In less than 90 minutes on Sunday afternoon, two 911 calls led police in Texas and Washington to two mass shootings that pushed the nation to a gruesome milestone.
They were the 37th and 38th shootings this year in which four or more victims were killed, the highest number of mass killings in any year since at least 2006. Last year’s 36 was the previous record.
In Dallas, a 21-year-old man who was supposed to be wearing an ankle monitor because of a previous aggravated assault charge walked into a house and shot five people, killing a toddler and three adults. He fled in a stolen car, police said, but fatally shot himself as highway patrol officers chased him. In a suburb of Vancouver, Wash., five family members died in what sheriff’s deputies think was a murder-suicide.
The latest deaths brought the 2023 total to 197, not counting the shooters - yet another record. Ninety-one people were wounded in those events but survived.
Like most mass killings, the most recent pair occurred not in headline-grabbing public locations but in private homes.
The Washington Post calls a shooting in which four people are killed, excluding the shooter, a “mass killing with a gun,” because the term “mass shooting” has no universal definition. The database The Post uses is compiled by the Associated Press, USA Today and Northeastern University and dates to 2006. Learn more about mass killings here.
Other organizations define a mass shooting more broadly and so report much larger numbers, such as Gun Violence Archive, which includes events in which multiple people have been shot, regardless of whether anyone died.
Shootings have increased in recent years
Mass killings with guns rose in 2019 but dropped during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic. As daily life gradually returned to normal, the frequency of the deadliest shootings crept up.
The record is “a tragic, shameful milestone that should - but probably will not - serve as a wake-up call” to lawmakers opposing gun regulations, said Thomas Abt, founding director of the Center for the Study and Practice of Violence Reduction and an associate research professor at the University of Maryland. “The rise in mass shootings is driven by many factors, but increasingly easy access to firearms is the primary cause.”
Mass killings are not an epidemic, but the tip of the gun-violence iceberg, said James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology, law and public policy at Northeastern who manages the mass killings database and has studied such violence for more than 40 years. They account for a tiny percentage of gun deaths.
More than 48,000 people died of gunshot wounds in 2022, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, which averages out to about 132 deaths per day. More than half of those were suicides.
“Far too many people are being killed by their own hand or by someone else’s hand,” Fox said. “And mass shootings just happen to be the most visible.”
The majority took place in homes
This year began with seven mass killings with guns in January, the most of any month in the database.
The first occurred right after the new year in Enoch, Utah. On Jan. 4, police discovered the bodies of a 42-year-old insurance agent, his estranged wife, their five children, ages 4 to 17, and his wife’s mother, all shot in the head. Police said a suicide note next to the man’s body blamed his wife for the family’s problems.
This year, as well as every year since at least 2006, the largest number of mass killings occurred in private homes or shelters - at least 26 of the 38.
Nineteen were committed by people who killed members of their own families, including current or former romantic partners and children. At least three of the other shootings, as appears to be the case in Dallas, involved neighbours killing neighbours.
The largest occurred in public
The deadliest shooting of 2023 took place Oct. 25 in Lewiston, Maine, when an Army reservist who had experienced recent psychiatric problems opened fire in a bowling alley and a bar that was hosting a weekly cornhole tournament. He killed 18 people and wounded 13. After a two-day manhunt, police found his body in a trailer. The man apparently died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
That total surpassed the death toll from Jan. 21, when a 72-year-old ballroom dancer fatally shot 11 with a semiautomatic rifle during a Lunar New Year celebration at a dance studio he frequented in Monterey Park, Calif. He went to a second studio but was disarmed by a member of the family who owned it, took off in his van and killed himself as police approached.
Ten of the 38 shootings happened in public places, including at an outlet mall in Texas, a bank in Kentucky, a mushroom farm in California and a birthday party in Alabama.
One was at a Nashville elementary school, when on March 27, a former student killed three 9-year-olds and three adults.
Just three shootings as of Monday were known or thought to be related to robberies, gang conflicts or drug-related crimes.
Instead, most perpetrators lashed out at strangers or people they knew, and they did so despite knowing the result would probably be their own death or life imprisonment, said Adam Lankford, chair of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Alabama. They had “no hope for the future.”
Beyond the sheer number of mass shootings, Lankford finds this year’s record particularly troubling. “American society has become better at understanding mass shooting warning signs and threat assessment strategies,” he said.
And yet they keep happening.