NPR's Jason Beaubien just returned from Sierra Leone, which along with Guinea and Liberia is suffering from the worst ever Ebola outbreak.
Criminologist Grant Duwe has researched mass killings in the U.S. and found some surprising statistics.
“Mass murder rates and mass public shootings have been on the decline,” Duwe told Here & Now. “But what we did see was an especially bad year for mass public shootings [in 2012]…. The number of victims who were killed and wounded was greater than in any previous year in U.S. history.”
Duwe found that 0.2 percent of all homicides that occur in the United States are mass murders, and of those mass murders, 10 percent are mass public killings, such as those in Aurora, Newtown and the Washington Navy Yard.
“I think it’s important for everyone to understand the cases that receive extensive coverage, that those aren’t the only mass murders that take place within the U.S.,” Duwe said. “Within a given year, there are about 30 mass murders that occur in this country.”
The more common mass murder is familicide, where a male head of the household kills his partner and his children, then kills himself, Duwe said.
The perpetrators of mass murder — whether public or not — are often mentally ill, he said.
About 60 percent of those who commit mass public killings suffer from a serious mental illness, Duwe said, noting that’s about six times higher than the rate of mental illness in the general population.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW, and as we just heard from NPR's Charlie Mahtesian, there is some question over whether maybe there will be some new gun control legislation following the Navy Yard shootings last week. Yesterday, President Obama spoke at a memorial.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As Americans bound in grief and love, we must insist here today there is nothing normal about innocent men and women being gunned down where they work. There's nothing normal about our children being gunned down in their classrooms. There's nothing normal about children dying in our streets from stray bullets. No other advanced nation endures this kind of violence, none.
HOBSON: Well, on NBC's "Meet the Press," the head of the National Rifle Association, Wayne LaPierre, gave his first interview yesterday since the Navy Yard shootings, insisting that outrage over guns was misplaced.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")
WAYNE LAPIERRE: The outrage ought to be placed on an unprotected naval base, on a criminal justice system that - in Chicago that doesn't even enforce the federal gun laws when we could dramatically cut violence, on a mental health system that is completely broken, on a check system that is a complete joke in terms of stopping the bad guys and a criminal justice system in this country just this past week because of budget collapse, they're releasing 23,000 people back to the streets in Los Angeles, a lot of them violent and a lot of them sex offenders. That's where the outrage of the American public is.
HOBSON: Well, we're joined now by one criminologist who has studied the history of mass killings and differentiates between the ones that take place in public that make the headlines and those that do not. Grant Duwe is director of research for the Minnesota Department of Corrections and author of the book "Mass Murder in the United States: A History." He joins us from Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. And Grant, we have seen Aurora, Oak Creek, Newtown, now the Navy Yard shootings. Are mass killings on the rise?
GRANT DUWE: What we've seen is that mass murder rates, and more specifically mass public shootings, have been on the decline. But what we did see is an especially bad year in 2012 for mass public shootings. The number of cases, which was seven, was higher than in any previous year since 1999, and the number of victims who were killed and wounded was greater than in any previous year in U.S. history.
HOBSON: And as a criminologist, what accounts for that? What do you think is the reason that 2012 was so bad?
DUWE: It's really difficult to say at this point. And this is an infrequently occurring type of crime, and that's one thing that's important to emphasize, that mass murders make up 0.2 percent of all homicides that occur within the United States, and even among mass murders, mass public shootings like the one that occurred at the Navy Yard, those make up just a little more than 10 percent of all mass murders.
HOBSON: Any idea why there has been a drop since the 1990s?
DUWE: Over the last 20 years, crime has dropped. We've seen that the murder rate in the United States today is about half of what it was during the early 1990s. So the drop in mass murder and more specifically mass public shootings is likely due to the same complex web of macro-level factors that are commonly attributed to plummeting crime rates, like demographic changes, greater numbers of police, increased use of incarceration, decreased social tolerance for crime and violence.
But then the micro-level factor could probably be attributed to taking threats more seriously, Of the mass public shootings that occur, about a third of the time the shooter makes threats beforehand, and since the 1990s but especially after Columbine, we've seen that schools and workplaces have generally done a better job at taking threats seriously.
HOBSON: In your research you focused on two mass murders within one month of each other in 1966 that you say had a big impact on perceptions and policy. Tell us about those murders and why they were so important.
DUWE: Well, the first one was in Chicago, in July of 1966, and that was when Richard Speck killed eight student nurses in a row house. And he was later apprehended and incarcerated for the rest of his life. And then almost three weeks later, Charles Whitman climbed atop the tower at the University of Texas and killed 16 and wounded about 30 more before he was gunned down by police.
And both times, at the time they were committed, they were considered to be crimes of the century. They attracted an enormous amount of news coverage. The Richard Speck case in particular, and then you have Charles Whitman who shattered our notions of public safety by committing what was at that time the largest gun-related mass murder in U.S. history.
HOBSON: So whey were these so important? What impact did they have?
DUWE: Well, in the 1980s, mass murder was identified as a new crime problem. And these were the most visible cases that most could remember as the first mass murders that marked the onset of this mass murder wave that started in the mid-1960s and continued through the 1990s.
HOBSON: We're speaking with Grant Duwe, a criminologist with the Minnesota Department of Corrections, and you're listening to HERE AND NOW. And Grant Duwe, you have a problem with the way the media cover these things. What do you think should be done differently?
DUWE: I think it's important for everyone to understand that the cases that receive extensive coverage, that those aren't the only mass murders that take place within the U.S., that within a given year, there are on average about 30 mass murders that occur in this country. Familicides, for example, are the most common type of mass killing. They make up almost half of the mass murders that occur in this country.
It's usually the senior male head of the household who kills his spouse or girlfriend, along with his children, and in about two-thirds of these cases, the offender commits suicide afterwards. And so among those who kill their families, as well as those who carry out mass public shootings, we see a very high rate of serious mental illness.
Among mass public shooters, for example, nearly 60 percent have a serious mental illness, which is about six times higher than what we see for the population in general.
HOBSON: Grant Duwe, why did you decide to study this?
DUWE: When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Kansas, there was a string of high-profile mass public shootings that occurred. And it dominated news coverage in the fall of 1991, and at the time I thought why would someone go into their place of work and try to gun down as many people as they could? Why would someone kill all of their family members and then commit suicide afterwards? And to me it was always trying to address the question why.
HOBSON: Have you gotten any closer to the answer to that question?
DUWE: I'm not sure that I have. As a result of the research that I've done, I think we have a better understanding of the history of mass murder. I think we have a better understanding of the patterns and prevalence of mass killings. And I think we may have some idea as to why we've seen a drop in mass murders and mass public shootings since the 1990s. But in terms of adequately explaining why mass murderers do what they do, I don't know if my research has significantly contributed to that.
HOBSON: Grant Duwe is a criminologist, director of research for the Minnesota Department of Corrections. He's also the author of "Mass Murder in the United States: A History." Grant Duwe, thanks so much for joining us.
DUWE: Thank you for having me.
HOBSON: And the latest news is next, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.