Active Shooters: Myths and Realities

Active Shooters: Myths and Realities

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D

The October mass shooting in Maine happened in a state with one of the lowest violent crime rates in the nation and a state with permitless carry. Everytown for Gun Safety cites Main as “a permitless carry state, though it continues to have low gun violence relative to its weaker firearm laws.” The site further states that 89% of gun deaths in the state are from suicides, meaning that overall, violent crime related to firearms is significantly rare in the state.

That won’t stop those who believe more restrictions on firearms ownership will reduce mass shootings of strangers. The debate over such efforts is not the focus of this article, but decisions in the discussions should be informed by facts and not fear. It should also be noted that nothing in this article minimizes the tragedy and loss of violent crime, nor lessens the need for awareness and preparation.

A news report cited over 500 mass shootings in the U.S. in 2023 as of the date of their coverage of the Lewiston, Maine shooting. They may have erroneously referred to the USA Today scorecard that counts 569 events since 2006. The Associated Press cites 37 mass shootings (using the FBI criteria of four or more persons dying within 24 hours) as of this writing. The Gun Violence Archive website cites 567 mass shootings (presumably including non-lethal events) in 2023 and 32 mass murders. Wikipedia claims 487 shootings while Axios states 501 at the end of September.

No wonder the tendency is toward panic. The major concern is random violence as we go about our business. Is it safe to go to Walmart? A USAToday article published in April of this year notes that in a 10-month period, there were 363 gun incidents. Even assuming each of those events happened at a different store, there are over 4,700 Walmart locations in the U.S., meaning that 4,337 stores had no gun incidents. That means there is a 0.0002% chance of being in a Walmart on a day with a gun incident.

School shootings in 2023 number at least 58 according to CNN, 39 of which were on k-12 school grounds and 19 on a college campus. According to, there are 115, 576 K-12 schools, and USNews and World Report there are about 4,000 college campuses in the U.S. The chance of being on a k-12 or college campus on a day with a shooting event is 0.000003%. Check my math, but the CDC estimates that the odds of being killed in a school shooting any given year is 1 in 2.5 million, much less the risk on any given day of a 180-day school year.

Compare these rates to the risk of being struck by lightning in any given year is 1/1,222,000 according to, 90% of which are non-fatal. Dying in a car crash is 1 in 101 in any given year according to the National Safety Council. Being killed by a shark is 1 in 3.7 million

As a school safety expert, I do not take this risk lightly. But even among reported school shootings, many happen on school property from crimes that are unrelated to the school population, and many are not aimed at random members of the school community but are targets of personal disputes or domestic violence.

A Rand Corporation study on state and local gun regulations concluded that “none of the policies we examined would dramatically increase or decrease the stock of guns—estimated by the Small Arms Survey to be more than 393 million firearms in 2017—or gun ownership rates—with about one-third of households estimated to own firearms in 2016—in ways that may produce more readily detectable effects on public safety, health, and industry outcomes.” The study found few regulations that could be tied to a reduction in firearms-related deaths but did note that even a small reduction in such fatalities and injuries could be a significant number over time.

The fear-to-fact ratio appears to be tilted far in favor of fear, which is never a solid foundation for new laws, particularly those that impinge on basic freedoms. Facts matter, but who can we trust to produce and interpret them?