Mass shootings are a blight on America. The latest, at the Army’s base at Fort Hood in Texas on April. 2, resulted in the deaths of four people including the shooter, identified as Spc. Ivan Lopez.
Media attention will inevitably focus on both Fort Hood, site of the 2009 shooting by former Army psychiatrist Nidal Hasan, and the Lopez’s struggles with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress. The soldier self-reported a traumatic brain injury but was not diagnosed with one—and there’s no evidence he saw combat.
At the same time, we should resist the temptation to speculate. There’s very little we know about the killer or his mental health. Mass shootings are important stories. But it’s also important to put them into context—both the killings that occur within the military and outside it.
First of all, there have been at least four attacks at military installations inside the United States since 2009. There have been other shootings, but for our purposes, we’re counting those that have resulted in the deaths of three or more people.
This includes the shooting attack at Fort Hood in 2009 which killed 13 people, a suicide and double homicide at Marine Corps Base Quantico in March 2013, the Washington Navy Yard shooting in September 2013—which killed 13 people including the gunman—and this week’s attack at Fort Hood.
All of this events are terrible. But at the same time, military bases remain quite safe. The military homicide rate remains lower than the national average. Precisely 2.3 service members per 100,000 in 2009 are victims of homicide, compared to five civilians per 100,000 in 2010, according to FBI.
This means you’re statistically less likely to be the victim of a homicide if you’re in the military.
Military workplace fatalities—including homicides—are also falling. “Fatal injuries to resident military personnel reached a series low in 2012, dropping 25 percent from 57 fatalities in 2011 to 43,” noted the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This number does not include battlefield fatalities.
But this reflects a broader trend. The U.S. homicide rate is also falling.
At the same time, mass shootings are a particular type of crime. They are rare and seemingly random, which gives them an inherent news value not applicable to other types of violent crimes. But this can have the effect of making it seem like America is facing a wave of horrendous violence, when the reality is more complicated.
According to the FBI, an average of 100 people die in mass shootings in the U.S. every year. To put this in perspective, that is less than one percent of America’s staggering total number of homicides, which averages around 13,700 per year.
It’s also worth considering the sheer size of the U.S. military. In total, there are more than 1.3 million active duty personnel serving in the armed forces, plus more than 800,000 reservists.
The largest bases are also cities unto themselves. Fort Hood has a population of more than 53,000 people, according to the Census Bureau. Thousands more service members and civilian employees live outside the base in the greater Killeen-Temple metropolitan area.
That means if there’s a statistical chance of something happening among a population of more than two million people, it will probably happen in the military as well. Likewise, the largest bases are by circumstance the likeliest targets for a shooter.
In a 2013 study for Skeptic magazine, author David Hillshafer aggregated data from mass shootings and found that—not surprisingly—killers tend to target familiar locations. Teenage and student gunmen will most likely target their school or university. Killers in the workplace will most likely target their former or current workplace. The same logic also applies to people in the military.
And while law enforcement might notice a would-be terrorist becoming radicalized by a political or religious cause, workplace violence is both too uncommon and too random to spot in advance. The population is too large, the motivations are too unclear and the events are too uncommon.
“Predicting which week, much less which day and where the mass murders will occur is not possible,” science writer Michael Shermer wrote in Skeptic last year.
There’s a similar problem in linking shooters to mental illness. There’s already speculation post-traumatic stress may be a contributing cause to the Fort Hood shooting. Indeed, poor mental health is associated with violence, and there’s some evidence linking PTSD in war veterans to higher rates of interpersonal violence.
But the exact mechanism between PTSD and violence is not well understood. The overwhelming majority of veterans—obviously—never act out violently. There’s also no evidence Lopez suffered from PTSD. And even if he had, it’d be reductive to assert that it’s the defining cause that led him to violence.
Human beings are more complicated than that.
There’s also no easy solution to the problem of mass violence. Did the killer purchase his firearm legally? Which potential laws could have prevented him? (Fort Hood security did not until after Lopez began shooting.) Was he diagnosed for mental health issues prior to buying a gun? Next are questions about how to better reach out to those suffering from mental illness.
But the sad truth is that this will happen again. It will be random, unpredictable and tragic.