The claim that the US has by far the most mass public shootings in the world drives much of the gun-control debate. Many argue that America’s high rate of gun possession explains the high rate of mass shootings.
“The one thing we do know is that we have a pattern now of mass shootings in this country that has no parallel anywhere else in the world,” President Barack Obama warned us. To justify this claim and many other similar quotes, Obama’s administration cited a then-unpublished paper by criminologist Adam Lankford.
Lankford’s claim received coverage in hundreds of news stories all over the world. It still gets regular coverage. Purporting to cover all mass public shootings around the world from 1966 to 2012, Lankford claimed that the United States had 31 percent of public mass shooters despite having less than 5 percent of the population.
But this isn’t nearly correct. The whole episode should provide a cautionary tale of academic malpractice and how evidence is often cherry-picked and not questioned when it fits preconceived ideas.
Lankford’s study reported that over the 47 years there were 90 public mass shooters in the United States and 202 in the rest of world. Lankford hasn’t released his list of shootings or even the number of cases by country or year. We and others, both in academia and the media, have asked Lankford for his list, only to be declined. He has also declined to provide lists of the news sources and languages he used to compile his list of cases.
These omissions are important because Lankford’s entire conclusion would fall apart if he undercounted foreign cases due to lack of news coverage and language barriers.