(MCT) — As Howard B. Unruh ran out of ammunition and barricaded himself in his home against the police, he got a telephone call from an assistant city editor at a local newspaper.
“Why are you killing people?” Philip W. Buxton asked.
“I don’t know,” Unruh replied. “I can’t answer that yet. I’ll have to talk to you later. I’m too busy now.”
That was 1949, and Unruh had just used a Luger pistol to kill 13 people and wound three others, including women and children, in Camden, N.J.
Although some indications suggest the public has reached a breaking point this month after 20 students and six staff members were shot to death at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., such attacks have occurred throughout American history. Some experts say their frequency has not really increased.
“There’s been no trajectory upward or downward,” James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston, said of the rate of mass shootings over the last three decades. “There have been some years that were particularly bad, with several cases clustered closely in time. And there were other years that were less bad. I wouldn’t say they’re good, but they’re less bad.”
Fox cited a broad set of FBI and police data on shootings between 1976 and 2010 in which gunmen killed four or more other people. The average was about 20 mass murders per year, with an annual death toll of about 100.
Fatality counts fluctuated wildly — nearly 125 one year, fewer than 50 the next. The number of attacks was steadier — typically, fewer than 25 per year.
This year has been especially bloody. According to a tally by Mother Jones magazine, whose counts differ slightly — the magazine excludes robberies and gang violence, and limits the tally to public attacks — 2012 has been the deadliest for mass shootings since 1982, when its count begins. About 80 people have been shot to death in mass incidents this year.
Such attacks turn town names into evocative shorthand — for instance, “Aurora,” a Colorado city where a gunman stormed atheater in July, killing 12 and wounding more than 50.
Although mass shootings often dominate political discussions about violence, they make up a tiny fraction of overall gun crime. Between 2007 and 2011 — which saw an almost unprecedented drop in violent crime rates — the U.S. experienced an average of 13,700 homicides a year, with guns responsible for 67 percent of them, according to FBI crime reports.
The spectacular nature of mass shootings, magnified by intense media coverage, is what gives them such impact, experts say. Five, six or even seven attacks in one year may not be statistically significant, but they resonate emotionally. And some weigh on the public’s mind more than others.
“Aurora and Newtown, it’s the combination of those two that make people start thinking that there’s something going on — when it’s (just) two people going on,” Fox said. “If one of those two people didn’t do what he did, we wouldn’t be talking about this today. If two people didn’t do this, we wouldn’t be talking about this ‘epidemic.’”
“What we’ve seen after Aurora and what we’ve seen after Newtown is kind of the typical response that we’ve seen over the last 50 years following high-profile mass public shootings,” said Grant Duwe, a criminologist for the Minnesota Department of Corrections who wrote a book on the history of mass murders since 1900.
Duwe’s criteria for what constitutes a mass killing, like that of Mother Jones, is narrower, but still adds up to a gruesome century. He counts 21 mass public shootings from 1900 to 1966, the year Charles Whitman took to the University of Texas tower in Austin, part of a rampage that left 15 people dead, including a pregnant woman. Two weeks earlier, Richard Speck had strangled or stabbed eight student nurses in a Chicago town house.
Those cases set off an emotional maelstrom in the United States
The country saw an increase in mass public killings during the 1980s and ’90s, but Duwe’s tallies showed that mass shootings had decreased since then. The 26 public shootings he tallied between 2000 and 2009 were significantly down from the 43 he counted in the 1990s. (Duwe counts only shootings in public places that result in four or more dead, and he excludes robberies and gang violence.)
But Duwe acknowledged that there seemed to be more emotional resonance behind the Connecticut school attack, even compared with Aurora.
“What makes the Newtown mass shooting different qualitatively is that we do have a significant loss of young, innocent, precious lives,” he said. “That may pack enough emotional power to bring about reinstatement of, say, the assault weapons ban.”