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CJPXXX10.1177/0887403418786556Criminal Justice Policy ReviewSilva and Capellan
A Comparative Analysis of
Media Coverage of Mass
Public Shootings: Examining
Rampage, Disgruntled
Employee, School, and LoneWolf Terrorist Shootings in
the United States
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2019, Vol. 30(9) 1312­–1341
© The Author(s) 2018
Article and
DOI: 10.1177/0887403418786556
Jason R. Silva1 and Joel A. Capellan2
This study provides a comparative analysis of news media coverage across four
types of mass public shootings: rampage, disgruntled employee, school, and lonewolf terrorist. This research analyzes the agenda-setting function of the media
and identifies differences in coverage and the salience of coverage, proportionality
of coverage, changes in coverage over time, and factors influencing levels of
coverage. Findings indicate school shootings and lone-wolf terrorist shootings
receive disproportionate amounts of news media coverage. This suggests media
coverage may be contributing to setting the public and policy agenda concerning
the phenomenon. These findings have important implications for public perceptions
of risk, conceptualizations of potential perpetrators, and the implementation of
security measures.
mass public shooting, mass media, agenda setting, school shooting, terrorism
Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York, NY, USA
University, Glassboro, NJ, USA
Corresponding Author:
Jason R. Silva, Doctoral Program in Criminal Justice, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 524 West 59th
Street, New York, NY 10019, USA.
Silva and Capellan
There are more mass public shootings in the United States than in any other country in
the world (Lankford, 2016b). From 1970 to 2014, the United States experienced 282
mass public shootings, resulting in a total of 905 deaths and more than 1,094 injured
victims (Capellan, 2015). Tragically, there appears to be no end in sight, as the number
of mass public shooting incidents continues to steadily occur (Blair & Schweit, 2014;
Capellan, 2015; Hamm & Spaaij, 2017). From 2000 to 2014, there were almost twice
as many shootings than during the last 30 years of the 20th century (Capellan, 2015).
Due to their devastating and recurring nature, there are those who are calling for these
attacks to be treated as a major public health crisis in the United States (American
Medical Association, 2016).
Despite the danger posed by these attacks, not all mass public shootings receive the
same amount of attention. The political discourse, policy discussions, and subsequent
actions in the aftermath of these attacks have revolved around two specific types of
shootings: school shootings and lone-wolf terrorist shootings. For instance, the
Extended Juvenile Jurisdiction Act (in Arkansas), Youth Gun Crime Enforcement Act
(Federal), Gun Show Accountability Act (Federal), and National Instant Criminal
Background Check System Improvement Amendments (Federal), among hundreds of
individual pieces of legislation, have been introduced as a direct response to school
shootings (see Schildkraut & Hernandez, 2014, for a thorough analysis of legislative
responses to school shootings). Similarly, lone-wolf shootings, such as the Charleston
church, Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood, and Orlando nightclub attacks have
also sparked policy debates about national surveillance, restricting individuals on terrorist watch lists from buying firearms, and most recently, banning entire populations
from entering the country (Barnes, 2012; Hamm & Spaaij, 2017). The willingness of
policy makers to respond specifically to school and lone-wolf terrorist shootings is
exemplified by President Barack Obama. During his tenure, the United States experienced 123 mass public shootings (Capellan, 2015), and President Obama chose to
make a speech in the immediate aftermath of 14 of those attacks. Nine of those
speeches were in response to lone-wolf terrorist shootings, and three were in response
to school shootings (Korte, 2016).
It is important to ask why the political discourse and policy discussions surrounding this phenomenon seem to revolve almost exclusively around school and lone-wolf
terrorist shootings. The literature on media agenda setting would suggest this emphasis is a function of the disproportionate amount of news coverage given to these types
of shootings (Chermak & Weiss, 1997). Decisions by news media on which attacks are
covered, and the extent of coverage, shape public understanding of the phenomenon,
including risk of victimization and the potential perpetrator threat, subsequently
informing policy responses and discussions (Duwe, 2005). If the emphasis is a function of media agenda setting, then research should find a disproportionate amount of
coverage given to school and lone-wolf terrorist shootings over other types of shootings. Unfortunately, the literature on media and mass public shootings has yet to examine differences in coverage among different types of incidents.
Criminal Justice Policy Review 30(9)
The current study investigates the plausibility of the media agenda-setting explanation by examining the news coverage of four types of mass public shootings: rampage,
disgruntled employee, school, and lone-wolf terrorist. This research examines all New
York Times (NYT) coverage devoted to each mass public shooting incident within the
United States from 1966 to 2016. This work relies on descriptive and multivariate
statistics to (a) determine whether there are differences in the news coverage among
four types of mass public shootings and whether or not these differences are consistent
with emphasis placed by policy makers, (b) examine whether differences in coverage
have changed over time, and (c) determine whether the differences observed are a
function of the individual and incident-level factors known to influence salience of
coverage, or attributable to the media’s interest in specific types of shootings.
Developing a better understanding of the differences in coverage between types of
mass public shootings is important for several reasons. First, examining news coverage of rampage, disgruntled employee, school, and lone-wolf terrorist shootings
allows for a better understanding of policy makers’ willingness to address and/or speak
out about certain types of mass public shootings. It is possible that by highlighting
stories about school and lone-wolf terrorist shooters, the media plays an active role in
influencing the perceptions of risk and, therefore, the priorities of public officials.
Second, this analysis will help determine whether the emphasis on school and lonewolf terrorist shootings is warranted, given their incidence and threat to public health.
Research on the content of crime news has shown mass media presents a distorted
image of crime (Chermak, 1994), and this may be the case for mass public shootings.
Finally, understanding how, if at all, media affects public understanding of mass public
shootings is pivotal for the development of better policy and security measures aimed
at preventing and/or mitigating the lethality of such attacks. Placing so much attention
on specific types of mass public shootings ignores the broader realities and complexities of this phenomenon.
Literature Review
Rampage, Disgruntled Employee, School, and Lone-Wolf Terrorist
The 1966 Texas Sniper shooting is largely considered the incident that introduced
mass public shootings into the cultural lexicon (Kelly, 2012; Lankford, 2015;
Schildkraut & Elsass, 2016). A former Marine sharpshooter climbed the clock tower at
the University of Texas and opened fire on students, eventually killing 14 people and
injuring 32 others. This incident received an unprecedented amount of coverage during its time and upset the perception of safety in public places (Jenkins, 1994). It fits
the criteria for what Newman, Fox, Roth, Mehta, and Harding (2004) define as a rampage school shooting, in that, it takes place on a school-related public stage before an
audience; involves multiple victims, some of whom are shot simply for their symbolic
significance or at random; and involves one or more shooters who are students or former students of the school. This definition set the foundation for
Silva and Capellan
defining mass public shootings, which includes incidents with similar characteristics
outside of a school context.
Following the Texas Sniper incident, mass public shootings garnered national
attention during the 1980s, after a few incidents of postal workers opening fire on
coworkers. These incidents of workplace violence involved current and former disgruntled employees (Lankford, 2013). In 1999, Columbine reintroduced rampage
school shootings into American culture. Since then, public perceptions of mass public
shootings have been largely based on the Columbine archetype, and extensive research
has been dedicated to this particular type of mass public shooting (Chyi & McCombs,
2004; Muschert, 2009; Muschert & Carr, 2006; Schildkraut & Muschert, 2014).
Recently, research has separated the term rampage from school shootings, to categorize incidents that were not perpetrated by students or employees, but fit within the rest
of the Newman et al. (2004) definition (Lankford, 2013). The 2012 Aurora movie
theater shooting provides an example of a high-profile rampage shooting.
Fifty years after the Texas Sniper incident, there has been debate over the definitional criteria required to be included in mass public shooting research. In 2016, a
shooter killed 49 people and injured 53 others at a nightclub in Orlando Florida. The
perpetrator was ideologically motivated by his radical Islamist views and the incident
would be characterized as a lone-wolf terrorist shooting. Scholars have suggested
lone-wolf terrorist shooters should not be included in mass public shooting research
because of their ideological motivation, which may require distinctly different policy
responses (Bjelopera, Bagalman, Caldwell, Finklea, & McCallion, 2013; Schildkraut
& Elsass, 2016). However, research that has compared lone-wolf terrorists with rampage, disgruntled employee, and school shooters finds they have very similar demographic and personal profiles (Capellan, 2015; Lankford, 2013). This suggests it may
be beneficial to extend the definition of mass public shootings to include terrorismrelated incidents.
Rampage, disgruntled employee, and school shootings provide the foundation for
research categorizing and examining mass public shootings. More recently, scholars
have suggested the inclusion of lone-wolf terrorism shootings in assessments of the
phenomenon. Despite the importance of each, school and lone-wolf terrorist shootings
are routinely highlighted in public and policy discourse of the problem. It is important
to consider whether media coverage is consistent with the contemporary cultural concern, thereby contributing to setting the agenda surrounding the phenomenon.
Media Agenda Setting and Crime
Media agenda setting finds a strong relationship between the emphasis mass media
places on certain issues and the importance attributed to these issues by mass audiences (McCombs & Shaw, 1972; Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007). Media outlets select
a handful of events and turn them into stories that convey meanings, offer solutions,
associate certain groups of people with particular kinds of behavior, and provide pictures of the world (Jewkes, 2004). An extensive body of research examining the
agenda-setting function of the media finds that by highlighting certain stories, the
Criminal Justice Policy Review 30(9)
media play a role in constructing a narrative about a topic, prioritizing public concern,
and influencing the political discourse and subsequent policies surrounding an issue
(Barak, 1988; Entman, 1989; McCombs & Shaw, 1972; Rogers, Dearing, & Bregman,
1993; Tuchman, 1978).
Cohen (1963) initially determined that although it is difficult to identify a correlation between the media and what people think, it is easier to find a relationship between
the media and what people think about. As a result, studies examining the agendasetting function of the media aim to identify the criteria influencing issues of selection
(whether an incident receives any coverage) and prominence (whether an incident
receives salient amounts of coverage; Chermak & Gruenewald, 2006). For example,
research in media agenda setting and crime finds up to 50% of news coverage is dedicated to crime (Chermak, 1994; Graber, 1980; Surette, 2007). Despite this, not all
crimes are covered equally, and research seeks to identify the media decision-making
process that contributes to certain issues being covered over others. The decision to
cover a particular crime incident is often determined by the rare and sensational nature
of the crime (Duwe, 2000), the number of victims (Chermak & Chapman, 2007;
Chermak & Gruenewald, 2006) and the demographic characteristics of these victims
(Boulahanis & Heltsley, 2004; Gruenewald, Pizarro, & Chermak, 2009), as well as the
demographic characteristics of offenders (Gruenewald et al., 2009). The problem with
covering crimes based on these characteristics is it distorts the reality of the nature of
crime and criminality. This can skew public perceptions of crime and affect political
and policy discourse surrounding a problem (Cavender, 2004; Chermak & Gruenewald,
2006; Gruenewald et al., 2009).
Media agenda setting and crime research examines the salience of crime coverage,
the crime characteristics affecting the decision to cover particular types of crime, and
the potential impact of crime coverage on public perceptions and policy discourse.
Recent research has considered the media agenda-setting function in relation to mass
public shootings.
Media Agenda Setting and Mass Public Shootings
A few studies have examined the salience of coverage devoted to the phenomenon.
Duwe (2000) finds mass public shootings receive disproportionate amounts of coverage in relation to other forms of crime and homicide. In addition, Schildkraut, Elsass,
and Meredith (2018) find the characteristics influencing the salience of coverage
include higher victim counts, and perpetrators who are Asian and “Other” minority
racial or ethnic groups (including Indian, Middle Eastern, Native American, or biracial). The majority of research is dedicated to the implications of mass public shooting
coverage on public perceptions of risk, conceptualizations of potential perpetrators,
and the implementation of security measures.
High-profile mass public shooting incidents produce a cultural trauma that accentuates awareness of the phenomenon (Garland, 2008). Research suggests excessive
mass public shooting coverage has increased fear, perceived risk of victimization,
and the perception of an epidemic (Burns & Crawford, 1999; Fox & DeLateur, 2014;
Silva and Capellan
Kaminski, Koons-Witt, Thompson, & Weiss, 2010; Muschert, 2007). The coverage
devoted to a particular type of mass public shooting affects specific subsections of
the population that feel most at risk. For example, excessive coverage devoted to
school shootings heightens parents’ and children’s fear of victimization (Schildkraut
& Elsass, 2016).
The media coverage and subsequent fear surrounding mass public shootings can
also contribute to the labeling of potential perpetrators. For example, the excessive
coverage devoted to perpetrators suffering from mental illness has exacerbated
negative attitudes toward all persons with serious mental illness (McGinty, Webster,
& Barry, 2013). This stigmatization may cause those struggling with mental health
issues to not seek out help. The coverage devoted to specific types of mass public
shootings also contributes to perceptions about perpetrator characteristics and
motivations. For instance, the coverage devoted to Columbine resulted in fears of
alienated youth (Frymer, 2009). However, the reality is the bullied youth archetype
is largely inaccurate, and this perception further stigmatizes already marginalized
juveniles (Fox & DeLateur, 2014; Schildkraut & Elsass, 2016). This stigmatization
of marginalized groups may actually encourage violence from those labeled (Fox &
DeLateur, 2014).
Finally, a mediated fear of mass public shootings and potential perpetrators also
contributes to policy-making decisions that are often rushed and ineffective. Many of
the gun control measures and mental health approaches put forth in the aftermath of an
incident have been found to be largely symbolic (Kleck, 2009) and even counterproductive (McGinty et al., 2013). Borum, Cornell, Modzeleski, and Jimerson (2010)
suggest rushed school safety and security measures deployed in response to excessive
coverage of school shootings are put forth with little empirical evidence. Strategies
such as zero-tolerance discipline and student profiling have been widely criticized as
unsound practices (Borum et al., 2010).
Scholarly research suggests media coverage of mass public shootings can affect
public concern over victimization, skew perceptions of potential perpetrators, and
contribute to the implementation of ineffective security measures. Thus, it is important
to take a step back and identify the differences in coverage between types of mass
public shootings. This can be used to determine whether coverage of incidents is consistent with, and potentially contributing to, public and political concern.
Present Study
The research on agenda setting points to news media as a possible influence on public
officials’ willingness to respond almost exclusively to specific types of mass public
shootings. As noted, for the agenda-setting explanation to be viable, a disproportionate
emphasis on school and lone-wolf terrorist shootings should be observed. The purpose
of this study is to examine the plausibility of the agenda-setting explanation by investigating the differences in coverage between four mass pubic shooting types: rampage,
disgruntled employee, school, and lone-wolf terrorist shootings. To address this, two
foundational research questions are provided:
Criminal Justice Policy Review 30(9)
Research Question 1: What are the differences in coverage between rampage,
disgruntled employee, school, and lone-wolf terrorist shootings? Are these differences proportionate to their respective incidence?
Research Question 2: Have the differences in coverage between rampage, disgruntled, school, and lone-wolf terrorist shootings changed over time? Do these
differences correlate with their respective incidence over the period analyzed?
Differences in coverage, even if statistically significant, are not on their own
enough evidence to conclude that news media is purposely prioritizing specific types
of mass public shootings. The literature on media and crime has consistently shown
that the offender and event-level characteristics influence the likelihood of an incident
being presented in the news and the extent of coverage received. It is possible differences in coverage across these four types of shooters are driven by systematic differences in the individual traits of the offenders and event-level characteristics, and not
the purposeful decision to emphasize particular types of mass public shootings. To
determine the source of these differences, the following question will also be
Research Question 3: Are the differences in coverage statistically significant? If
so, can these differences be explained away by the background of the perpetrator
and incident-level characteristics?
If significant differences disappear once individual and incident-level characteristics are controlled in the model, then it suggests news media’s emphasis on specific
types of mass public shooters is not purposeful, and rather a function of these characteristics. Conversely, if differences in coverage remain significant after modeling the
control variables, then it suggests that news organizations are purposefully emphasizing certain types of mass public shootings, regardless of the background of the perpetrator and event-level characteristics.
Definitions: Criteria for Case Inclusion
This study includes all mass public shootings that occurred in the United States
between 1966 and 2016. In line with previous data sets, this work began with the year
the Texas Sniper introduced the social problem into the cultural lexicon (Kelly, 2012;
Lankford, 2015; Schildkraut & Elsass, 2016). A mass public shooting was defined as
an incident of targeted violence where an offender had killed or attempted to kill four
or more victims on a public stage. The main weapon had to be a firearm and it needed
to occur within a 24-hr time period. The shooting could not be related to profit-driven
criminal activity (e.g., drug trafficking or gang shootings).
This conceptualization diverges from the FBI’s definition by including cases where
the offender clearly attempted, but failed to kill four or more victims. Including such
Silva and Capellan
cases is important for theoretical and methodological reasons. From a theoretical perspective, the causes that propel an individual to commit mass murder have little to do
with his or her ability to do so successfully. Therefore, perpetrators such as the 2014
Fort Hood shooter (who killed three victims and injured 16 others) are just as relevant,
and should be included in an examination of mass public shootings. From a methodological standpoint, excluding individuals who failed to meet the death criterion is
likely to bias results. There are likely important differences between offenders who
kill four or more victims, and those who attempted to, but failed. Excluding them
inhibits the ability to understand why they failed, which is an essential element of
mass public shooting research. For the purpose of this research, the current conceptualization is more appropriate than the FBI’s. This is because (a) the media does not
apply a consistent definition of mass public shootings when reporting (Schildkraut &
Elsass, 2016) and (b) previous media examinations of mass murder and mass shootings have routinely shown that although the number of fatalities matters, it is not the
only factor that determines news salience (Duwe, 2000; Schildkraut & Elsass, 2016).
Thus, it is common for media outlets to report on mass public shootings where the
offender fails to meet the four-victim criterion, and excluding these cases would skew
understanding of the current research problem. Therefore, although definitions of
mass public shootings are a source of contentious scholarly debate, the current conceptualization balances governmental definitions, with theoretical and methodological
Cases that met these criteria were classified into rampage, disgruntled employee,
school, and lone-wolf terrorist shooters. Similar to the concept of mass public shooting, there are no standard definitions for these types of shooters. Therefore, the definitions employed here are an amalgamation of the best elements of previously used
definitions.1 Consistent with the school violence literature, school shooters are defined
as individuals who target their current or former schools or individuals in that school
(Langman, 2009; Larkin, 2009; Newman et al., 2004). However, unlike Muschert
(2007), this study excludes shootings perpetrated by teachers, and school staff, as
these would be classified as a disgruntled employee shooting. In addition, for an attack
to be classified as a school shooting, the offender must have purposely chosen his or
her school as a public stage for the attack (Newman et al., 2004; Vossekuil, 2002).
Offenders who targeted schoolmates in other venues were not classified as school
Consistent with the workplace homicide literature, disgruntled employee shooters
are defined as individuals who target their current or former place of work (Fox &
Levin, 1994; Holmes & Holmes, 2001). This study also classifies individuals who
were not necessarily employees, but were partners, co-owners, or investors as disgruntled employee shooters (Holmes & Holmes, 2001). For instance, a shareholder
who targeted a Philadelphia investment company he believed defrauded him is categorized as a disgruntled employee. These types of perpetrators were never employed, but
had a close working relationship with the establishment. As such, they are subject to
the same dynamics that lead disgruntled employees to commit violence in the workplace (Holmes & Holmes, 2001).
Criminal Justice Policy Review 30(9)
Offenders who were motivated by ideological extremism (e.g., jihadist, far right,
Black Nationalism) were categorized as lone-wolf terrorist shooters. These shooters
were classified as lone wolves because they operate individually or in dyads, with no
formal ties to terrorist organizations or networks (i.e., tactics and methods are absent
of direct outside support, command, or direction; Gruenewald, Chermak, & Freilich,
2013; Holt, Freilich, Chermak, Mills, & Silva, 2018).
Finally, the term rampage shooter has been used in the media to describe mass
public shootings in general (Schildkraut & Elsass, 2016). In the school literature,
school rampage shooters are used to differentiate from single homicides perpetrated
on school grounds that do not involve victims chosen randomly/symbolically
(Newman, 2004). This study used Lankford’s (2013) categorization of rampage shooters by including all other shootings that do not fall in any of the preceding categories,
but fit the aforementioned criteria.
Incident Data
To compile a compressive database of mass public shootings that fit the definitional
criteria, this study utilized an open-source data collection strategy that was consistent
with previous research investigating the phenomenon (Capellan, 2015; Lankford,
2013, 2016b; Osborne & Capellan, 2017). To identify and collect information on mass
public shootings, specific search terms (e.g., mass shooting, rampage shooting) were
initially employed in eight different search engines (LexisNexis, ProQuest, Yahoo,
Google, Copernic, News Library, Westlaw, and Google Scholar). This list was then
cross referenced with 52 lists/databases of mass public shootings provided by peerreview journals, news organizations, school-sponsored reports, blogs, and online
encyclopedias. The cross-validation process did not guarantee the universe of cases
was captured, but it maximized the identification of relevant cases.
Additional open-source materials (including media accounts, legal documents,
blogs, videos, and government documents) were then used to obtain detailed information pertaining to the perpetrator and incident characteristics. Data were developed
from materials identified across all these sources, reducing the likelihood of any systematic biases present in results for each incident. For conflicting information, the
research protocol instructed more weight be given to news stories published weeks
after the shooting occurred. Weight was also given to more reputable sources of information. For example, the information obtained from a court document was considered
more valuable than that from a local newspaper. This information was used to piece
together the most complete possible summary of the attack.
Operationalization of Control Variables
To ensure differences in coverage among different types of mass public shootings are
not an artifact of the data, this study controlled for a number of perpetrator and incident characteristics known to influence coverage. Perpetrator characteristics began
with the offender’s age, measured as age in years at the time of the attack. Suspect sex
Silva and Capellan
is a categorical variable (0 = female, 1 = male). Suspect race is a categorical variable
that measured the racial/ethnic background of the offender (0 = White, 1 = Black, 2 =
Latino, 3 = Asian, 4 = Middle Eastern). Relationship with victim measured the offender’s relationship with his or her victims (0 = no relationship, 1 = personal/professional/
intimate relationship with victims).
Following Capellan (2015); Gill, Horgan, and Deckert (2014); Gruenewald et al.
(2013); and Spaaij (2010), open source materials were used to measure the history of
mental illness. Offender’s history of mental illness is binary coded (0 = no history of
mental illness, 1 = known history of mental illness). Outside of a formal diagnosis,
mental illness can be quite complicated to measure accurately, as a significant portion
of criminal offenders have never been diagnosed, despite suffering from serious mental health problems (Fazel & Danesh, 2002; Lankford, 2016a). Therefore, relying
solely on a formal diagnosis is likely to skew the results. To overcome this limitation,
this study used a conceptualization that also accounts for suggested history of mental
illness. Open-source documents were reviewed for characterizations by family members and close friends of the offender that suggest the offender had a history of mental
illness. To assess the validity of these characterizations, this study identified detailed
accounts that included examples or statements by the perpetrators. Only characterizations that well-predated the attacks were included, as individuals may tend to suggest
mental illness because of the massacre itself.
The incident characteristics began with the type of weapons, measuring the type
of firearms employed during the attack (0 = handgun, 1 = shotgun, 2 = rifle, 3 =
combination of firearms). Location is a categorical variable that recorded the type
of location where the mass public shooting took place (0 = business, 1 = government, 2 = school, 3 = religious institution, and 4 = open space). Conclusion is a
categorical variable that measured how the attack ended (0 = offender was arrested,
1 = offender was killed, 2 = offender committed suicide). Death toll and injured
victims measured the number of victims who died and who were injured during the
attack, respectively. Finally, this study controlled for spatial and temporal biases in
the coverage of mass public shootings. Region is a categorical variable that recorded
the region of the United States where the mass public shooting occurred (0 =
Northeast, 1 = Midwest, 3 = South, 4 = West). The temporal variations in coverage
were controlled by year of shooting, recording the year in which the mass public
shooting took place.
News Data
The NYT was used to gauge media coverage of the phenomenon. Lule (2001) argues
cases might be drawn from various media, such as the Wall Street Journal, USA Today,
the weekly news magazines, CNN, the evening news . . . But more than any other U.S.
news medium, the New York Times has become crucial reading for those interested in the
news, national politics, and international affairs. (p. 6)
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Studies have used only the NYT to examine and assess media coverage of mass shootings (Schildkraut et al., 2018; Silva & Capellan, 2018), school shootings (Chyi &
McCombs, 2004; Muschert & Carr, 2006; Schildkraut & Muschert, 2014), and terrorism (Chermak & Gruenewald, 2006). The NYT was selected because it is considered a
key gatekeeper to national and international news coverage, with most other newspapers and television news outlets following what it emphasizes (Benoit, Stein, &
Hansen, 2005; Blakely, 2003; Denham, 2014; Lule, 2002). In this way, the NYT sets
the agenda for other news media (Golan, 2006; Lule, 2001). For example, Golan
(2006) found that what is published in the morning edition of the NYT significantly
determines what is broadcasted on television news. It also is regarded as a reliable
indicator of issue salience (Winter & Eyal, 1981) that significantly affects the public
agenda (Althaus & Tewksbury, 2002; Botelho, 2011; Landriscina, 2012; McCombs,
2004). For example, Althaus and Tewksbury (2002) find individuals exposed to the
NYT (for just 5 days) adjusted their agendas in a way that was consistent with the news
organization’s agenda. Despite the drastic changes in media technology, the NYT consistently remains an influential source for determining the public agenda (Althaus &
Tewksbury, 2002; Chernomas & Hudson, 2015).
This study included all coverage dedicated to each incident over the entire 50-year
period. Data were collected using ProQuest’s NYT Historical Database. The names,
keywords, and notable characteristics from each of the mass public shooting incidents
previously identified were used to search for articles. The search began with the word
“shooting” in articles appearing within the first week of the incident. This was followed by all years using individual keyword searches. This would start with a search
of the incident location and/or the commonly referenced title for the event, then perpetrators’ names, and then victims’ names. Only articles included in the print version of
the NYT were included in this study. Articles used did not include opinion pieces, letters to the editor, or briefings.
The collected articles were divided into specific and general articles (Chermak &
Gruenewald, 2006). Specific articles include all coverage that described and focused
specifically on the mass public shooting incident, perpetrator (including his or her past
history and the court process he or she endures), and victims. General articles refer to
the mention of an incident as a reference point for the discussion of the mass public
shooting problem at large. For example, an article that discussed the details concerning how the perpetrator was able to incur such a large death toll at the Orlando nightclub shooting was coded as a specific article, whereas a reference to the Orlando
shooting in an article focused on gun control was coded as a general article.
Analytic Strategy
First, descriptive statistics were used to identify differences in coverage between the
four types of mass pubic shootings (Research Question 1). Next, descriptive statistics
were used to study how these potential differences may have changed over time
(Research Question 2). Finally, multivariate statistics were employed to examine
whether the potential differences in the selection for coverage and salience of
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coverage are a function of the offender’s background and event-level characteristics
(Research Question 3). Given the nature of these two related but distinct decisions
(selection and amount of coverage), this study employs two multivariate techniques.2
As a result of the dichotomous nature of selection for coverage (yes, no), a logistic
regression was used to account for differences in likelihood of selection. To examine
differences in the amount of coverage, this study employs a robust regression model.3
News salience is measured as a latent construct based on six different dimensions of
coverage: total number of articles, number of specific articles, number of general articles, total number of words, number of specific words, and number of general words.
This latent variable was constructed using exploratory factor analysis to understand
the covariance structure among these six factors. The results showed that all six items
loaded onto one factor with an eigenvalue of 5.7. This factor explained 95% of the
shared variance.
The data collection strategy identified 314 mass public shootings in the United States
from 1966 to 2016. Table 1 presents the basic characteristics of these attacks. As Table
1 illustrates, the majority of these attacks are classified as rampage shooters (34% or n
= 109) and disgruntled employees (32% or n = 102). School shooters and lone-wolf
terrorists make up 19% (n = 62) and 13% (n = 41), respectively. Across the board,
mass public shooters tend to be White males in their late thirties, with the exception of
school shooters, who have an average age of 20 years. A significant share of rampage,
disgruntled employee, school, and lone-wolf shooters suffer from mental illnesses/
conditions. With the exception of lone-wolf terrorists, these shooters tend to have a
relationship (professional or personal) with their victims. They also tend to rely on
handguns to carry out their attacks. Most mass public shootings conclude with the
arrest of the perpetrator. Finally, most mass public shootings occur in the Western and
Southern regions of the United States.
Despite these similarities, rampage, disgruntled employee, school, and lone-wolf
shooters differ in important ways. For instance, although most mass public shooters
are White, offenders of Middle Eastern descent are disproportionally motivated by
ideological extremism. Lone-wolf terrorists also differ in a number of important ways
from other types of mass public shooters. They are more likely to target strangers, use
a combination of firearms, and be killed during the attack. In addition, lone-wolf terrorists are by far the most lethal type of mass public shooters, with an average of 4.6
fatalities and seven injured victims.
The data collection of news media coverage resulted in 3,510 different NYT articles, amounting to more than 3.5 million words. Approximately 72% of the mass public shooting incidents (232 of 314) received coverage. As shown in Table 2, specific
articles accounted for 44% of the total articles, offering descriptive details of the
offender, their motivations, the manner in which the shooting was executed, and the
subsequent trial (if the shooter lived). The remainder of the articles (56%) were classified as general stories, because the shootings were referenced in the context of a
Middle Eastern
Mental illness
Type of weapon
37.5 (average)
(n = 109)
39.9 (average)
(n = 102)
Table 1. Perpetrator and Event Characteristics by Type of Mass Public Shooting.
20.4 (average)
(n = 62)
38.3 (average)
Lone wolf
(n = 41)
Open space
Table 1. (continued)
3.3 (average)
3.3 (average)
(n = 109)
2.9 (average)
2.5 (average)
(n = 102)
2.9 (average)
4.7 (average)
(n = 62)
4.6 (average)
7 (average)
Lone wolf
(n = 41)
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Table 2. Summary Statistics of News Coverage for Mass Public Shootings.
Coverage type
Figure 1. Share of total news coverage by type of mass public shooting.
broader discussion about gun availability, mental health issues, national security, and
other policy or societal debates.
Research Question 1
Differences in coverage. Figure 1 presents the share of total news coverage by type of
mass public shooter. As highlighted by this figure, although rampage and disgruntled
employee make up the majority of mass public shootings (68%), they received approximately 15% to 20% of the total news coverage. This finding is robust across different
types of coverage. Conversely, school shooters and lone-wolf terrorists make up
approximately 32% of all mass public shootings; yet, they receive 75% to 80% of the
total news coverage, as measured by total number of articles, total number of specific
and general articles, and total number of specific and general words.
The differences in coverage between rampage, disgruntled employee, school, and
lone-wolf terrorists are also present in the average number of articles and words these
shootings receive. Table 3 presents the average news coverage by type of mass public
shooter. Consistent with Figure 1, lone-wolf terrorists and school shooters are not only
substantially more likely to be presented in the news, but also receive more coverage
than rampage shooters and disgruntled employees. For instance, 90% of lone-wolf
terrorists and 80% of school shooters receive coverage by the news, compared with
Silva and Capellan
Table 3. Average Media Coverage by Type of Mass Public Shooting.
Percent covered
Mean number of articles
Mean number of specific articles
Mean number of general articles
Mean number of words
Mean number of specific words
Mean number of general words
Lone wolf
70% of disgruntled employees and 63% of rampage shooters. Similarly, lone-wolf terrorists receive, on average, 34 news articles, compared with rampage shooters, which
receive an average of two news articles. These disparities in news coverage are consistent across different types of coverage.
Research Question 2
Differences in coverage over time. Figure 2 presents temporal variations in news coverage among the different types of mass public shooters. As the figure illustrates, mass
public shooting incidents have been on a steady rise since the 1960s. The exception is
school shootings, which have been declining since the mid-1990s. The increased incidence of mass public shootings has been matched with increased coverage and news
salience. Across the board, mass public shootings, notwithstanding the type, receive
on average a higher number of articles and words today than in the 1960s. Despite this
upward trend for all shooters, the differences in news coverage between types of
shooters have remained the same over time. Lone-wolf terrorists and school shooters
have consistently received a higher number of articles and words than rampage and
disgruntled employees over the period analyzed. It is important to note that lone-wolf
terrorists experienced the highest growth in news coverage between 1966 and 2016. In
the 1970s and 1980s, lone-wolf terrorist shootings received an average of 10 to 15
articles, but by the 1990s, news salience increased to 30 articles, and by 2010s, these
ideologically motivated shootings received more than 40 articles on average.
Research Question 3
Differences in coverage by individual and incident-level characteristics. As the descriptive
analyses highlight, not all mass public shooters are equally likely to receive coverage.
To determine whether these differences in coverage are statistically significant, a multivariate logistic regression is employed. To simplify interpretation, the odds ratios are
presented. The odds ratio for any given variable represents the likelihood of being
selected for presentation in the news. An odds ratio greater than one represents an
increase in the odds of coverage. Conversely, an odds ratio lower than one represents
Criminal Justice Policy Review 30(9)
Figure 2. Temporal variations in news coverage by type of mass public shooting.
a decrease in the odds of being covered by the news.
Table 4 presents the results of the logistic regression models. The first model
includes only the type of mass public shooting. Consistent with the descriptive analysis, the results from Model 1 show school shooters and lone-wolf terrorists are significantly more likely to be presented in the news compared with rampage shooters.
However, disgruntled employees are not significantly more likely to be presented in
the news. As noted, these differences in coverage may be explained by characteristics
of the individual offender and the attack itself. Model 2 controls for factors that have
been known to influence newsworthiness, such as the demographic and background
characteristics of the offender, the relationship between offender and victims, types of
weapons used, the type of location where the attack took place, the numbered of fatalities, and injured victims, as well as the conclusion of the attack.4 Model 2 also controls
for temporal and geographic biases that may be present in the data. The differences in
odds of coverage have remained consistent after controlling for these covariates.
Everything else being equal, school shooters and lone wolves were significantly more
likely to be selected for coverage than rampage shooters. Interestingly, once offender
traits and incident-level characteristics were controlled, disgruntled employees were
also significantly more likely than rampage shooters to be covered in the news. In
addition to the type of shooter, a number of variables played a significant role in the
probability of newsworthiness. Mass public shootings were significantly more likely
Silva and Capellan
Table 4. Multivariate Logistic Regression of Results.
Model 1
Model 2
Lone wolf
Middle Eastern
Mental illness
Type of weapons
Open space
Note. OR = odds ratio.
aReference category.
*p ≤ .05. **p ≤ .01. ***p ≤ .001.
Criminal Justice Policy Review 30(9)
to be presented in the news when there were a higher number of fatalities and injuries,
a combination of firearms, and occurrence at a school setting.
Along with the odds of being presented in the news, this work examines differences
in the extent of coverage between rampage, disgruntled employee, school, and lonewolf shooters. Table 5 presents the results of the robust regression models. Consistent
with the multivariate logistic regression, Model 1 shows that lone-wolf shooters get
significantly more news coverage than rampage shooters. Initially, school shooters
and disgruntled employees are not found to be significantly different from rampage
shooters in the extent of news coverage. However, these are unconditional differences
in news coverage. Model 2 controls for the influence of demographic and background
characteristics of the offender, the relationship between offender and victims, types of
weapons used, the type of location where the attack took place, the number of fatalities
and injured victims, as well as the conclusion of the attack. After controlling for these
factors, the results have remained consistent. Net of everything else, lone-wolf shooters still get significantly higher levels of coverage than rampage shooters. Everything
else being equal, school shooters also get significantly more coverage than rampage
shooters. However, there are still no significant differences in news coverage between
disgruntled employees and rampage shooters. In addition to the type of shooter, the
results from Model 2 show that the race of the perpetrator is a significant predictor of
news salience. Offenders of Middle Eastern decent get significantly greater news coverage than their White counterparts. Similarly, offenders who employ a combination
of firearms, as well as target government, religious institutions, and open-spaces get
higher news coverage. Finally, mass public shootings with greater number of fatalities
and injured victims receive significantly higher news coverage.
This study contributes to research on media and mass public shootings by considering
the differences in coverage between four types of incidents: rampage, disgruntled
employee, school and lone-wolf terrorist shootings. The most important finding from
this research utilizing the media agenda-setting framework is that, consistent with the
government emphasis, school shootings and lone-wolf terrorist shootings receive significantly more coverage than rampage and disgruntled employee shootings. The differences in coverage and extent of coverage across these types of shooters remained
consistent over time, and these differences cannot be explained away by the background of the perpetrator and incident-level characteristics. These findings suggest
that news media organizations may be purposely granting more prominence to certain
types of events, regardless of its characteristics.
Furthermore, this study finds the disproportionate amount of coverage given to
school and lone-wolf terrorist incidents is not warranted, given their relative threat to
public safety. As noted, school and lone-wolf terrorist incidents make up approximately 32% of all mass public shootings; yet, they receive 75% to 80% of all coverage
devoted to these attacks. Conversely, rampage and disgruntled employees make up
68% of all mass public shootings; yet, they receive approximately 20% of all news
Silva and Capellan
Table 5. Robust Regression of Results.
Model 1
Model 2
Lone wolf
Middle Eastern
Mental illness
Type of weapons
Open space
aReference category.
*p ≤ .05. **p ≤ .01. ***p ≤ .001.
Criminal Justice Policy Review 30(9)
coverage. This illustrates an inverse relationship between the incident type and news
coverage received, and highlights the mediated distortion of the phenomenon. Given
the identified agenda-setting function of the mass media, it is important to consider the
implications of the findings that school shootings and lone-wolf terrorists receive disproportionate amounts of coverage, regardless of perpetrator and incident-level characteristics. When considering the societal impact of these findings, it is possible these
differences in coverage may be contributing to (a) unwarranted fear of school and
terrorist violence, (b) misconceptions about potential perpetrators, and (c) ineffective
security measures.
Media Coverage of School Shootings
This study reinforces previous research suggesting that the public misconception of
the mass public shooting phenomenon is that it is largely a school shooting problem
(Schildkraut & Elsass, 2016). Findings illustrate that in the last 15 years, the number
of school shootings has decreased substantially; yet, the percentage of attacks covered
and the average number of articles/words written about these incidents have been
increasing over the same time period. This research finds that 80% of school shooting
incidents received coverage. One major issue with the media spectacle surrounding
school shootings is that it skews perceptions about the dangers of school violence.
Shortly after the Columbine shooting, more than one third of high school students
agreed that there were students at their school who were potentially violent enough to
cause a situation similar to Columbine (Gallup, 1999), and more than half of parents
feared for their child’s physical safety in school (McCarthy, 2014). The reality is that
school shootings pose a very limited risk to students, and homicides that occur in
school represent less than 1% of the annual youth homicides (age = 5-18) in the United
States (Borum et al., 2010).
The divergence between empirical findings and mediated narratives can contribute to
unwarranted public fears of potential perpetrators, and ignorance in the face of an actual
threat. The excessive coverage devoted to school shootings distorts the reality of mass
public shooters by suggesting they are predominantly alienated youth (Frymer, 2009;
Schildkraut & Elsass, 2016). This is in direct contrast with findings that the average age
of mass public shooters is 34 years. Although the average age of school shooters specifically is 20 years, even this lowered age suggests that school shootings are equally likely
to be perpetrated by adults (including school affiliates and outsiders). These skewed
media perceptions of potential perpetrators may cause the public to overlook the warning signs of actual perpetrators who do not fit within this flawed criterion.
Finally, Fox and Savage (2009) suggest that the excessive mass media attention
given to school shootings has resulted in ineffective security measures that intensify
anxiety and may actually increase the likelihood of copycat crimes. Many of the school
safety and security measures deployed in response to school shootings have little
research support, and strategies such as zero-tolerance discipline and student profiling
have been widely criticized as unsound practices (Borum et al., 2010). Addington
(2009) extends this argument, finding students involved in disciplinary issues at school
Silva and Capellan
are receiving excessively punitive sanctions, including charges of terrorism. The current study highlights the excessive coverage devoted to lone-wolf terrorist shootings
and provides an explanation for the conflation of these issues.
Media Coverage of Lone-Wolf Terrorist Shootings
Findings indicate that 90% of lone-wolf terrorism incidents receive coverage, with an
average of 34 news articles per incident. They receive the most coverage of all the
types of mass public shootings, despite being the least likely to occur. These findings
suggest the excessive coverage devoted to lone-wolf terrorism incidents may be contributing to a disproportionate fear of terrorist victimization. In 2015, 47% of
Americans were “very” or “somewhat” worried that they or a family member would
become a victim of an Islamic State–inspired terrorist attack (Swift, 2015). However,
Parkin, Gruenewald, Klein, and Chermak (2017) find less than 20 individuals per year
have been killed by a terrorist attack (not just a lone-wolf attack) in the aftermath of
9/11. This number is further minimized when considering lone-wolf terrorist shootings: This study identified only 41 incidents over 50 years.
As the Swift (2015) survey suggests, fear is predominantly geared toward victimization by jihadist-inspired extremists. However, previous research finds that the
majority of terrorism incidents, including lone-wolf shootings, are perpetrated by
domestic far-right extremists (Capellan, 2015; Gruenewald et al., 2013). This research
finds that offenders of Middle Eastern decent get significantly greater news coverage
than their White counterparts, and this suggests that jihadist-inspired lone-wolf terrorists receive more coverage than their far-right counterparts. Agenda-setting research
finds that the media associates certain groups of people with particular kinds of behavior (Jewkes, 2004), and this is contributing to skewed public perceptions about potential perpetrators of the phenomenon. Previous research has found that in the case of
alienated youth and mental illness, labeling perpetrators can contribute to further incidents of violence. Findings from this research suggest that the excessive coverage
devoted to Middle Eastern perpetrators could contribute to Islamophobia and stigmatization, potentially increasing the chances of incidents.
Finally, it is important to consider how the media coverage of these incidents may
be influencing the exorbitant amount of funding dedicated to the prevention of terrorism in the United States. A recent study by Saleem, Prot, Anderson, and Lemieux
(2017) finds exposure to news portraying Muslims as terrorists is positively associated
with support for military action in Muslim countries and public policies that harm
Muslims domestically and internationally. Jihadist-inspired terrorism is often linked
with international terrorism, with 79% of Americans saying airstrikes and visa controls provide effective means of control against terrorism (Newport, 2015). The majority of funding has been dedicated to foreign policy approaches including military
interventions and lengthy nation building (Barnes, 2012). This is despite the conclusion that terrorism incidents carried out by Americans pose a far greater threat
(Gruenewald et al., 2013). In addition, although still relatively rare, this research finds
that incidents of lone-wolf terrorist shootings are on the rise. Preventing lone-wolf
Criminal Justice Policy Review 30(9)
terrorism through standard approaches to terrorism is especially difficult, considering
the lack of communication with established terrorist organizations that would contribute to identifying a perpetrator before an attack (Spaaij, 2010). Instead, the best methods for prevention, outside of identifying potential perpetrators, may be similar to
strategies proposed for preventing other types of mass public shootings such as gun
and mental health policies.
Limitations and Suggestions for Future Research
In mass public shooting research, the conceptualization and operationalization criteria
is a contentious issue that can affect the severity of results (Lott, 2015; Schildkraut &
Elsass, 2016). As a result, the current findings may be influenced by the four definitional types. Similar to Lankford (2013), this research is limited by the potential differences lost when categorizing all shootings that are not school, disgruntled employee,
or lone-wolf terrorist incidents into the category of rampage shooting. Given the relatively small sample size, this research aimed to quantify these incident types in as few
categories as possible. However, the results of this research, which find that rampage
shootings are the most common incident type, may, in part, be attributed to the fairly
broad spectrum of incidents included in rampage shootings. Future research may want
to compare the identified rampage shooting characteristics, and curate additional mass
public shooting types based on their differences.
This study aimed to capture all mass public shootings that met the definitional criteria, but it is impossible to know for certain whether cases have been missed. The nature
of this rare and violent crime means that research is largely dependent on open-source
data (LaFree & Dugan, 2004). Open-source data collection strategies tend to be biased
against older events (time-period effect) and events that receive less publicity (publicity
effects). In other words, cases that occurred further in the past, and/or received less
coverage, are less likely to be identified and included in the sample. For example,
Lankford (2013) identified 185 incidents, and Kelly (2012) identified 202 incidents,
between 1966 and 2010. The current study included more than 100 more incidents than
previous studies and identified 314 incidents over a 50-year period. Although this
research used more expansive victim inclusion criteria and an additional 6 years of
incidents (2011-2016), this larger data set may be partially attributed to advancements
in data collection strategies. Futures studies should continue to provide detailed
accounts of the data collection process to help develop this unavoidable data source.
In an effort to expand the sample size, this work included incidents involving a
shooter that attempted to kill four or more victims in the definition. Despite previous
research finding news accounts follow a herd mentality when covering mass shootings
(Maguire, Weatherby, & Mathers, 2002), incidents with a limited number of fatalities
and injuries may receive more coverage in news outlets closer to their region. In the
current study, findings suggest spatial bias, with mass public shootings occurring
closer to the headquarters of the NYT (i.e., Northeast) receiving more coverage than
incidents across the country. This suggests a potential limitation with the decision to
focus on a single national newspaper. For example, the 2014 Las Vegas far-right
Silva and Capellan
shooting (resulting in three deaths and no injuries) received very little NYT coverage,
despite being an incident of terrorism. This may be attributed to the limited number of
victims and the location of the event. Future research should replicate this study using
alternative news sources to ensure the reliability of results.
Another limitation of the NYT coverage was the decision to remain consistent with
previous media and mass shooting research and only examine the printed version of
articles. Although these print articles are also featured online, the exclusion of articles
that are exclusively featured online misses the primary means that many in the general
public receive their news. Future research should continue to explore media coverage
and viewership online. For example, Althaus and Tewksbury (2002) examine and
compare the agenda-setting influence of print and online versions of the NYT. They
find that both versions influence the public agenda, but that readers acquire different
perceptions of the importance of certain political issues.
This study identified distinctions in the salience of coverage, or what is known as
the first-level agenda-setting function of the media (Holody & Daniel, 2017). However,
agenda setting and framing often go hand in hand, and the framing function of the
media plays an integral role in the public conceptualization of the phenomenon.
Framing theory/methodology has been considered across different types of school
shootings (Chyi & McCombs, 2004; Muschert & Carr, 2006; Park, Holody, & Zhang,
2012; Schildkraut & Muschert, 2014). In addition, research has started to consider the
framing of other types of mass public shootings such as the Aurora rampage shooting
(Holody & Daniel, 2017). Future research should consider the framing function of the
media across different types of mass public shootings. This should include framing
comparisons that involve lone-wolf shooting incidents, which this research has identified as a rising threat that receives an especially sensational level of coverage.
This research provides an examination of news coverage, as a means for exploring
policy makers’ willingness to address certain types of mass public shootings. However,
this work did not specifically examine its effect on policy responses. In a recent study,
Luca, Malhotra, and Poliquin (2016) find the occurrence of a mass shooting led to a
15% increase in the number of firearm bills introduced in state legislatures. However,
these firearm bills took drastically divergent approaches to addressing the phenomenon. For instance, in Republican-controlled legislatures, mass shootings led to the
enactment of policies that loosen gun restriction (Luca et al., 2016). Future research
should consider whether the type of shooting has an impact on the legislative response.
It is possible that school shootings may induce a response to restrict gun control,
whereas terrorist shootings lead to legislation to loosen gun restriction. In addition to
the type of shooting, the perpetrator and incident-level characteristics, as well as news
salience, may be important factors in shaping the legislative responses.
Similarly, this research identified the salience of coverage devoted to school and
lone-wolf shootings and examined the potential agenda-setting function of the media
in influencing public perceptions through excessive coverage of the phenomenon.
However, it is important to proceed with caution, insofar as correlation does not necessarily demonstrate causation. One plausible interpretation is that media coverage is
driven by what newsmakers perceive to be of greatest interest for the public. Public
Criminal Justice Policy Review 30(9)
opinion may drive or shape media coverage, rather than simply being shaped by it. It
is also likely that the relationship between media coverage, public opinion, and policy
agendas is reciprocal, and causality moves in both directions. Future studies should
address the levels of correlation and causation across these intersecting factors and
within the mass public shooting context.
Altheide (2009) suggests that continual coverage of mass public shootings and terrorism establishes a “disaster narrative,” influencing conceptualizations of violence and
increasing fear of crime. This research finds reasoning behind the potential conflation
of these issues in the American mind-set. In concluding, it is important to highlight
three significant implications arising from the research findings presented here.
First, there is a lesson for academic research on media and mass public shootings,
insofar as it has tended to omit from its scope lone-wolf terrorism–related shootings. This
is at odds with the increasing intensity of media coverage and public discussions of such
incidents, exemplified by high-profile attacks such as those in Charleston and Orlando. In
contrast, the approach taken in the present study has sought to incorporate lone-wolf terrorism–related mass public shootings, and analyze the prevalence and patterns of their
media discussion alongside other more frequently studied kinds of incidents.
Second, there is the crucial matter of agenda setting. Specifically, how disproportionate media coverage of some types of mass public shooting incidents (school and
lone-wolf terrorist) may serve to (a) potentially distort public anxiety and perceptions of risk and (b) drive into the public policy agenda a range of measures that may
be ineffective and even counterproductive in preventing such incidents. The results
of these findings are largely interpretive, and future research should continue to
explore the direct impact of media salience on public perceptions and legislative
Finally, the relative dearth in coverage of other types of mass shootings (disgruntled employee and rampage violence) threatens to undermine policy and preventive
responses, despite the fact that such incidents are numerically more frequent than both
school and terrorist-related incidents, and, therefore, pose a correspondingly greater
risk to public health and safety. In this area, media agenda setting needs to be countered with a public and policy discourse that gives due attention to these less mediatized forms of mass public shootings.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship,
and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of
this article.
Silva and Capellan
It is important to note the size and depth of the empirical literature on each type of shooting
varies substantially. For instance, there is a large and vibrant body of work on school shooters, and very little empirical literature on rampage shooters. The definitions employed here
are nuanced, logical, and each type is mutually exclusive. This research aims to contextualize and categorize each of the four mass public shooting types for future studies examining
the phenomenon.
This strategy is similar to Steffensmeier and Demuth’s (2001) means for assessing racial
differences in sentencing: using a logistic regression to examine whether an individual is
incarcerated or not and a robust regression on the months of the sentence to help determine
predictors of sentences.
An ordinary least squares (OLS) regression would normally be sufficient for the analysis.
However, the distribution of the dependent variable (news salience) is severely skewed,
which can threaten the validity of the estimates by dramatically changing the magnitude
or even the direction of regression coefficients. Robust regression accounts for the outliers
present in these types of data by dampening the influence of extreme observations through
an iteratively reweighted least squares procedure that weights every observation by the size
of its residuals (Rousseeuw & Leroy, 2005).
In Model 2, the number of observations dropped by 5%. This is due to missingness in the
control variations. Listwise deletion was employed to exclude cases that suffer from missing data.
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Author Biographies
Jason R. Silva is a doctoral candidate in criminal justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice /
Graduate Center, CUNY. Silva’s research examines media and crime, specifically focusing on
mass shootings and terrorism. His research has been published in the American Journal of
Criminal Justice, International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice, and
Security Journal.
Joel A. Capellan is an assistant professor in the Law and Justice Studies department at Rowan
University. Capellan specializes in statistics and spatial analysis. Substantively, his research
interests are broad. He has conducted and published research on state-sponsored repression,
segregation, lone wolf terrorism, policing bias, and criminological theories. Currently, he is
devoting most of his attention to the study of mass public shootings. His recent research has
been published in Homicide Studies, International Journal of Comparative and Applied
Criminal Justice, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, and Security Journal.
Journal of Child and Family Studies (2018) 27:2562–2573
Historical Examination of United States Intentional Mass School
Shootings in the 20th and 21st Centuries: Implications for Students,
Schools, and Society
Antonis Katsiyannis1 Denise K. Whitford2 Robin Parks Ennis3

Published online: 19 April 2018
© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018
The deadliest U.S. school shooting to date, occurring on February 14, 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in
Parkland, Florida serves as a powerful reminder that school violence is ever present. Addressing school violence, however,
has been an elusive endeavor. The purpose of this review is to provide a historical examination of United States intentional
mass school shootings in the 20th and 21st centuries. In addition, implications for students, schools, and society are discussed
in light of policy and legislative initiatives as well as school-based prevention and intervention tiered models of support, such
as positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS).
Keywords Shooting Guns Violence Schools PBIS Mental health

The mass school shooting on February 14, 2018 at Marjory
Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL shocked
the conscience of a nation once more (Astor et al. 2018).
This event, however, is not an isolated one and does present
a persistent concern over gun violence in general and school
shootings in particular. Schools are expected to be conducive to learning environments where students feel safe
and secure to pursue boundless learning opportunities.
Unfortunately school violence is ever present and fear for
safety affects not only students but also teachers, staff, and
communities. The purpose of this paper is to provide an
overview of school violence in the United States with an
emphasis on school related mass shootings in the 20th and
21st centuries.
* Antonis Katsiyannis
Clemson University, Clemson, SC, USA
Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, USA
University of Alabama, Birmingham, AL, USA
Gun Violence in the United States
Gun related violence in the United States has been characterized as an epidemic and a public health crisis with a
substantial financial burden estimated to be $174 billion in
2010 (Miller 2012; for cost estimates see also Follman et al.
2015). Specifically, in 2015, there were a total of 36,252
gun related fatalities (35.8% fatalities were non–law
enforcement related and 60.74% were suicides). Regarding
children and youth, 142 children ages 5 to 12 died from gun
related injuries (73.94% were non-law enforcement related)
and 1851 adolescents ages 13–18 died from gun related
injuries (55.00% were non-law enforcement related and
40.25% were suicides; Katsiyannis et al. 2018; see also
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2017).
In 2014, data from the National Crime Victimization
Survey showed that students ages 12 to 18 experienced
841,100 nonfatal victimizations at school and 545,100
nonfatal victimizations away from school (Musu-Gillette
et al. 2017; see also Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2016). Between 1992 and 2014, total victimization
rates for students ages 12 to 18 at school declined 82%,
from 181 victimizations per 1000 students in 1992 to 33
victimizations per 1000 students in 2014 (Zhang et al.
2016). Overall, during 2013–14 school year, 65% of public
schools documented one or more incidents of violence
resulting in about 757,000 crimes. Specifically, 58% of
Journal of Child and Family Studies (2018) 27:2562–2573
number increased by 24%, and by 2010, 22% of weapons
received had large capacity magazines. Similarly, since the
enactment of the Brady law (1994) and 2012, background
checks blocked 2.4 million individuals from purchasing
guns (e.g., domestic abusers, felons, mentally ill); in 2012,
82,000 felons were blocked from buying guns because of
background checks.
Unfortunately, there is a paucity of research related to gun
violence and gun policy, which limits the ability to evaluate
the effectiveness of gun violence prevention efforts. Therefore, there is a need to establish a robust and comprehensive
research agenda regarding gun law and policy as well as a
need for substantial federal funding (National Research
Council 2005; Weiner et al. 2007). Such effort, however, will
necessitate the repeal of a 1994 law limiting federal government research on the health implications of firearms by
restricting the funding for the National Center for Injury
Prevention and Control at the CDC. The law dictates that that
“none of the funds made available for injury prevention and
control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may
be used to advocate or promote firearm control” (Kellermann
and Rivara 2013; see also, Alcorn 2017).
schools recorded one or more incidents of a physical attack
or fight without a weapon, 47% of schools recorded one or
more incidents of threat of physical attack without a
weapon, and 13% of public schools recorded one or more
serious violent incidents (Musu-Gillette et al. 2017, p. v).
Further, in 2015, 7.8% students in grades 9–12 reported
being in a physical fight, 6.0% reported being threatened or
injured with a weapon; 20.2% reported being bullied; and
15.5% reported being bullied electronically during the
previous 12 months. In addition, 5.6% of students reported
missing school one or more days because they felt unsafe
and 4.1% reported carrying a weapon during the previous
30 days (Centers for Disease Control & Prevention 2016).
Though violent deaths at school are rare, 53 schoolassociated violent deaths occurred from July 1, 2012 to June
30, 2013 (Musu-Gillette et al. 2017). Figure 1 illustrates
school-associated homicides and suicides of youth ages
5–18 at school since 1992.
Despite calls to the contrary, Lemieux (2014) concluded
that gun access was the best predictor of gun deaths. Indeed,
Lemieux (2014), in examining mass shootings, found no
support indicating that armed guards or citizens reduced
deaths or injuries, though firepower capacity was a key factor
associated with the number of deaths; in fact, only 17% of
shooters were killed by police, but after they inflicted substantial casualties. Further, Wintemute (2008) reported that
risk of death by gun increased 40 to 170% and Dahlberg et al.
(2004) reported a 90% increase when living in a home with
guns. Related to home safety, keeping guns locked, unloaded,
and storing ammunition separately reduced youth suicide and
unintentional injury (Grossman et al. 2005).
Efforts to curb gun violence, such as the federal ban on
assault weapons and large capacity ammunition magazines
(expired in 2004), were effective in reducing availability
and use. For example, Fallis et al. (2011) reported that in
Virginia during the ban (1994–2004) there was a decline in
weapons with large capacity magazines reaching a low of
10% in 2004. Following the expiration of the ban the
School Related Legislative Initiatives to Curb
Gun Violence
The Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 imposes criminal
penalties for the possession or discharge of a firearm in a
school zone, though specific exceptions apply (e.g., the
possession or discharge by an individual as part of a school
program, law enforcement officer acting in an official capacity). This law significantly reduced gun violence in schools
and fewer students reported carrying guns Centers for Disease Control & Prevention 2008a; Centers for Disease
Control & Prevention 2008b). Although almost all states
prohibit guns in K–12 schools, only 40 states and
Washington, D.C. extend this prohibition to people who have
Fig. 1 Homicides and suicides of youth ages 5–18 at school (
been granted a permit to carry a concealed weapon (Cliffords
Law Center 2018). Further, the Gun-Free Schools Act of
1994 requires states receiving federal funds to have a law
requiring school districts to expel, for at least 1 year, any
student carrying a gun to school unless a chief administering
officer may modify such expulsion on a case-by-case basis.
Further, schools are directed to develop policies requiring
referral to the criminal justice or juvenile delinquency system
for any student who brings a firearm or weapon to school.
Following the Columbine mass shooting, the secret service in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Education
reviewed 37 incidents of “targeted school violence” and
identified 10 key findings associated with these incidents.
Specifically, (a) incidents were not sudden or impulsive, (b)
others knew of the attacker’s idea, (c) most attackers did not
threaten targets ahead of the attack time, (d) no accurate or
useful profile of the attackers exist, (e) most attackers
exhibited behavior of concern prior to the attack, (f) most
attackers experienced problems coping with losses or personal failures, (g) most attackers felt bullied or injured by
others, (h) most attackers had access to guns, (i) often other
students were involved, and (j) most shootings ended
without law enforcement intervention though officers
responded (Vossekuil et al. 2004, p.31). The U.S. Secret
Service, FBI and U.S. Department of Education have all
recommended that K–12 schools implement threat assessment teams. The primary charge of these teams is to identify
(authorities identify threats), assess (involves gathering and
evaluating information from multiple sources), and manage
(often an assessment reveals a manageable underlying issue
such as bullying, anxiety or depression that mental health
professionals are trained to handle; American Psychological
Association 2018).
Historical Analysis of Major School
Shootings in the United States
Sporadic school shootings have occurred at various points
in the history of the United States; some occurred without
death, by accident, and during fights between students.
Many school shootings are planned with the intention of
killing one person. For example, (a) the 1853 shooting in
Louisville, Kentucky of an administrator by the sibling of
one of his students, as retaliation for administering corporal
punishment to the shooter’s brother (New York Times
1853); (b) the 1890 shooting in Brazil, Indiana of a 10-yearold girl by her male peer, as retaliation for informing adults
of his behavior (Daily Alta California 1890); (c) the
1983 shooting in St. Louis, Missouri of two 15-year-old
students, by their peer and his immediate suicide, for
unknown reasons (Ribbing 1999), and (d) the 1998 shooting in Fayetteville, Tennessee of an 18-year-old male peer,
Journal of Child and Family Studies (2018) 27:2562–2573
as retaliation for dating the perpetrator’s ex-girlfriend
(Sharp 1998).
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) does not have
a definition for mass school shootings. They do however,
define mass murder as the killing of four or more people in
the same incident (Federal Bureau of Investigation 2005).
Based on this criteria, we define mass school shooting as a
situation in which one or more people intentionally plan and
execute the killing or injury of four or more people, not
including themselves, using one or more guns, with the
killings or injuries taking place on school grounds during
the school day or during a school-sponsored event on
school grounds. For the purposes of this paper, we focus on
mass shootings perpetrated by adolescents and adults at K12 schools, and excluded organized gang shootings and
those that occurred at universities.
Figure 2 shows the increase in mass school shootings and
their related deaths from the first one in 1940 to the most
current in early 2018. The United States had no mass school
shootings that fit our criteria until 1940, when a junior high
school principal killed the superintendent, the high school
principal, the district business manager, and two teachers,
before attempting suicide, because he thought he was going
to be fired at the end of the school year (Williams 2017).
The United States had no mass school shootings in the
1950’s and 1960’s, but started a steady increase beginning
with a school shooting in 1979 orchestrated by a 16-yearold female with mental health issues who began shooting at
an elementary school, killing two adults and injuring eight
students and one adult (Daly 2014). Since 1979, the number
of shootings increased and then decreased, with the 1990’s
being a peak period. However, deaths from shootings went
from 12 in the 1980’s, to 36 in the 1990’s, 14 in the 2000’s,
and a high of 51 in the 2010’s.
In the 20th century, 22 school shootings that fit our criteria occurred in the United States. The mass school
shootings were perpetrated by 15 (60%) adolescents and by
10 (40%) adults. Characteristics of mass school shootings in
the 20th century perpetrated by adolescents can be found in
Table 1 and characteristics of those perpetrated by adults
can be found in Table 2. The adolescent shooters ranged in
age from 11- to 18-years-old (M = 14.71; SD = 1.82), while
the adult shooters ranged in age from 19- to 47-years-old
(M = 33.4; SD = 10.55). The perpetrators were overwhelmingly White males (n = 19; 76%); 88% (n = 22) of
the shooters were White, 88% (n = 22) males, 36% (n = 9)
were identified as having a mental illness at the time of the
shooting, 76% (n = 19) acted alone, and 32% (n = 8)
committed suicide. The shootings predominantly occurred
at high schools when adolescents were the shooters (n = 7;
54%), and predominantly occurred at elementary schools
when adults were the shooters (n = 5; 56%). In total, 55
people were killed; 71% students and 29% adults.
Journal of Child and Family Studies (2018) 27:2562–2573
Raw Numbers
1 0 1
6 9
Students Killed
Adults Killed
All Combined Deaths
Fig. 2 Number of mass school shootings and deaths from 1940-early 2018
Additionally, 260 people were injured, but survived; 93%
students and 7% adults. The mass shootings took place
predominately in the Western region of the United States
(n = 12; 55%).
In the first segment of the 21th century, 13 school
shootings that fit our criteria, occurred in the United States.
The mass schoo…
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