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11 essential facts about guns and mass shootings in the United States

(REUTERS/Jim Young)

America is a land of guns. It was true when twelve people died in Aurora, Colo., when a gunman opened fire in a movie theater. It was true when a gunman killed 27 people, including 20 children, at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn. And it remains true this morning, as police search for the gunman who is accused of killing nine people at an historic African American church in Charleston, S.C.

In this post, adapted from previous versions* that we released after mass killings in the past, we explore America's unique role among advanced countries as a place where support for guns is widespread -- and violence involving firearms is equally widespread. There are some perhaps surprising findings -- gun ownership in the United States is declining overall, for instance. But despite mass killings -- which have occurred with increasing frequency in recent years -- support for gun rights is still resolute in America.

Here are answers to a few questions you might have about guns and mass shootings, including:

How common are mass shootings in this country?
How many people own guns?
Are mass shootings becoming more common?
When were deadliest shootings in U.S. history?
Is the United States an especially violent place, compared to other countries?
Where is violence most common in America?
Is the number of guns related to the number of homicides?
Is gun control?
Is there public support for gun control?
What about for particular gun control policies?
How do mass shootings affect public opinion on this issue?

 1. Shooting sprees are not rare in the United States. 

Mother Jones tracked and mapped shooting sprees over the three decades from 1982 to May of last year. They counted "at least 61 mass murders carried out with firearms across the country, with the killings unfolding in 30 states from Massachusetts to Hawaii," they found.

A Congressional Research Service report published in 2013 counted 78 incidents over roughly the same period, in which 547 were killed. Definitions of mass shootings vary. The report excludes those for whom terrorist ideology or criminal profit was a motivation. The Mother Jones staff limited themselves to indiscriminate killings of at least four people in public places by lone shooters.

Since we don't know what drove the gunman in Charleston, it's too early to speculate on how this latest incident would alter these counts.

Since they published their analysis, five people were killed in a shooting spree in Las Vegas that authorities said was driven by anti-government views. In February, a man named Joseph Jesse Aldridge killed seven people in Texas County, Mo., including several of his relatives, before taking his own life. His motivations remain unclear.

 2. Gun ownership in the United States is declining overall, but nearly a third of households still have a gun.

The General Social Survey has been asking Americans about whether they have a gun in their home for decades, and last year essential tied the record low level of gun ownership reached in 2010. As you can see the chart below, 31 percent of adults reporting having a firearm in their household in 2014. That is 17 percentage points below the peak gun ownership from 1977 to 1980.

Survey data released last year by the Pew Research Center broke down the demographics of gun ownership more broadly. They wrote:

Overall, about a third of all Americans with children under 18 at home have a gun in their household, including 34% of families with children younger than 12. That’s nearly identical to the share of childless adults or those with older children who have a firearm at home.
The new research also suggests a paradox: While blacks are significantly more likely than whites to be gun homicide victims, blacks are only about half as likely as whites to have a firearm in their home (41% vs. 19%). Hispanics are less likely than blacks to be gun homicide victims and half as likely as whites to have a gun at home (20%).

Pew found that gun ownership is concentrated among older adults, rural residents, and whites, especially white Southerners. Whites in the South are more likely to own guns than whites in other regions.

 3. Active shooter events have become more common in recent years.

A report published by the FBI last year, studying active shooting situations between 2000 and 2013, found that these kinds of incidents were happening more and more recently. The first seven years of the study found an average of 6.4 active shootings per year, while the last seven years of the study found that number jumped up to 16.4 incidents per year.

Active shooting incidents are defined by federal agencies as "an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area." (This is different from mass killings, which are episodes where three or more people are killed; while many active shooting incidents wind up being mass killings, more than half of the episodes in the FBI study did not meet that definition.)

As this map by The Washington Post shows, several of the deadliest shootings ever in the United States have happened in just the past few years -- including the massacres at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. and at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg. These were the two shootings that claimed the most lives, and the third deadliest shooting was in 1991 in Killeen, Tex.

Wednesday's incident in Charleston would not be among this group of the deadliest shootings in modern American history.

 5. America is an unusually violent country. But we're not as violent as we used to be.

 6. The South is the most violent region in the United States.

The Harvard Injury Control Research Center assessed the literature on guns and homicide and found that there's substantial evidence that indicates more guns means more murders.

This holds true whether you're looking at different countries or different states. Citations here.

 8. States with stricter gun control laws have fewer deaths from gun-related violence.

 9. Gun control, in general, has not been politically popular -- and its popularity has been declining lately.

Since 1990, Gallup has been asking Americans whether they think gun control laws should be stricter.

The answer, increasingly, is that they don't.

"Less than half of Americans, 47%, say they favor stricter laws covering the sale of firearms, similar to views found last year," Gallup says. "But this percentage is significantly below the 58% recorded in 2012 after the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, spurred a nationwide debate about the possibility of more stringent gun control laws. Thirty-eight percent of Americans say these laws should be kept as they are now, and 14% say they should be made less strict."

 10. While general gun control isn't that popular, particular policies are.

While many Americans strongly support the right to bear arms, they also support specific restrictions, such as background checks, assault weapons bans and a federal database to track guns. Here's 2013 data from Pew Research Center.

 11. Shootings don't tend to substantially affect views on gun control.

That is what the Pew Research Center found after polling Americans after mass shootings in the United States. In fact, Pew reported late last year that for the first in more than 20 years, Americans showed more support for gun rights than gun control. That's what Pew found after Newtown.

And before other mass shootings, as well:

In fact, more people say gun ownerships protects people from a crime.

*Earlier versions of this post were authored by Ezra Klein, and in places some of the original language is retained. Mark Berman contributed to this post.

This post has been updated to correct the number of children killed in the Sandy Hook massacre.