OFFENSE, OFFENDER, AND VICTIM CHARACTERISTICS OF PUBLIC MASS MURDER INCIDENTS IN THE UNITED STATES, 1975-1999
Thomas A. Petee, Department of Sociology, Auburn University
Kathy G. Padgett, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Florida State University
Events such as the school massacres in Pearl, Mississippi, West Paducah, Kentucky, Jonesboro, Arkansas, Springfield, Oregon, and Littleton, Colorado have attracted an enormous amount of attention and heightened concerns over public incidents of mass murder. The most recent of these episodes, the massacre that took place on the grounds of Columbine High School in Littleton, generated intensive media coverage, and spawned numerous forums, task forces and even a Congressional inquiry in an attempt to quell public concern and otherwise explore how such a tragedy could have occurred.
Yet despite a great deal of speculation by the media and some academics, to date, little research has been done on this form of multiple murder. The literature on this topic has primarily been limited to differentiating between different types of multiple homicide (see Busch & Cavanaugh, 1986; Dietz, 1986; Gresswell & Hollin, 1994; Rappaport, 1988), or attempts to create a typology for various types of mass murder (Dietz, 1986; Holmes & Holmes, 1994; Kelleher, 1997; Petee, Padgett and York, 1997; Rappaport, 1988; Rowlands, 1990). Very little is known about patterns and trends related to mass murder.
The present study will examine situational factors related to public incidents of mass homicide. In the wake of recent incidents, a number of questions have been raised about the nature of mass murder. Specifically, this paper will attempt to address the following:
1. Is mass murder being perpetrated by younger offenders? The school massacres in particular have raised questions about the participation by younger offenders in mass murder incidents. Overall, homicide statistics indicate a increase in the percentage of juvenile offenders. However, does this trend apply to mass murder as well?
2. What is the role of firearms in mass murder incidents? The question of accessibility and lethality have been raised as a result of some of the more highly publicized mass murder incidents (e.g., Colin Ferguson, the Jonesboro case). How often are firearms used in mass murder incidents? How do these figures compare to overall trends for homicide? Moreover, what kind of firearms tend to be used in these incidents?
3. What kind of patterns exist pertaining to victimization? Several of the school shootings appeared to focus on female victims in particular. Is there any specific pattern to victimization for mass murder incidents? What is the percentage of female victims relative to male victims and has this changed over time?
4. What kind of spatial and temporal elements exist regarding mass murder? Do they tend to occur in any one kind of place? Is there any particular pattern pertaining to day of the week when mass murders occur? Is there any pattern to the time of the day when these incidents occur?
AGE TRENDS FOR MASS MURDER
The school massacres raised concerns over the participation of juveniles in mass murder. Historically, the perception has been that mass murder tends to be committed by middle-aged adults (see Levin and Fox, 1985). However, that perception has changed markedly in the past few years. There had already been a good deal of concern over youth violence due to the steady increase in the percentage of youth committing homicide since the mid-1980's (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1985- 1998; Heide, 1999). The Jonesboro and Littleton incidents in particular seemed to heighten these concerns. Consequently, as of late there seems to be a tendency to equate mass murder with younger offenders.
An analysis of the distribution of age categories for mass murder reveals that youth (i.e., offenders under 18 years of age) constitute a relatively small proportion (10.5%) of all offenders. However, an analysis of offender age over time demonstrates that the average offender age has dropped precipitously in the last two years. In 1997, the mean offender age was 36.2 years. In 1998, that figure dropped to 18.5 years, and thus far in 1999, the mean offender age has been 17.5 years. In fact, the lowest mean offender age prior to 1998 was 23.7 years in 1975. The significance of this finding, however, is hard to evaluate. It should be remembered that mass murder is a relatively rare phenomenon, and that the influence of even a handful of cases could dramatically impact these averages. Nevertheless, more than a third (37.5%) of the juvenile offenders in this data set were from 1998 and 1999. For most of the years examined, none of the offenders were under 18 years of age .
FIREARMS AND MASS MURDER
A more complex question has to do with the use of firearms in mass murder episodes. On one hand, firearms are used in 88% of the mass murder incidents examined in this study, thus making them the weapon of choice. With the exception of several years (1975, 1977, 1981 and 1995) where victimization counts were skewed by high fatality arsons or bombings, the percentage of victimizations involving firearms in mass murder cases was higher than the comparable percentage of victimizations for homicide in general. In fact, in the majority of the years analyzed here, firearm fatalities accounted for all of the victimizations.
However, while some critics might question how some of the offenders acquired the weapons used in these murders, the evidence from this study suggests that some of the recommended remedies might be misguided. Very frequently, anti-gun forces call for the banning of "assault" weapons or the implementation of waiting periods and background checks for prospective buyers. These background checks typically target those potential buyers with a prior history of violent crime or with a history of mental illness. Of the known offenders in this study, only 18.9% had any history of mental health problems. Moreover, while a fairly high proportion of the offenders had a prior criminal history (50.9%), only 15.7% had a history of violent crime. Perhaps even more important, 63.3% of these offenders purchased the firearm(s) used in the offense legally (interestingly, another 20% borrowed the weapon they used), which is inconsistent with findings for other gun-related crimes (Wright and Rossi, 1986).
The most lethal mass murder events did not involve firearms at all. As can been seen in Figure Five, mass murder involving the use of firearms resulted in an average of 4.87 victims killed per incident. By comparison, mass murder involving arson had an average of 8.5 victims killed per incident, and those involving explosives resulted in an average of 86.5 victims killed per incident, although the latter figure is obviously skewed by the Oklahoma City bombing. However, the use of arson materials or explosives in mass murder incidents is relatively rare- accounting for only 4% of the cases. Ultimately, the prevalence of firearms in mass murder incidents may be an issue of weapon availability (see Cook and Moore, 1999).
The Jonesboro incident in particular raised questions about the targeting of females for victimization. In that incident, all five of the victims who were killed by Mitchell Johnson and Andrew Golden were female, and the offenders had apparently targeted girls. Following the incident, there was some discussion in the media which equated mass murder with femicide (see Palmer, 1998). In fact, females account for 30.9% of the victims of mass murder, which is indeed higher than their representation in homicide statistics in general (on average about 25% for the time period studied). On the other hand, some argument may be made regarding risk of victimization. Overall, men are much more at risk for homicide victimization than women (Segall and Wilson, 1993; MacKellar and Yanagishita, 1995; see also, Brewer and Smith, 1995), and it has been speculated that this may be attributed to the kinds of activities that they engage in which put them at risk for victimization (i.e., the routine activities approach). With mass murder- especially those incidents occurring in public settings- one might expect to see a more even distribution of male and female victims because of the context. Essentially, one would expect to see the "at risk" proportions to be representative of the distribution of males and females in the population in general, although some modifications to the expected victimization rate would be made for specific contexts (e.g., the workplace, which would take into account female participation in the labor market).
An analysis of female victimization over time reveals a fairly substantial variation in the percentage of female victims. For some years (notably, 1977, 1984, 1989, 1992 and 1998), the proportion of female victims exceeds 50%. For others (1979 and 1985), there were no female victims for mass murder incidents. This variation in victimization, does not support the notion that equates mass murder with femicide, although there are certainly some incidents in which females are specifically targeted (e.g., Jonesboro, or the Marc Lepine incident in Montreal in 1989).
SPATIAL AND TEMPORAL PATTERNS
In the past two years, there has been a great deal of concern over the safety of schools after the shootings in Pearl, West Paducah, Jonesboro, Springfield, and Littleton. Despite the recent concentration of mass murder incidents in these school settings, spatially there appears to be no particular pattern to where mass murder occurs. Restaurants are the most likely place for a mass murder incident to occur (16.1%), followed by retail/grocery stores (14.5%) and government offices/facilities (12.9%). Schools (which includes universities) represent 9.7% of the cases, only the fourth most likely place for a mass murder to occur. Within this category, 42% occurred on a university campus, which was the more typical "school setting" for mass murder in the late 1980's and early 1990's (e.g., Gang Lu at the University of Iowa in 1991).
If more general categories were used for defining location, 40% of the mass murder incidents occurred in a commercial location (i.e., restaurants, stores, etc.), and 31% in the workplace. However, these categories do not entirely correspond to certain kinds of risk factors (i.e., robbery for commercial settings and disgruntled employees for the workplace). Because the location of mass murder incidents is widely dispersed, it is difficult to determine what kind of implications can be drawn from these findings. It does not appear as though any particular public place is substantially more likely to be targeted for such an event.
Interest in the temporal characteristics of homicide can be traced back to Wolfgang (1958). In general, studies on temporal distribution of homicide tend to focus on work and leisure patterns, with weekends accounting for a greater relative frequency of homicide (see Kposowa and Breault, 1998). Mass murder is most likely to occur on a Monday (19% of the incidents), although there is a fairly even distribution of cases across the week with the exception of Saturdays (only 7% of the cases).
The time of day the mass murder incident occurred was also examined, with 22.1% of the mass murders occurred between 9:00 a.m. and 11:59 a.m., which corresponds to the beginning of the work day. When this finding is taken in conjunction with the most likely day of the week for a mass murder to occur (i.e., Monday), it seems to suggest a connection to workplace violence. Overall, nearly half (48.9%) of mass murders occurred between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., which is consistent with the routine activities explanation.
In examining mass murder events occurring in the United States from 1975 until 1999, this paper set out to determine some of the key characteristics of these incidents. An examination of the age distribution for offenders suggested that there is comparatively a greater representation of juvenile offenders by the late 1990's. The issue of weapon choice was also explored. While firearms accounted for a high proportion of the homicides (88%), other weapons (i.e., bombs and arson materials) have a greater lethal potential. An exploration of victimization patterns does not support the thesis that equates mass murder to femicide. While females are more likely to be the victims of mass murder compared to homicide in general, if risk and routine activities are taken into account, their proportional representation is somewhat lower than expected. Finally, an examination of spatial and temporal patterns of mass murder incidents revealed that this time of homicide may be consistent with a routine activities approach in regards to temporal distribution, although no particular spatial pattern was noted.
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