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Friday, April 26, 2013

Public Mass Shootings in the United States: Selected Implications for Federal Public Health and Safety Policy

Jerome P. Bjelopera, Coordinator
Specialist in Organized Crime and Terrorism

Erin Bagalman
Analyst in Health Policy

Sarah W. Caldwell
Information Research Specialist

Kristin M. Finklea
Specialist in Domestic Security

Gail McCallion
Specialist in Social Policy

This report focuses on mass shootings and selected implications they have for federal policy in the areas of public health and safety. While such crimes most directly impact particular citizens in very specific communities, addressing these violent episodes involves officials at all levels of government and professionals from numerous disciplines. 

Defining Public Mass Shooting 

Policy makers may confront numerous questions about shootings such as the December 2012 incident at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, that claimed 27 lives (not including the shooter). Foremost, what are the parameters of this threat? How should it be defined?

There is no broadly agreed-to, specific conceptualization of this issue, so this report uses its own definition for public mass shootings. These are incidents occurring in relatively public places, involving four or more deaths—not including the shooter(s)—and gunmen who select victims somewhat indiscriminately. The violence in these cases is not a means to an end—the gunmen do not pursue criminal profit or kill in the name of terrorist ideologies, for example. 

One Measure of the Death Toll Exacted by Public Mass Shootings.
Applying this understanding of the issue, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) has identified 78 public mass shootings that have occurred in the United States since 1983. This suggests the scale of this threat and is intended as a thorough review of the phenomenon but should not be characterized as exhaustive or definitive. According to CRS estimates, over the last three decades public mass shootings have claimed 547 lives and led to an additional 472 injured victims. Significantly, while tragic and shocking, public mass shootings account for few of the murders or non-negligent homicides related to firearms that occur annually in the United States. 

Policymaking Challenges in Public Health and Safety 

Aside from trying to develop a sense of this phenomenon’s scope, policy makers may face other challenges when addressing this topic. To help describe some of the health and safety issues public mass shootings pose, this report discusses selected policy in three areas: law enforcementpublic health, and education. While mass shootings may occur in a number of settings, the education realm is one that has received particular attention from policy makers, officials, and the public alike—at least since the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, CO. The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary has renewed such concerns for many.

In the areas of law enforcement, public health, and education, this report discusses some key efforts to prevent mass shootings as well as efforts geared toward preparedness and response. Policy measures that deal with recovery are also discussed within the context of education and public health initiatives. 

Policy Effectiveness and Outlay of Resources.
Many of the policymaking challenges regarding public mass shootings boil down to two interrelated matters: (1) a need to determine the effectiveness of existing programs and (2) figuring out where to disburse limited resources. Finally, baseline metrics related to this problem are often unclear or unavailable. This lack of clarity starts with identifying the number of shootings themselves, since no broadly agreed-to definition exists. Several questions flow from this issue. How many people have such incidents victimized? How much does prevention of, preparedness for, and response to such incidents cost 
the federal government? What measurements can be used to determine the effectiveness of such programs?

This report does not discuss gun control policies and does not systematically address the broader issue of gun violence, which can include topics such as gun-related suicide and a wide variety of gun-related crimes. Also, it is not intended as an exhaustive review of federal programs addressing the issue of mass shootings.

Date of Report: April 16, 2013
Number of Pages: 40
Order Number: R43004
Price: $29.95

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