Criminology Professor to CNN's Tapper: Mass Shootings Aren't an 'Epidemic'

On Thursday's The Lead on CNN, James Allen Fox used actual crime data to splash cold water on a liberal talking point claiming that mass shootings on the rise: "It's a horrific event when four, five, twelve people are gunned down...But let's not think that this is an epidemic." Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University, also pointed out that the now-expired "assault weapons" ban had little impact on the number of mass shootings.

Anchor Jake Tapper wondered "what does society need to do" to prevent such events from happening. His guest actually contended that it would be overkill to implement draconian measures in response to such massacres: [MP3 audio available here; video below the jump]

JAMES ALAN FOX, CRIMINOLOGY PROFESSOR, NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY: Well, if you want to stop them, there's things we can do, but I don't think we will do them...are we going to eliminate private ownership of handguns? I doubt it. Are we going to round up and arrest everyone who looks a little bit bizarre...or wears black clothing, or has a scary Facebook page? I doubt it.

You see, we treasure our personal freedoms in America, and unfortunately, occasional mass shootings – as horrific as they are – is one of the prices that we pay for the freedoms that we enjoy. I don't want to minimize the pain and suffering of the victims and their families and those communities. They're horrific. But it's not an epidemic. Let's not go in a knee-jerk way, and change the society for something that happens very rarely.

Tapper led the segment by noting the recent shootings in Oregon and Las Vegas, and highlighted that "the President calls it a one-day story, and suggests that mass shootings are on the rise." He continued by pointing out that his guest "says no. He compiled the data of shootings with four or more fatalities from 1976 to 2012, and found that these incidents on a chart look like an EKG – up and down; a heartbeat – not a steady rise."

The CNN anchor first asked Professor Fox, "I have to say, it's hard to believe, when it seems like every week, we're reporting another mass shooting – many of them at schools – that this isn't an increasing trend. But that's what your data shows. I have to ask, though, your figures only go to 2012. Could there have been a spike in the last two years?" The Northeastern University academic replied, in part, that "sure, there could be. But there was a spike in the early 2000s. There was a spike in the late 1990s...and usually, spikes are followed by troughs. So, we shouldn't jump to conclusions....the trend line here is flat – even while the population in this country has grown....let's not think that this is an epidemic."

Tapper then wonder if there was "a jump in shootings shortly after Columbine." Fox pointed out that "actually, there was a decline in shootings after Columbine...there was a period of time when there was no multiple victim shootings in schools. Prior to Columbine, actually, there were a whole stream of shootings – about six mass shootings – at schools for a period of three or four years."

Later in the interview, the criminology professor did disclose that he supported some gun control: "It's still a good idea that we limit the size of magazines. The extent to which mass shooters have to reload certainly does help us." But Fox ended the segment with his "treasure our personal freedoms in America" answer.

The full transcript of the segment from Thursday's The Lead on CNN:


JAKE TAPPER: In the past week alone, the country has been horrified by the images on our televisions. A 15- year-old high schooler shooting a classmate to death in Oregon. No one seems to know why. Two policemen and a hero outside a Walmart killed in Vegas by some sick husband and wife team. A 26-year-old, taking inspiration from Columbine, killing a student on a Seattle college campus.

It leaves the nation and the President asking why. The President calls it a one-day story, and suggests that mass shootings are on the rise. Are they? Well, one professor and criminologist says no. He compiled the data of shootings with four or more fatalities from 1976 to 2012, and found that these incidents on a chart look like an EKG – up and down; a heartbeat – not a steady rise. Does that surprise you?

And joining me now is the man who crunched these numbers, James Allen Fox, professor of criminology at Northeastern University. Professor Fox, good to see you as always. But I have to say, it's hard to believe, when it seems like every week, we're reporting another mass shooting – many of them at schools – that this isn't an increasing trend. But that's what your data shows. I have to ask, though, your figures only go to 2012. Could there have been a spike in the last two years?

JAMES ALAN FOX, CRIMINOLOGY PROFESSOR, NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY: Sure, there could be. But there was a spike in the early 2000s. There was a spike in the late 1990s. There was a spike around 2005, and usually, spikes are followed by troughs. So, we shouldn't jump to conclusions.

You know, Barack Obama has called gun violence the new normal. I should remind you, however, that Bill Clinton once said, we should focus on trend lines, not headlines, and the trend line here is flat – even while the population in this country has grown.

[CNN Graphic: "Are Mass Shootings On The Rise? Data paints more complicated picture?"]

TAPPER: So, you're not saying that this is – this is not something we shouldn't be concerned with. You're just saying that, maybe, we should have been as concerned years ago as we seem to be today?
                   
FOX: Right. Obviously, it's a horrific event when four, five, twelve people are gunned down, and we should be trying to deal with situations like that. But let's not think that this is an epidemic.

TAPPER: We hear so much about shooters, such as the one on the college campus in Seattle last week, being inspired by the Columbine shootings. Was there a jump in shootings shortly after Columbine?

FOX: Actually, there was a decline in shootings after Columbine. After Columbine, America was obsessed with 9/11, and there were – there was a period of time when there was no multiple victim shootings in schools. Prior to Columbine, actually, there were a whole stream of shootings – about six mass shootings – at schools for a period of three or four years. So, there are the – it's a random process when sometimes, things cluster together; and then, sometimes, there's a lull, and we talk about other factors and other issues in America.

[CNN Graphic: "Are Mass Shootings On The Rise? Study: Shootings lulled in years after Columbine"]

TAPPER: There was additional gun control in the '90s and then, some of that has expired since then. Did that have any effect one way or the other on these shootings?

FOX: Well, no – actually, I did measure the impact of the federal weapons ban – the assault weapons ban – that we had for a ten-year period of time, beginning in 1994, on mass shootings. And the impact was negligible, because even though we had this ban in place, there was still plenty of assault weapons in circulation. And indeed, most mass murderers don't use assault weapons. They use – they use semi-automatic handguns. That's the most common weapon, but not what would be declared an assault weapon and banned.

Now, at the same time, it's still a good idea that we limit the size of magazines. The extent to which mass shooters have to reload certainly does help us, if we want to intervene in their way –  in their path.

[CNN Graphic: "Are Mass Shootings On The Rise? Study: Assault weapons ban had little impact"]                
TAPPER: To stop these, what does society need to do?

FOX: Well, if you want to stop them, there's things we can do, but I don't think we will do them. I mean, do we – are we going to eliminate private ownership of handguns? I doubt it. Are we going to round up and arrest everyone who looks a little bit bizarre, or has – or wears black clothing, or has a scary Facebook page? I doubt it.

You see, we treasure our personal freedoms in America, and unfortunately, occasional mass shootings – as horrific as they are – is one of the prices that we pay for the freedoms that we – that we enjoy. I don't want to minimize the pain and suffering of the victims and their families and those communities. They're horrific. But it's not an epidemic. Let's not go in a knee-jerk way, and – and change the society for something that happens very rarely.

TAPPER: James Alan Fox, thank you.

Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan is a news analyst at Media Research Center