Assault Rifles Are Linked to Only 25% of ‘Active Shooter’ Events

September 11, 2018, 5:38 PM UTC

A large amount of coverage of gun violence in America focuses on when semi-automatic weapons are used, particularly when brought to bear in mass killings, given their capacity to quickly inflict grievous harm. The intensity of that media klieg light, however, may be disproportionate to how often those firearms are actually used in these bouts of sudden violence, which have been given a name: “active shooter events.”

A study published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that semi-automatic assault rifles were used in only about 25 percent of such U.S. incidents from 2000 to 2017. The rest of the time, firearms including handguns, rifles and shotguns were the weapon of choice.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation defines an active shooter event as “a situation in which an individual is actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined or populated area.” The researchers used FBI data on 248 U.S. shootings, as well as legal filings and media reports, to determine what weapons were used. The study may raise questions about whether calls to restrict only semi-automatics in the wake of such attacks are missing the bigger picture, one in which other weapons are used three times as often—albeit with less carnage.

“It’s a very simple study,” said Dr. Adil Haider, the lead author. “What it shows is that if you have an active shooter incident, if the person has a semi-automatic, they’re able to shoot twice as many people, and hence twice as many people end up dying.” If there’s to be an informed debate about regulating guns, Haider said, people need to know that handguns can be, and are, just as easily used by an assailant intent on killing in a public place.

A trauma surgeon and director at the Center for Surgery and Public Health, Haider noted that government funding was not used for this study. The matter of whether the federal government should fund research into gun violence has been a bone of political contention for years.

American Outdoor Brands Corp., formerly known as Smith & Wesson, shipped almost 38 percent more long guns in its latest quarter than it did during the same period last year.

Long guns include semi-automatics. They also tend to have higher profit margins for gunmakers. A firearm manufactured by American Outdoor was used in the deadly Parkland, Fla., mass shooting, prompting concern from institutional investors. In a vote later this month, American Outdoor shareholders will decide if the company must prepare a report on gun violence. Earlier this year, Sturm, Ruger & Co. investors said that company must prepare a comparable report.

Despite their findings, Haider and his fellow researchers found the data available to be lacking and called for a “national centralized database to inform the debate on an assault weapons ban” in the discussion portion of the study. Haider said he hopes the study can help inform the gun control debate nationwide: “We should definitely keep that piece of information front and center as we, hopefully, can have a scientific, data-driven debate on this.”