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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Examining the last 20 years of mass shootings through the lens of ‘gun free’ zones

More than a month after the shooting in Newtown, Conn., President Barack Obama returned the nation’s focus to gun control Wednesday, presenting plans to tighten the country’s firearms laws. But in New Hampshire, lawmakers have been addressing the matter since they returned to session earlier this year.

On Jan. 3, the first day of the 2013 session, the Legislature took up a proposal to renew a long-standing ban on firearms in the state House of Representatives. After much debate, the ban passed the measure over the objection of many House Republicans, including J.R. Hoell, of Dunbarton, who argued the move could leave legislators vulnerable to violence. ...

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More than a month after the shooting in Newtown, Conn., President Barack Obama returned the nation’s focus to gun control Wednesday, presenting plans to tighten the country’s firearms laws. But in New Hampshire, lawmakers have been addressing the matter since they returned to session earlier this year.

On Jan. 3, the first day of the 2013 session, the Legislature took up a proposal to renew a long-standing ban on firearms in the state House of Representatives. After much debate, the ban passed the measure over the objection of many House Republicans, including J.R. Hoell, of Dunbarton, who argued the move could leave legislators vulnerable to violence.

“In the last 20 years, except for the congresswoman (Gabby) Giffords shooting, all of these mass murders have been in places where guns have been forbidden,” Hoell told his colleagues in the House.

Hoell and other legislators were trying to make the point that those bent on violence know to go to gun-free zones where their victims cannot defend themselves.

Sandy Hook Elementary School, like all other schools across the country, is a federally declared “gun-free zone.” But to declare that all of the mass murders in the past 20 years were also in gun free zones is a different story.

We attempted to analyze this claim for PolitiFact, determining where it rates on the Truth-O-Meter. But this question proved too far-reaching to summarize definitively. So we decided to publish our findings without a ruling.

To start, we first consulted Mother Jones, a left-leaning magazine published by the Foundation for National Progress, which conducted the most thorough investigation into mass killings in recent years.

The study, titled “A Guide to Mass Shootings in America,” determined there have been at least 62 public shooting incidents since 1982 in which four people or more were killed. Of those, 48 fall into the 20-year time period identified by Hoell.

Of the 48, six, including last month’s Newtown shooting, took place at schools, and therefore fall under the federal Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990, which prohibits guns in or around school campuses.

In addition, three of the incidents took place at universities – Oikos University, Virginia Tech University and Northern Illinois University – which prohibited firearms, while three occurred at churches or houses of worship, which had gun bans at the time.

The rest of the shooting incidents are harder to track, however. Movie theaters, shopping malls, coffee shops and other privately owned businesses, the location of the vast majority of the public shootings, are not subject to federal gun laws, relying instead on state or local concealed carry laws or company regulations to regulate firearms.

For instance, the Hartford Distributors plant in Manchester, Conn., the site of a 2010 shooting incident in which nine people were killed, did have a gun ban in place at the time, company officials told The Telegraph.

But the International House of Pancakes restaurant in Carson City, Nevada, where five people died in 2011, had no such ban in place, according to city Sheriff Ken Furlong. That meant the business deferred to the state’s firearms laws, which allow licensed individuals to carry a concealed weapon and anyone to carry openly, Furlong wrote in an email to The Telegraph.

“Provided the weapon is not concealed, anyone can carry without restriction,” he wrote.

In their investigation, Mother Jones reporters did not go back to check the local laws in place at the time of each shooting.

We set out to check all of them, but the majority of our queries were not returned, making it difficult to come to a conclusion.

John Lott Jr., a former economist at Yale University Law School and noted gun rights activist, also has tracked the matter.

In 2000, he published a report along with William M. Landes of the University of Chicago Law School, which analyzed mass killings from 1977-99. The study, “Multiple Victim Public Shootings,” determined that each incident in that period took place in a “gun-free zone.”

In the years since, Lott has continued to track mass shooting events and local gun laws. He has published many on his blog, as well as in commentaries for Fox News, among other media outlets. And he has used his findings to update his books, “More Guns, Less Crime” and “The Bias Against Guns.”

Once again, Lott’s findings show that each mass shooting, except the Giffords incident, took place in “gun-free zones.”

“Killers go where victims can’t defend themselves,” Lott wrote last week in an email to The Telegraph, using this year’s Aurora movie theater shooting as an example. “Out of seven theaters showing the Batman movie premiere within 20 minutes of the suspect’s apartment, only one banned permitted concealed handguns. The suspect didn’t go to the closest nor the largest, but to the one that banned self-defense. Time after time, the story is the same.”

On the whole, Lott’s colleagues – both in the media and academia – don’t dispute his findings.

“I suspect that most places that mass public shootings could logically occur are ‘gun-free zones’ either determined by the government (schools) or by private businesses and institutions,” David Hemenway, director of the Injury Control Research Center at Harvard University, wrote in an email.

But they do debate Lott’s conclusions, and Hoell’s point that a location’s “gun-free” status actually attracts shooters.

“There is no evidence, to our knowledge, of any mass shooter specifically selecting his location based on its likelihood of being ‘gun-free,’” Mary Vriniotis, a research specialist for the Harvard school, wrote in an email.

“Schools might be a likely target because that is where a mass of people congregate and those people involve a lot of troubled adolescents who may harbor bad feelings toward the people there who bullied them, were unfair to them, etc,” added Daniel Webster, director of Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University. “The shooters in these instances didn’t say, ‘Hey, I’ll find a gun-free zone where I can shoot a lot of people.’ No, they went to a place for reasons wholly unrelated to gun-free zones.”

Jake Berry can be reached at 594-6402 or jberry@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Berry on Twitter (@Telegraph_JakeB).