The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The numbers undercut myths about mass shootings and White men

A "Stop Hate" sign is seen at the Logan Square Monument in Chicago on March 20. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

This column has been updated.

Shortly after news broke of the mass shooting underway in Boulder, Colo., a familiar sequence began playing out on social media: condemning the White male entitlement assumed to fuel the majority of such attacks.

“Extremely tired of people’s lives depending on whether a white man with an AR-15 is having a bad day,” tweeted Julie DiCaro of Deadspin.

“It’s always an angry white man. Always,” wrote Hemal Jhaveri of USA Today. When the alleged perpetrator was apprehended, crime fiction author Don Winslow offered a mordant epigram:

Description: ‘Police have taken him into custody’. Translation: He was white.

Many tweets were deleted after it emerged that the suspect was Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa, a 21-year old immigrant from Syria. (And Jhaveri was fired by USA Today on Friday.) This was not the first time that left-leaning Twitter prematurely blamed another sort of White man — you know, white supremacist, entitled, conservative, marinated in gun culture — for a massacre committed, in fact, by a different type of person.

One could argue that it’s an understandable mistake, as Meena Harris, the vice president’s niece, suggested: “I made an assumption based on his being taken into custody alive and the fact that the majority of mass shootings in the U.S. are carried out by white men.” Harris is right about one thing: If you just predict that every mass shooter will be a White man, statistically you’ll be right more often than not — like calling coin flips on a rigged coin.

Follow Megan McArdle's opinionsFollow

But that doesn’t justify inferring some sort of White pathology from that fact, or because the murderer survived. That, the data won’t support.

A judge in Boulder, Colo., on March 25 ordered Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa, 21, be held without bail. Alissa is accused of fatally shooting 10 people. (Video: Reuters)

James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University, maintains a database in collaboration with USA Today and the Associated Press that covers all mass shootings in the United States since 2006. When I asked him to analyze the data around incidents such as the Boulder massacre, he confirmed that about 55 percent of perpetrators in such incidents had been reported as White. (In some cases, race was unreported). Using a different dataset that ran from 1976 to 2019, with more inclusive criteria for inferring race, Fox found that some 64 percent of shooters were White.

Harris was committing a common statistical fallacy — thinking that if most mass shooters were White, that means that White people must be particularly likely to commit mass shootings. That doesn’t follow. Most Americans are White, so the majority of people doing almost anything will be White if there’s no racial discrepancy.

Let’s dig a little deeper in the numbers. Most mass shootings are committed by adult men, and census data shows that about 67 percent of adult men in the United States are non-Hispanic Whites. So it appears that the number of White men committing these crimes is close to what we’d expect from pure chance, maybe even slightly lower — the opposite of what we’d see if white supremacy culture were at fault.

Of course, that’s not the only evidence of racial gaps here; White attackers do seem less likely to be shot by police. According to Fox, five of the 87 public mass shooting attacks in the database involved White shooters who were killed by police. During that same period, 10 non-White shooters were killed, as were five others whose race was unknown.

Yet that doesn’t mean, as some have suggested, that Whites are more likely to be apprehended alive in these public massacres; apparently, White shooters more often commit suicide before police can get to them. Overall, Whites are both half of those who commit mass shootings and also about half of those who die during their crime.

So hearing that a shooter has been apprehended by police won’t help you guess the shooter’s race. You could do exactly as well by flipping a coin.

Now, I’m not saying that there is no racial aspect at play. Fox notes that media coverage tends to focus more on White shooters — possibly because most violence happens within racial and ethnic groups, not between them. So White shooters tend to have White victims — and to be covered more intensively by the mostly White media. And attacks that get more coverage are easier to remember.

That memorability feeds a psychological distortion known as the “availability heuristic”: when examples people can readily call to mind are assumed to be highly representative of whatever larger phenomenon we’re thinking about. Yet, often, people remember things vividly precisely because the incidents were unrepresentative — especially horrifying or politically charged.

In short, there are indeed subtle racial angles to mass shootings that we might profitably explore. But this particular narrative, which is unfortunately the dominant one, is an analytical dead end. It’s also a harmful racial stereotype for which there is no good evidence.

We won’t advance the cause of racial justice by propagating false stereotypes about any group — even the majority. And we certainly won’t make much progress on mass shootings if we wrongly convince ourselves that an all-too-common national failing, afflicting Americans of all colors and creeds, is mostly the peculiar pathology of a single privileged class.

Read more:

Kate Cohen: Yes, motive matters in mass shootings. But not as much as means.

Paul Waldman: Admit it, Republicans. You don’t care how many Americans are killed by guns.

Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent: Is this time different? The latest GOP lunacy on guns demands a tougher response.

Max Boot: Republicans want to make voting hard and gun ownership easy

E.J. Dionne Jr.: We can’t let the gun imperialists win again