Oct. 2015 Nonwhite Under 30
Noah Harpham Colorado Springs, Oct. 2015 White Over 30
Robert Lewis Dear Colorado Springs, Nov. 2015 White Over 30 Yes
Syed Rizwan Farook/Tashfeen Malik San Bernardino, Calif., Dec. 2015 Nonwhite Under 30
Jason B. Dalton Kalamazoo County, Mich., Feb. 2016 White Over 30 Yes
Cedric Ford Hesston, Kan., Feb. 2016 Nonwhite Over 30 Yes
Omar Mateen Orlando, June 2016 Nonwhite Under 30
Micah Xavier Johnson Dallas, July 2016 Nonwhite Under 30
Gavin Long Baton Rouge, July 2016 Nonwhite Under 30
Arcan Cetin Burlington, Wash., Sept. 2016 Undetermined Under 30 Yes Yes
Esteban Santiago Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Jan. 2017 Nonwhite Under 30 Yes Yes
Kori Ali Muhammad Fresno, Calif., April 2017 Nonwhite Over 30 Yes
Thomas Hartless Kirkersville, Ohio, May 2017 White Over 30 Yes Yes
John Robert Neumann, Jr. Orlando, June 2017 White Over 30
Randy Stair Tunkhannock, Pa., June 2017 White Under 30
Jimmy Lam San Francisco, June 2017 Nonwhite Over 30
Stephen Craig Paddock Las Vegas, Oct. 2017 White Over 30
Radee Labeeb Prince Edgewood, Md., Oct. 2017 Nonwhite Over 30 Yes
Scott Allen Ostrem Thornton, Colo., Nov. 2017 White Over 30
Devin Patrick Kelley Sutherland Springs, Tex., Nov. 2017 White Under 30 Yes

The picture above suggests that suspects in mass shootings are often young, white men with either a history of mental health issues or a domestic violence record, or both. The analysis doesn’t include a number of other suspects who had obvious hostility toward women, such as Elliot Rodger and Omar Mateen, who had obvious hostility toward women but did not leave a legal paper trail.

But the picture also suggests there isn’t necessarily a consistent pattern in the characteristics of a mass shooter. If the goal is to prevent future mass shootings, it’s tricky to see where to apply leverage. The only overwhelmingly common characteristic is that the perpetrators were men — but neither gender nor race could form the basis of a ban on gun ownership.

There are already efforts to block gun ownership from those with mental health problems and histories of domestic violence, but both efforts have flaws: Mental health problems aren’t always diagnosed, and those who act violently toward women aren’t always charged. Those efforts also face roadblocks set up by gun advocates who want to make firearms available to those individuals anyway. (Earlier this year, President Trump signed into a law a measure that repealed a regulation implemented under President Barack Obama that made it harder for those with histories of mental health to buy guns.)

A sweeping analysis of mass killings by the pro-regulation group Everytown for Gun Safety found that 42 percent of incidents involved a shooter who had raised red flags before opening fire. The flip side of that coin, of course, is that 58 percent of the shooters didn’t. It’s also worth noting that about half of the incidents tracked by Mother Jones involved a shotgun or handgun (or both). Use of a semiautomatic rifle correlates to a higher death toll — as in Las Vegas, Orlando and, it seems, in Texas on Sunday — but shooters in mass killings don’t rely on them. (Hennard used two handguns in the Luby’s massacre.)

In other words, the only surefire way to help prevent mass shootings — or any shootings — is to broadly limit access to guns in general. During the shooting in Sutherland Springs, Trump was in Japan. Last year, as many people died from gun violence in the entire country of Japan as died in the Texas shooting over the weekend (including Kelley).

Japan has strict regulations on gun ownership. Japan also doesn’t have ownership of firearms written into its constitution. Barring some broad change to how the Second Amendment is interpreted, preventing mass shootings in the United States seems difficult. Even were such a reinterpretation to happen, it’s not clear how existing firearms would be taken out of circulation.

Advocates for reducing gun violence, then, are left in an unfortunate position. There are often warning signs that can be addressed before a shooter decides to open fire, but there often aren’t. There are demographic factors that seem to recur — but not universally. The one consistent factor is that the shooter has access to a firearm, and that’s perhaps the one factor that has proven politically impossible to overcome.

This article was corrected to fix the name and description of Everytown.