I was recently embroiled in a discussion about police responses to dangerous situations. It was suggested that police, when responding to a mass shooting event, are generally able to stop or reduce the killing. Being the kind of person I am, I wondered if this was true. I had to find out!
This LA Times piece was cited as evidence of effective police responses to mass shootings. It is a list of the 46 deadliest mass shootings in the US, in reverse chronological order. So, with that in hand, let’s take it case by case. I will put each shooting into one of a few categories:
- Police brought down the shooter in the middle of his rampage, or the shooter committed suicide during a confrontation with police.
- The rampage was over by the time police arrived (or continued in spite of police presence), but police killed or captured the shooter before he could escape.
- The rampage was ended by citizen intervention.
- The shooter got away and was not stopped by police at all until much later (essentially well post-rampage). Also counted here are instances when the shooter committed suicide before police were able to stop him.
The key claim being evaluated–that the police effectively stop the killing–falls under #1, and #1 only. #2 gives police at least partial credit. The rest directly counter the claim that police thwart mass shootings.
So, the list:
- San Bernardino shooting — I’ll call it a #2, but one could argue it’s #1.
- Planned Parenthood shooting — #2. The standoff lasted for hours and shooting continued the whole time. The police did not end the situation quickly.
- Roseburg, Oregon school shooting — A clear #1. Gunman committed suicide in the midst of a shootout with police.
- Chattanooga military base shootings — #2. The gunman was able to finish shooting at one site and go to another to kill more people, where he was finally killed by police. One could call it a #4 since he got away from the first shooting.
- Charleston church shooting — Clear #4. Shooter got away and was captured much later.
- Isla Vista shooting — Clear #1. Confronted by cops, engaged in firefight, committed suicide.
- Ft. Hood shooting (2014) — #1. Shooter died in confrontation with police.
- DC shooting — #1. Shooter died in confrontation with police.
- Santa Monica shooting — #1. Shooter died in confrontation with police.
- Newtown (Sandy Hook Elementary) shooting — #4. Lanza was able to continue his rampage despite police presence, and eventually killed himself. Police did not fire a single shot.
- Brookfield, Wisconsin shooting — #4. Shooter completed rampage, committed suicide.
- Minneapolis shooting — #4. Shooter killed 6 people, then himself.
- Oak Creek shooting — #1. Shooter was wounded by a police officer, commited suicide shortly after.
- Aurora theater shooting — #2. Something of an oddity since Holmes surrendered to police after basically shooting everyone he could.
- Oakland college shooting — #4. Shooter got away, surrendered to police later.
- Seal Beach shooting — #4. Shooter got away, was later stopped and surrendered.
- Tucson shooting — A rare #3. Shooter was tackled by bystanders and held until police arrive.
- Manchester shooting — #4. Shooter killed 8 people, then himself.
- Huntsville, Alabama college shooting — #2. A rare female perpetrator. Killed 3 people, then surrendered to police.
- Ft. Hood shooting (2009) — Easy #1. Shooter brought down by police, then captured.
- Binghamton, New York shooting — #4. Shooter completed rampage, committed suicide.
- Dekalb, Illinois college shooting — #4. Shooter completed rampage, committed suicide.
- Omaha shooting — #4. Another premeditated suicide rampage.
- Virginia Tech shooting — #4. A full two hours passed between shooting events. The shooter able to kill himself before police could intervene.
- Salt Lake City shooting — #1. Police arrived and killed the shooter mid-rampage.
- Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania shooting — #1. Shooter committed suicide as police stormed the building he was in.
- Goleta post office shooting — #4. Shooter completed rampage, then committed suicide. The second woman shooter on this list (so far).
- Red Lake Indian Reservation shooting — #4. 16-year-old killed family members, then went on a school rampage, then killed himself.
- Meridian, Mississippi shooting — #4. Angry racist shot up his workplace, then killed himself before police could intervene.
- University of Arizona shooting — #4. Shooter killed 3 people, then himself.
- Santee, California school shooting — #1. Police captured shooter mid-rampage.
- Wakefield, Massachusetts shooting — #4. Shooter finished rampage, sat quietly in the waiting room until police apprehended him.
- Honolulu shooting — #4. Shooter completed rampage, fled the scene, and was later captured by police.
- Ft. Worth church shooting — #4. Another rampage-suicide.
- Atlanta shooting — #4. Rampage, escape, suicide.
- Columbine shooting — #4. It took the police hours to venture into the school to determine what happened. By that point, the shooters had long since killed themselves and everyone else they could have.
- Jonesboro school shooting — #2. Shooters were captured before making good their escape.
- Garden City, New York subway shooting — #3. Bystanders brought down the shooter.
- San Francisco shooting — #1. Shooter killed himself while confronting police.
- Olivehurst, California shooting — #2. More difficult to categorize since it became a hostage situation, but the killing did essentially stop once the cops arrived and it turned into a hostage scenario.
- Iowa City shooting — #4. Shooter had killed himself before police even arrived.
- Killeen, Texas shooting — #4. Shooter completed rampage, killed himself.
- Jacksonville, Florida shooting — #4. Shooter had killed two other people over a day previously, then killed 10 more before killing himself.
- Stockton, California shooting — #4. Shooter killed himself almost immediately after shooting 34 people and killing 5.
- Edmond, Oklahoma shooting — #4. Another rampage-suicide.
- San Ysidro, California shooting — #1. Killed by police sniper.
With that messy business out of the way, what’s the breakdown here?
- 12 cases (26%) where police definitively ended a shooting, either by killing or capturing the perpetrator mid-rampage, or cornering him into suicide.
- 7 cases (15%) where police may have contributed to ending a shooting, simply by being present, even if they didn’t directly end it.
- 2 cases (4%) where bystanders successfully ended a rampage. This doesn’t speak well for the ability of everyday citizens to stop such events, clearly. Both times, the shooter was stopped by simply tackling him, not shooting him. In none of the above cases did a civilian with a gun successfully end the shooting.
- 25 cases (54%) where shooters were able to complete their rampage and either escape or commit suicide before police are able to intervene. It’s usually the latter.
(Note that the above percentages add up to only 99% due to rounding.)
If one could pick out a trend, it’s that police have gradually gotten better at intervening in shootings, but it’s still basically neck-and-neck with the rampage-suicide (sometimes rampage-escape-capture) pattern.
It is hard to say what conclusions one could draw from this breakdown, but it is clear to me, at least, that police responses are usually too little, too late when it comes to mass shootings.
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