Mass Shooting Cattle Pens

“The rate of mass shootings per 100,000 population has gone DOWN by an extraordinary degree.”

Though not a recurring pro-gun meme, this one was sent to the Gun Facts Project by someone from the pro-gun camp. It was an interesting claim, but incorrect. Investigating the claim then led us to dig and try to find underlying realities.

Seriously, the Gun Facts researchers need to get a life.

Mass Shootings Increase

U.S. Mass Public Shootings Per Capita 1982 through 2016Mass shooting incidents and fatalities are on the increase (and highly covariant with reported adverse reactions to prescription psychotropic medications). When we adjust for the increasing U.S. population, we still see per capita increases in the number of instances as well as the number of fatalities and woundings.

One thing jumped out at us from the initial charts, namely several outliers. Certain years showed dramatically large spikes. The most prominent of the spikes were the years of the Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Pulse Nightclub, Texas church and Las Vegas music festival shootings. The average number of fatalities of those events are 5.4 times larger than the average for all other events in the 21 century.

One hellish part of being a researcher is when you see an anomaly, you automatically ask “why?” This is followed by many hours of number crunching, chart making, and annoyed girlfriends.

What Made The Five Events So Fatal?

When we look at the five major U.S. mass shootings of the 21st century, we see the following events:

  • Virginia Tech: Students confined and purposefully trapped in classrooms – 32 dead (handguns).
  • Sandy Hook: Students trapped in classrooms – 27 dead (handguns, rifle, shotgun).
  • Pulse Night Club: People packed into a club with few exit paths (handgun, rifle).
  • Texas First Baptist Church: People trapped and packed in a church (rifle).
  • Las Vegas: People packed very tightly into a music venue with few escape paths (rifles).

As we noted in our original analysis of the Las Vegas concert massacre, the shooter had a near-perfect “cattle pen” situation. Any scenario where victims are immobile offers the potential for a higher body count. The reason is that marksmanship becomes less relevant, or even irrelevant. Simply firing into the crowd will result in deaths.

DEFINITION: A cattle pen scenario is defined as follows:

  • Many people in “crowded” area (required)
  • Limited exits or exit capacity (this and/or the next)
  • Few or no places to take cover (this and/or the previous)
U.S. Mass Public Shootings by Location - 1982 through 2016
 U.S. Mass School Shootings 1982 through 2018
 U.S. Mass School Shootings 1982 through 2018 sans major outlier events

A commonality of these events is the location. Certain locations – sadly, this includes schools – are ready made cattle pens. Indeed, when we look at just mass shootings by location, we see divergences. The chart here shows those location categories that had a significant slope calculation over the years, indicating a growing rate of fatalities (note: we dropped churches from the list because there are extended spans, as long as 15 years, with no church shootings, which confounds reliable trending analysis).

Naturally, this begs yet another question (creating more research and another highly annoyed girlfriend). What would we conclude if the spikes caused by pre-planned, cattle pen events were factored? With those major events included, we see an almost straight line escalation of fatalities in school shootings (we didn’t take the time to analyze the “other” category because the variety of such locations confounds the analysis, nor the “workplace” category since the trend in fatalities there was not significant to begin with).

When we remove the three cattle pen events from the list of school mass shootings, the trend changes substantially (and note, we left the Columbine High School massacre in the chart – the body count there was “only” twice as large as the 21 century, non-cattle pen average).

The Problem and Policy Point

Since half of mass public shootings involve only handguns or shotguns, we can discount the innumeracy hysteria sounding “assault weapons”. Also, when factoring away outlier events, we see that though worth worrying about, the rate of mass shooting events and the resulting carnage is not making a major escalation.

What is happening is that homicidal maniacs are learning.

We at the Gun Facts Project have (slowly) been reading on the topic of copy cat mass shootings and the alleged “media contagion” effect. For now we will simply say that testimony from surviving shooters and forensic evidence from those who did not survive shows that they spend copious amounts of time studying previous mass shootings. The Columbine massacre is the most studied event among the shooters that followed, and one aspect is that the pre-planning of this “cattle pen” event is formative. This was the mass public shooting that became the model for others.

U.S. Mass Public Shootings - Columbine cattle-pen effect - 1982 through 2016 - version bOne of the lessons that appears to have been learned by homicidal maniacs is that people densely packed into a confined area makes for a fertile killing field. Before Columbine, at least as far as the database used in this study goes, only three mass public shootings had a higher body count, and those were also similar to cattle pen events (San Ysidro McDonald’s, Luby’s Cafeteria and a post office work area). After Columbine, and the media contagion that followed, we see several high profile, high body count cattle pen events.

Given all of the above (no specific weapon type, no central age of the shooter, no similar backgrounds) the outlier events have the commonality of the cattle pen scenario. Given our love for big events and the ease of researching their murderous heroes online, we will likely see more consistent spikes of well-planned cattle pen massacres … at least until such time as the nation examines their mental health treatment choices.

A note on the data source:

In this analysis we used the Mother Jones database of mass shootings after we normalized it to conform with the criminology definition for mass public shootings, 4+ dead not including the attacker. The primary reasons for using Mother Jones’ database for this analysis was their including of a location category and that their database goes back further in time than others.

Update #1: Common vs Exceptional events

U.S. Mass Public Shootings - common vs exceptional incidents - 1982 through 2018It is useful to identify a breakpoint between a “common” or “typical” mass public shooting, and this much larger “exceptional” incidents.

For our purposes, the number of 20 fatalities is our breakpoint, which we arrived at by charting all incidents from 1989 through earlier this week. As you can see in this chart, there is a clear division between the average body count of 6.9 fatalities and the much higher average of 34 dead in the “exceptional” category.

Update #2: A Cleaner Visualization

U.S. Mass Public Shootings - escalation of fatalities post Columbine - 1982 through 2016The original line chart in this post is quite useful, but it does not show the stark escalation of fatalities in mass public shootings in the post Columbine period.

Using spans of five years (semi-decadal) we see that before 2005, though the number of incidents rose and fell, the number of per capita fatalities stayed within a band.

After 2004, cattle penning events became more common, starting with the VA Tech massacre (32 dead), continuing in the next five-year span with Sandy Hook (27 dead) and onward into the current period with Pulse Nightclub (49), Las Vegas concert (58) and Texas church (26).


Mass Shooting Cattle Pens — 12 Comments

  1. Thank you for the update and preventing bad data from getting a foot hold in the public eye.

    One item that jumps out to me is the possible need for armed people at assemblies of certain size or larger. The recent temple shooting in Pennsylvania and President Trump’s question of lack of armed guards (could be just armed attendees IMHO) lends fuel for the discussion.

    • Thing is, a gun free zone is a free access card for a shooter to have his will with all in free zone with no worry of competition…There needs to be an armed citizen, at least, for protection…With what we have to go through to have a carry permit, should allow us to carry anywhere…Just the knowledge of a firearm on location will discourage many shooters from taking a chance with their life…The thing with liberals, the sight of a fire arm on a person in their area can well be solved by many methods that we have concerning fire arm being hidden from view..

    • Read the Second Amendment and keep in mind that our Founders stated that the “militia” is the “whole of the people, well-trained to arms”

      The 2nd Amendment is a DUTY on the Citizens of this Republic, not just a “guarantee” that our “government” will NEVER INTERFERE WITH OUR PRE-EXISTING, GOD-GIVEN RIGHT to provide for the protection of self, family, society, and country.

  2. Thank you for your presentation at the Golden State 2nd Amendment Council ( on breakdown of gun death statistics a few years ago wherein you pointed out suicides, felony murders, justifiable homicides, etc., reduced the number advanced by gun control proponents.33000, to a more realistic 5000 (or so) crimes of concern. I know many people who have been encouraged to delve further into facts of the debate as a result-and take it further.

  3. How is it possible to do a study, even a overview piece about the “cattle pen” idea without pointing out the one factor that is glaringly important in that arena? You know, the fact that the “fence” is the Gun Free Zone factor itself?

    After all, we have a clear starting point when they were created, and there is a litany of examples outside Mother Jones Media touted areas if an even WOULD HAVE BEEN creating cattle with that gun control fencing, would have been MotherJones qualified mass shootings. Garland Texas in a good example.

    When looking at the origins, which is part of addressing increases, it is premise destroying to leave out such a integral data point and data set such as this fundamental baseline origination fact.

    As you pointed out, talking to shooters/criminals, they even admit choosing gun controlled pens if not instinctively, at least out of a sort of common sense self preservation choice. A situation where we see they may be dumb, even insane, but they aren’t stupid. When numbers of slaughtered is the goal, it pretty much goes without saying that murderers do not want people shooting back.

    So why would Mother Jones VAAAAST research not entail and encompass this point? Gee, maybe for the same reason you had to control for their ummm “expanded” definition of “mass” shooting – their attempt to control the outcome itself.

    So I call B.S. on the GFZ point of order being missing from the cattle pen Idea.It is literally impossible to leave out what makes a pen a pen, to avoid entirely what it is fencing people in.

    OK, fair enough, I am open to seeing a companion paper, one expanding the cattle pen idea, one further explaining what it actually is. Though one would think well read authors would put such a horse out in front of the cart crying the graphs and charts, so, you know, they would be more german and in proper context and order.

    One more thing. If we would include people PRESENT in mass shooting description, as opposed to just those shot or shot and killed, we would have some seriously clear evidence that the trend is decidedly down across the USA as a whole, yet steady or up and down and up and down year over year in places like Chicago, Baltimore and D.C. The Pen of cattle in that version of selectively choosing which information to include and which to LEAVE OUT (in attempt to gain a particular answer or hide one) is of course democrat controlled areas, and which prior to 20010 and especially 2008 were easily shown to be gun free zones the size of cities, towns even entire states!

    If you truly want to oppose the BS, then including all of the truth is necessary. In the fair point vein, it takes a book length piece to deal with it all, but then that is EXACTLY (ironically) why the American’s Second Amendment was written as it is written –

    The purpose was to admit this salient point – to set almost ALL of what would be in just such a lengthy article, err book, aside totally by making the VAST MAJORITY of it quite moot, indeed irrelevant, because NO MATTER where such studies end up at any given time, the conclusion even being 100% anti BS “just the facts” or spun up Mother Jones Everytown Brady Bunch Gun Control porn, the right hinges upon exactly NONE of it.

    Said another way, the right to keep and bear arms, which is overly and specifically vested with the people themselves, does not depend on whether “crime” or any circumstance of it goes up or goes down or dare I say remain flatlined at exactly zero.

    Shall Not Be Infringed set all three possibilities aside as potential reasons setting up “acceptable” infringement.

    Those who crafted this Enumerated Right to plainly Codify what was so plainly identified as a Self Evident Truth applying to us all equally, this right to life – even within cattle pens – meant to set aside EVERY existing argument that was ALREADY used to try to play gun controller. Let us be honest on the NO BS front, shall we? There is nothing new in the gun control debate that did not exist the day the Second Amendment was ratified. The “for safety” argument, the interest balancing approach that this ENTIRE so called debate revolves around it the EXACT same attempted premise the British used when they showed up at Lexington and Concord to collect up the black powder and the cannons, along with the muskets and pistols – their claim was “for safety”, for “ordered Liberty”, indeed it was then their own version of Modern Day Gun Control.

    And it was as rejected then as it is today, with the exercise OF the right the Second Amendment aimed to EXPLAIN (as opposed to grant). This is what so many miss about the right to arms, I would argue the miss it intentionally. Pressed hard enough, threatened harsh enough, the NATURAL order of things will come to pass. Shots heard Round The World. Defense of Liberty itself comes into play – the very same Spirit that saw this nation founded comes into clear view.

    If you want to adhere to Anti BS, I commend you, but to do so you are going to have to clean the First Amendment cattle pen’s floor up a bit, it is in line with a dairy farm’s milking pen in march…starting to thaw and in need of a skid loader to fill the tractor pulled manure spreader.

    This is to say, if you want to discuss these supposed debate bullet points, the Necessary and Proper thing to do is include the reality based actuality that the free standing interest balancing approach simply DOES NOT APPLY to enumerated rights, any of them, for the pointed reason that to do so would literally and undeniably DEFEAT the purpose of enumeration itself.

    That some people will assemble into a group and make up massive lies, even some that see large numbers of people killed, does not and CAN NOT eliminate the RIGHT of another or others to assemble, speak, have faith in and print or broadcast a chose position on a particular thing.

    The Second Amendment is no different. That right there is among the most important facts that exists, and that makes it necessary to include it within pieces like this one. Wouldn’t want to be misleading people by intentionally leaving it out, now would we? Cuz that would be, well, bovine excrement that has a rightful place…in that same manure spreader setting behind that Case IH out there next to the barn where the females wait to be milked.

    I agree with your premise in the banner – it doesn’t even matter if one is pro gun or anti gun, what matters is that the TRUTH outshine the lies, the BS. One truth is that today’s gun control is indeed a criminal action. Every bit of it is plainly on its face and in practice every bit the same crime as mass shootings. Violation of the right to life is indeed the same thing as intentionally violating the right to DEFEND that life, especially when it is your own.

    Clearing away the BS that exists, along with the BS of leaving things out, is a noble notion. Simply put, our solution rests in accomplishing those very things. The simplest statement to make is this; we require CRIMINAL CONTROL, not more gun control crimes.

    Mike Marvin

    • We appreciate your comments, but we appear to be flying at different altitudes:

      In this analysis, we started with the broad and inclusive numbers, and distilled until we saw trends and anomalies. Those inspired deeper investigations (after all, research exists to explain observed phenomena).

      We don’t debate the “gun free zones” are or may be a factor. But that has been studied and reported on by others. Perhaps, with time and funding available, we will have the opportunity to perform a multivariate analysis of the less common variables (meds, GFZs, cattle pens). At current time and money availability, I don’t see that happening soon.

    • True point, gun free zone. That’s why I carry. Always and everywhere. Concealed is more than just concealed. Concealed includes a thorough control of appearance and all aspects of behavior.

  4. I would say to this that mass shooting contingency planning will be a damn near regulatory requirement to public events and places of sufficiently large scale assembly.

    Realistically I don’t see a common sense approach to allowing armed citizens to openly carry in these type events and places. Too much irrational fear. It simply doesn’t matter how much logic you present.

    That said, no armed citizen could have stopped the Vegas shooting by firing back, if they were attending the events. The point is, there is no silver bullet that slays this werewolf every time.

    Mental health may be part of the issue that needs to be addressed, but why? So far I haven’t seen a compelling argument that says medications are the culprit, just a strong correlation. I really like the authors focus on lethality. Shooters are studying how to increase the casualties. So would providing better mental health care across the board result in fewer mass shooting events? I’m not convinced yet. It can’t hurt I’m sure.

    So far as I can tell, the best explanation about the mindset of one of these assholes is that they are pissed off at life itself for being alive. That’s the short version. I got this from Dr. Jordan Peterson. Go to him for a better explanation, but it makes the most sense. Basically they are angry for being alive and seek revenge against it. How do you stop that?

    Anyway, I’m glad to see the fact.

    • The way to control, maybe in the future stop, the cattle pen shooting is for local agencies to pay attention to would be murderers thru Face Book, minor infractions, several ways to control a future mass murder…In Florida there were many warnings of a loose screw that were ignored by more than the County Sheriff…Would be shooters’ relatives need to be aware and see that stopping the would be shooter before his illegal actions would certainly be less painful for the might be shooter if he were stopped before illegal actions…That would may be effective in the Vegas shooting, certainly as you point out, anyone shooting back would not be at all effective…Thinking of the fact that many are shooting from the hip at trying to pass laws that are of no use in stopping violence as laws on the books already are not sufficiently followed, would be felons are not held accountable…Florida passed a law enabling law enforcement to disarm (take away all guns) a would be shooter if knowledge of future violence was noted in the person’s records…So, the law took away the possible shooters fire arms, as it should…However, the law doesn’t keep the possible shooter from legally buying more weapons after giving up his previous…Known as passing laws to insure getting elected next time with no regard to being effective..

      • You’re arguing for the “Red Flag” laws and/or the ability to scrutinize a firearm purchase (or CC permit) applicant’s email and/or social media for “warning signs”. There’s a HUGE problem…HOW would one reasonably predict future behavior, i.e., establish a “pre-crime” law, based on scrutiny of, say, FB posts? Never mind the First Amendment implications, which ought to be the “deal-breaker” right then and there. A promulgator of such a statute in New York State, for example, proposes that a sidearm permit (required under NY’s very-UN-constitutional “Sullivan” Act) should be denied if the applicant’s social media shows “Hate”…which means…WHAT? Likely, in the mind of this liberal, gun-grabbing politician, whatever HE disagrees with. And this is the biggest danger of all…censoring “hate” or otherwise unpopular speech, on the mistaken notion that we can prevent outbreaks of violent crime, including these tragic mass shootings. No competent psychiatrist would ever assert that future behavior of a subject can be predicted with certainty; if a patient expresses to them sentiments of harm to themselves or others, ultimately the degree of the threat and the need to respond and the type of response is a JUDGEMENT call.

        As the post indicates, the unfortunate ingenuity of these psychotics, like many criminals, can be amazing at times. As is jokingly said, when you try to make something “idiot-proof”, all you do is make a more “clever” idiot. And how many of these mass shootings were perpetrated by someone ALREADY in the “prohibited” class, whom managed to obtain firearms anyway? Or, like in the case of the discharged Air Force member, recently convicted of domestic violence, the subject ought to have been screened out, but “slipped through the cracks”?

        No, the trouble is, these “gun-grabbers” expect the several citizens to surrender their inherent right to defend themselves, with force of arms as required, on the vague and unenforceable promise that the Government will “protect” them. As we’ve seen, the “system” FAILS, time after time, whether it’s an entry into a database not made, for an inexplicable reason, or a supposedly trained officer, cowering and afraid to take decisive action, or the “evil genius” simply finds a more clever way to carry out his nefarious intentions.

        The recent response of a fellow church member to a shooter than opened fire in that White Settlement, Texas, church is the most effective way to deal with these mass shooters, armed, DEADLY response, on the spot! After all, your friendly police officer is minutes away, when SECONDS count, but we can always use him…to write up the incident report and chalk around the bled-out remains of the would-be shooter!

        • Thanks for the comment Dave. I’m a bit unclear though how you come to the conclusion that we are arguing for red flag laws. Perhaps there is a fragment of our write-up that is concerning. If you can point that out, and if there is just sloppy wordsmithing on our part, I may choose to edit.

  5. Interesting thing about the “school shooting” charts is the they seem to occur about ever seven years, more-or-less.

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