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Do Fewer Serial Killers Equal More Mass Shooters? The Data Will Surprise You

Are mass shooters just serial killers in disguise? 

During the 1960s and 70s, there was a rash of serial murders committed by now infamous killers such as Charles Manson, David Berkowitz, Ted Bundy, and the Zodiac Killer. Today, there are fewer prominent cases, as serial killers have (mostly) dropped from the headlines. 

But that’s not to say that mass murderers have disappeared entirely; far from it. In fact, would-be serial killers may be trading one form of mass murder for another. As our data below illustrates, while the frequency of serial killings has declined, the frequency of mass shootings has skyrocketed. 

U.S. Serial Killer Trends

First, some background on the rise and fall of serial killers in the United States. The following chart shows the rapid increase and subsequent decrease in the prevalence of serial killings in the U.S. throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries.

SK victims per year
  • Photo Credit: Gun Violence Archive

As the chart shows, serial killings peaked in the latter part of the 20th century, with a steady rise in victims from the late 1960s up until 1990. There are numerous factors which contributed to this trend—everything from a surge in crime more generally as US cities grew denser and more crowded, to increased media attention on serial killers (especially after the Manson Family murders of 1969) which created a snowball effect, to the development of an interstate highway system that allowed killers like Ted Bundy to roam freely across America and commit murder while evading police capture. 

Related: 22 Most Horrifying Serial Killer Books 

In the 1990s, the trend began to reverse itself, with the frequency of serial killings steadily declining on an almost consistent downward trajectory. The drivers here are multi-faceted: better police procedures including inter-agency communication, the establishment of a serial killer database, and a growing awareness of the problem amongst the public (many of whom were responsible for reporting serial killers to authorities) have all contributed to the drop-off in activity. Looking at this graph alone, one could surmise that society has achieved something spectacular: the reduction of evil manifested in fewer and fewer serial killings as the years progressed. 

But is there a hidden variable? What if the reduction in serial killings actually coincides with an uptick in another, equally horrific mode of crime: that of mass shootings? 

The Mass Shooting Phenomenon

An important note: There is currently no universally accepted definition of a mass shooting, as there is for a serial killing spree (serial killers are defined as those who commit three or more murders over a span of at least a month, with a ‘cooling off’ period in between). What constitutes a mass shooting can change drastically based on who’s constructing the underlying data. We are using the standard set by most experts, which classifies a mass shooting as a killing of four or more persons by a lone shooter (or in some cases two shooters). Domestic shootings, gang shootings, and shootings tied to robberies are excluded from this classification. 

Based on FBI statistics, the number of mass shootings in the United States has been on an upward trajectory since the dawn of the 21st century. 

Related: 7 Eerie Facts About Murderers 

Mass shooting incidents
  • Photo Credit: Gun Violence Archive

Additionally, the number of mass shooting casualties is also on the rise (Note—the graph below references fatalities as 'casulaties'). 

Mass Shooting Victims
  • Photo Credit: Gun Violence Archive

What is perhaps even more troubling is that according to the Gun Violence Archive, while the number of mass shootings has remained relatively stable since 2013 (in the 20-28 range per year) the total number of fatalities is increasing. This implies that mass shooters are becoming more lethal on average, based on the mortality rate of their victims. 

fatalities per mass shooting
  • Photo Credit: Gun Violence Archive

One notorious mass shooting took place in the 1960s – that perpetrated by ex-Marine Charles Whitman, who after stabbing his wife and mother to death, ascended the University of Texas clock tower with his rifle and opened fire on unsuspecting civilians on the campus below. Whitman killed 19 people that day and injured 31 others. Interestingly, according to author and criminologist Grant Duwe, in the 50 years leading up to the Texas clock tower shooting (which took place in 1966), only 25 mass shootings took place in the United States. That’s one every 24 months. 

Over the last five years, there have been 128 mass shootings, averaging just over two per month. 

From Methodical to Spontaneous

The question naturally arises: Why have would-be serial killers–or those predisposed to committing senseless mass murder–apparently altered their tactics and embraced mass shootings over serial killings? 

Many point to issues such as media glamorization, mental health issues and easy access to guns as core drivers of the mass shooting phenomenon. Modern society’s fascination with instant celebrity may also be at play here. Many serial killers perversely enjoy the media attention their crimes elicit. But why spend months or years methodically planning murder after murder, when you can gain the same level of attention in a single day with a mass shooting?

Related: Revealed: Which US States and UK Cities Watch the Most True Crime? 

The same way that many would-be actors are circumventing the time and effort it takes to build a successful acting career and achieving instant fame as Instagram celebrities, it has been suggested that would-be serial killers are opting for mass shootings as a means for instant fame, albeit in a much more macabre fashion. The most recent mass shooting which took place at the time of this writing–a white supremacist’s murder of dozens of worshippers at a mosque in New Zealand–helps illustrate this point, as the murderer videotaped his shooting spree and uploaded it to social media. The video has since been viewed millions of times. 

Looking Ahead

In the end, it seems the impulse to kill which leads many down a dark path will be with us for a long, long time. Yet it should be noted that the exact nature of that path seems to be changing, and hence the impact on society changes as well. Today, families and communities are less concerned about loners or depraved individuals who may or may not be serial killers; instead society’s focus is on the vengeful, perhaps mentally unstable individual with access to a gun and the willingness to commit a horrendous mass shooting. 

While American society can claim progress in reducing the prevalence of serial killings, it sadly has a whole new form of mass murder to contend with. 

Featured photo: Eugene Triguba / Unsplash 

Published on 25 Mar 2019

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