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New database tracks commonalities among mass shooters

Posted at 7:41 PM, Jan 01, 2020

ST. PAUL, Minn. — A newly released database is being called the largest and most comprehensive database of mass shooters in the country.

The U.S. Department of Justice funded the database from The Violence Project, a nonpartisan think tank. Professors Jillian Peterson, James Densley, and a team of students at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota developed the database for the purpose of better understanding or preventing mass shootings.

The team looked at everything from the background of America's 171 mass shooters, including 100 difference pieces of life history information, to how those shooters got their guns. For the project, mass shooters were defined as individuals who shot and killed four or more people in a public space.

The Violence Project database

Orlando's Pulse nightclub shooting, that killed 49 people, and the Parkland school shooting, that killed 17 people, are among the examples where Densley examined the mass shooters responsible.

"I think there's a sense that we often think of these individuals as being sort of – incomprehensible. That they’re monsters who have perpetrated horrific acts of violence, which is all very true, but because of that, there’s no explanation for what’s going on here. And instead, we see that these individuals generally have four things in common," said Densley.

Those commonalities, Densley said, are childhood trauma, an identifiable crisis point where the shooter becomes suicidal, studying other mass shooters, and access. Access to people, places and firearms.

But The Violence Project's data on firearms is admittedly incomplete.

“In a third of the cases, we don’t know. Where the firearm is from. And the question I think we need to ask ourselves is, do we want to live in a country where a third of mass shooters can get firearms and we are unclear about how we got them?" said Densley.

Of the known data, researchers found 77 percent of the shooters bought at least some of their firearms legally, 13 percent made illegal purchases and 19 percent stole guns.

The Violence Project found 98 percent of mass shooters were male, 52 percent were white, and the average age was 34.

Amanda Raitano told I-Team Investigator Kylie McGivern, "Mass shootings are - just kind of the tip of the iceberg."

Raitano is a volunteer with Moms Demand Action, a group pushing for gun reform.

“My uncle was shot and killed at gunpoint when I was in middle school. And so my family has experienced the toll of daily gun violence and so I wanted to do something. Not just in remembrance of my uncle, but also as a mom," said Raitano.

Something she wants to see increase in Florida is background checks.

“One thing that would help prevent daily gun violence, as well as these mass shootings, is background checks. Requiring a background check on every single gun sale," said Raitano.

Currently, 21 states require background checks on all gun sales.

Earlier this month, Raitano and other moms came together in St. Petersburg to write holiday card to children. Children who lost a loved one to gun violence.

Another mom with Moms Demand Action said the cards are about, "Acknowleding that their feelings may be hard and heavy and difficult this year, but there is love. There is love."

“It just really makes you reflect on, you know, what the true cost is of gun violence," said Raitano.

Densley said he hopes the data collected through the Violence Project will better inform talks to end that violence and future mass shootings.

“Our goal here is around prevention. We want the information we've gathered here to help data-driven and informed conversations about what prevention looks like," said Densley.

The intent is for the team to release updates on the mass shooter database at least once a year.