Mass murder rises as other killings decline
The number of Americans who die in horrific acts of multiple and even mass murder have risen in recent years despite an otherwise dramatic decline in homicide rates nationwide.
According to recently released FBI statistics, homicides involving two or more victims rose from 1,360 incidents in 2008 to 1,428 incidents last year. That's a 5 percent increase even though homicides, overall, dropped nearly 7 percent.
"This is all part of the economic downturn," concluded retired FBI agent Mark Safarik, who investigated mass murderers at the bureau's Behavioral Analysis Unit at Quantico, Va. "When the economy drops as precipitously as it has in the last few years, many men simply can't stand it. They can't hold a job, they are going into bankruptcy or foreclosure, and they snap."
These crimes with terrifying body counts are somewhat more likely to be solved than single-victim homicides, according to a Scripps Howard News Service study of more than 525,000 homicide records provided by the FBI and by local police departments.
Police were able to identify the suspects in 70 percent of all homicide cases. The rate of identification was 71 percent among multiple-victim killings and 78 percent among mass killings.
Data on mass murders for 2009 are not yet available, but these killings involving four or more victims have been rising slightly in recent years. For the three-year period 2006 to 2008, an annual average of 163 Americans perished in acts of mass killing, up from the annual average of 161 during the 1980s.
The upward trends in multiple and mass murder are in stark contrast to the huge drop in single-victim murder, which has declined more than 40 percent since 1980.
A major reason, experts say, is that mass murders and single-victim murders are committed by very different people.
"Mass murder is different from single-victim murders. They are more likely to be committed by white, middle-aged men," said Northeastern University criminologist Jack Levin, who has published several books on serial and mass killers. "And most mass killers don't kill randomly. They have certain people they blame for all of the problems in their life."
The worst mass killing so far this year demonstrates the rage many men feel. Omar Thornton killed eight co-workers at a Hartford, Conn., beer distribution warehouse on Aug. 3 when he was forced to resign after surveillance video showed he'd stolen beer from the company. He took his own life as police began swarming the building.
"They treat me bad over here," Thornton told 911 operators shortly before putting a Ruger SR9 semi-automatic pistol to his own head. "So I took it into my own hands and handled the problem. I wish I could have gotten more people."
That sense of remorseless vengeance echoed in Oklahoma City federal building bomber Timothy McVeigh, who in 1995 killed 168 people in America's deadliest domestic act of terrorism.
"I am sorry these people had to lose their lives. But that's the nature of the beast," McVeigh said in a 2001 letter to The Buffalo (N.Y.) News. He was lashing out at what he believed were tyrannical policies of the federal government.
From 1980 to 2008, at least 4,685 people have perished in 965 reported incidents of mass murder involving at least four fatalities committed during the same incident. Multiple homicides involving at least two victims took 44,163 lives in 19,568 incidents.
In cases in which police identify the offender, 49 percent of the perpetrators in single-victim homicides were whites, while whites accounted for 61 percent of mass homicides. Blacks account for 49 percent of single-victim killings and 35 percent of mass killings.
The victims of mass murder tend to be a cross section of the U.S. population. About 70 percent of mass murder victims are white, compared to only 50 percent of victims of single-person killings. Women accounted for more than 40 percent of mass murder victims, up from about 20 percent of single-victim killings.
The study was based on records obtained from the FBI's Supplementary Homicide Report, a voluntary program in which not all police departments participate.
Using local Freedom of Information Act laws, Scripps Howard obtained 15,322 detailed records of homicides that were not reported to the FBI from police departments in Florida and the District of Columbia.
These additional records included 37 mass killings of 165 people and 793 multiple killings of 1,786 people that were not reported to federal authorities.