Are we on track to surpass last year’s mass murder death toll? In California, the mass murders in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay show that needless violence continues to plague our country. But the unique features of these events raise the question of whether a gun-only focus has hindered meaningful counter-reactions.
Let’s look at the data: There were already six mass killings in 2023, killing 43 people and injuring 11 through Jan. 24, according to the Gun Violence Archive. This compares to 36 such events in all of 2022, with 202 killed and 95 injured.
The magnitude of these numbers may surprise many people, given the broad coverage some mass murders (defined as four or more deaths, not counting the perpetrator) receive in the mainstream media. This is especially true when there are a large number of deaths, children are involved, or the motives are based on race or target certain groups.
So, what are some lessons to be learned from these mass killings?
Mass killings are unpredictable
There are no consistent warning signs prior to a mass murder. They are random events, which makes them difficult to predict, both in terms of timing and location. Since any public location is a potential target, be it shopping malls or entertainment venues, the most effective approach remains preparedness and rapid response when such an event begins to unfold.
Just as Buffalo Bills football player Damar Hamlin’s life was saved on the Cincinnati football field when he went into cardiac arrest, every public venue should have a plan and be ready to respond in the unlikely event of an emergency — including an active shooter with the intent to cause harm. Most importantly, in any public space, every person must be aware of their surroundings and be prepared to escape if a dangerous situation begins to emerge, whether it be a gunman, a fire, or acts of violence.
Individual risk is low
There are tens of thousands of possible public targets for mass killings, but the number that occurs each year is typically only a few dozen. This is in contrast to mass shootings, defined as four or more people shot in a single event, excluding the shooter, which occur on average once or twice a day. All these events are certainly dangerous. Some media outlets tend to sensationalize a mass murder by citing mass shooting data at the same time. There is no point in informing people about the risks.
Fortunately, the risk to targeted individuals is extremely small. By comparison, in 2020 there were more than 42,000 car deaths in the US, or about 115 deaths per day. Each of us today is more likely to die in a car accident than in a mass murder.
The weapon is less important than the perpetrator
The weapon used in the Monterey Park massacre was reportedly a semi-automatic pistol, not the typical AR-15 rifle that has been used in many other similar events. If the shooter had used an AR-15 rifle, those seeking to ban such weapons would be exploiting this event to justify their position.
The type of weapon used is not the problem. It’s about the fact that innocent people die prematurely. When those who want to ban assault weapons connect dots that have no basis for causation, they are exploiting tragic events for their personal or political agenda.
If the deaths in Monterey Park or Half Moon Bay were caused by people being beaten with baseball bats, would politicians try to introduce legislation to ban baseball bats for the crimes they might commit? Of course not. The same logic can be applied if the weapon was a machete, or if the perpetrator set fire to the location. Firearms are certainly more efficient than these other weapons, but not the only option. The mass stabbing in Saskatchewan last September highlights this point. The end results are the same, with innocent lives lost prematurely, which is the tragedy of any mass murder.
Every mass murder has its own distinct footprint. This means that whatever the motive, plan and execution, every event will contain some unexpected twists that make it unique. With the Monterey Park event, authorities say the perpetrator fled the first crime scene and attempted a second attack in Alhambra, which was thwarted by the people there. According to the police, the alleged gunman eventually took his own life, a common occurrence in mass murders. The suspect was also 72 years old – much older than many perpetrators of mass murders.
Whatever insights emerge from the mass murders in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay, innocent people are dead prematurely. That is the tragedy that the friends and family of the victims must carry with them forever.
Unfortunately, this will not be the last mass murder of 2023. With some planning, preparation and awareness, the number of affected people can be reduced in the future. The reaction at the Alhambra location shows that active real-time reactions are not only possible, but can also save lives, regardless of the weapons used. This is the message that everyone can heed.
Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He applies his expertise in data-driven, risk-based decision-making to evaluate and inform public policy.