It wasn’t supposed to happen in England, with its very strict gun-control laws. And yet last week, Derrick Bird shot twelve people to death and wounded eleven others in the northwestern county of Cumbria. A headline in the London Times read: “.”
But surely this was an aberration. Because America has the most guns, multiple-victim public shootings are an American thing, right? No, not at all. Contrary to public perception, Western Europe, most of whose countries have much tougher gun laws than the United States, has experienced many of the worst multiple-victim public shootings. Particularly telling, all the multiple-victim public shootings in Western Europe have occurred in places where civilians are not permitted to carry guns. The same is true in the United States: All the public shootings in which more than three people have been killed have occurred in places where civilians may not legally bring guns.
Look at recent history. Where have the worst K–12 school shootings occurred? Nearly all of them in Europe. The very worst one occurred in a high school in Erfurt, Germany, in 2002, where 18 were killed. The second-worst took place in Dunblane, Scotland, in 1996, where 16 kindergartners and their teacher were killed. The third-worst, with 15 dead, happened in Winnenden, Germany. The fourth-worst was in the U.S. — Columbine High School in 1999, leaving 13 dead. The fifth-worst, with eleven murdered, occurred in Emsdetten, Germany.
It may be a surprise to those who believe in gun control that Germany was home to three of the five worst attacks. Though not quite as tight as the U.K.’s regulations, Germany’s gun-control laws are some of the most restrictive in Europe. German gun licenses are valid for only three years, and to obtain one, the person must demonstrate such hard-to-define characteristics as trustworthiness, and must also convince authorities that he needs a gun. This is on top of prohibitions on gun ownership for those with mental disorders, drug or alcohol addictions, violent or aggressive tendencies, or felony convictions.
The phenomenon is not limited to school attacks. Multiple-victim public shootings in general appear to be at least as common in Western Europe as they are here. The following is a partial list of attacks since 2001. As mentioned, all of them occurred in gun-free zones — places where guns in the hands of civilians are outlawed.
Zug, Switzerland, Sept. 27, 2001: A man whose lawsuits had been denied murdered 14 members of a cantonal parliament.
Tours, France, Oct. 29, 2001: Four people were killed and ten wounded when a French railway worker started shooting at a busy intersection.
Nanterre, France, March 27, 2002: A man killed eight city-council members after a council meeting.
Freising, Germany, Feb. 19, 2002: Three people killed and one wounded.
Turin, Italy, Oct. 15, 2002: Seven people killed on a hillside overlooking the city.
Madrid, Spain, Oct. 1, 2006: A man killed two employees and wounded another at a company that had fired him.
Emsdetten, Germany, Nov. 20, 2006: A former student murdered eleven people at a high school. Tuusula, Finland, Nov. 7, 2007: Seven students and the principal killed at a high school.
Naples, Italy, Sept. 18, 2008: Seven dead and two seriously wounded in a public meeting hall. (This incident is not included in the totals given below because it may have involved the Mafia.)
Kauhajoki, Finland, Sept. 23, 2008: Ten people shot to death at a college.
Winnenden, Germany, March 11, 2009: A 17-year-old former student killed 15 people, including nine students and three teachers.
Lyon, France, March 19, 2009: Ten people injured when a man opened fire on a nursery school.
Athens, Greece, April 10, 2009: Three people killed and two injured by a student at a vocational college.
Rotterdam, Netherlands, April 11, 2009: Three people killed and one injured at a crowded café.
Vienna, Austria, May 24, 2009: One dead and 15 wounded in an attack on a Sikh temple.
Espoo, Finland, Dec. 31, 2009: Four people shot to death at a mall.
Cumbria, England, June 2, 2010: Twelve killed by a British taxi driver.
So how does this compare with the United States? Bill Landes at the University of Chicago and I have collected data on all the multiple-victim public shootings in the United States from 1977 to 1999 (for a discussion of that information, see the just-released updated third edition of ). If one looks at just those cases where four or more people have been killed in an attack, on average 10.6 people died in such attacks each year; the worst attack was the Luby’s Cafeteria shooting in Killeen, Texas, in 1991, in which 23 people died.
I don’t have exactly comparable data for Europe; however, the data I have been able to collect for the nine and a half years from 2001 through now indicate that on average some 12.5 people per year have died in such attacks. To be sure, Western Europe has a lower per capita rate, since its population over the last decade has been about 48 percent larger than the U.S. population over the earlier period (about 387 million to 262 million). Still, the fact that there are such attacks at all belies the conventional wisdom.
Large multiple-victim public shootings are exceedingly rare events, but they garner massive news attention, and the misperceptions they produce are hard to erase. When I have been interviewed by foreign journalists, even German ones, they usually start off by asking why multiple-victim public shootings are such an American problem. And of course, they are astonished when I remind them of the attacks in their own countries and point out that this is not an American problem, it is a universal problem, but with a common factor: The attacks occur in public places where civilians are banned from carrying guns.
– is , an economist, and the author of More Guns, Less Crime, the third edition of which has just been published by the University of Chicago Press.