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Kalamazoo, Michigan, shootings: what we know

An Uber driver in Kalamazoo County in southwestern Michigan is in police custody after a spree of shootings in the area left six dead and two wounded.

Police took the suspect, 45-year-old Jason Brian Dalton, into custody early Sunday in connection with the three shootings Saturday night, NBC News reported. Although the shootings appear to have been premeditated, police say the victims were seemingly chosen at random.

"There is no connection between any of them. This all appears to be random," Kalamazoo County Undersheriff Paul Matyas said. "This is the worst-case scenario that any community can have."

Police stopped Dalton around 12:45 am, seizing a semiautomatic handgun during the arrest. Law enforcement believe Dalton was planning on carrying out more shootings before he was stopped.

The shootings are a devastating tragedy, but unfortunately one that Americans are increasingly familiar with. As more of these events end up in the news, the country is being forced to consider why the US, more than any other developed nation, suffers from such extraordinary levels of gun violence. And it seems easy access to firearms provide one answer.

There were three shootings Kalamazoo County

According to police, there were three shootings in the Kalamazoo area on Saturday after 6 pm. Although there were no connections between the victims, Dalton seems to have premeditated the attacks, even though he apparently chose victims at random.

Here are the events, as reported by NBC News, ABC News, the Detroit Free Press, and law enforcement:

  • About 6 pm on Saturday: A gunman shot a woman at a Kalamazoo County apartment complex several times. She was left in serious condition, but is expected to survive.
  • About 10 pm: A gunman fatally shot two men, one 18, at a car dealership.
  • About 10:15 pm: A gunman opened fire in a Cracker Barrel restaurant parking lot, fatally shooting four women and seriously injuring a 14-year-old girl. The suspect got out of his car, started a brief conversation with people in two other cars, and "unloaded his weapon into both cars," Matyas said.
  • About 12:45 am on Sunday: Police took Dalton into custody after tracking down a car that matched the description of the vehicle at the Cracker Barrel and finding a handgun in his car.

Michigan State Police identified several of the dead victims: Mary Lou Nye, 62; Mary Jo Nye, 60; Dorothy Brown, 74; and Barbara Hawthorne, 68.

Local police reportedly told local news station WOOD TV that Dalton was an Uber driver, and he may have taken fares in between the shootings. Authorities are looking into a Facebook post by apparent Uber passengers who were in Dalton's vehicle as he reportedly drove erratically and sideswiped another car.

Uber released a statement confirming Dalton was an Uber driver and that he had passed a background check, according to the Detroit Free Press.

"We are horrified and heartbroken at the senseless violence in Kalamazoo, Michigan," Joe Sullivan, chief security officer at Uber, said in the statement. "Our hearts and prayers are with the families of the victims of this devastating crime and those recovering from injuries. We are reaching out to the police to help with their investigation in any way that we can."

Are mass shootings on the rise? It depends on which definition you use.

Mother Jones

At least one of the shootings in Kalamazoo County counts as a mass shooting under any definition, since four people died in one event. And depending on which definition one uses for these events, it's possible that mass shootings overall could be on the rise.

There's some debate about how to define mass shootings. But under one definition — shootings at a public place in which the shooter murdered four or more people, excluding domestic, gang, and drug violence — they appear to be getting more common, as the chart above from Mother Jones, based on an analysis from Harvard School of Public Health, shows.

But not everyone agrees with this definition. Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox, for example, defines mass shootings as any shooting in which at least four people were murdered. Under those terms, mass shootings don't appear to be increasing. Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health call that definition too broad, since it includes domestic, gang, and drug-related shootings that may not be considered mass shootings in layman's terms.

Still, some definitions are even broader. Under the definition used by the Gun Violence Archive (and Vox's map), mass shootings are those in which four or more people are shot, not necessarily killed, excluding the shooter. Since these types of events haven't been well tracked over a long period of time, it's hard to know if they are on the rise.

But the debate over which definition to use for mass shootings misses the broader problem with gun violence in America: Compared with other developed countries, the US has extraordinary levels of gun violence.

America's levels of gun violence are unique in the developed world

America has far more gun homicides than other developed countries.

Javier Zarracina/Vox

No other developed country in the world has anywhere near the same rate of gun violence as America. The US has nearly six times the gun homicide rate of Canada, more than seven times Sweden's, and nearly 16 times Germany's, according to UN data compiled by the Guardian. (These gun deaths are a big reason America has a much higher overall homicide rate, which includes non-gun deaths, than other developed nations.)

What's more, there appears to be a correlation between America's high levels of gun violence and gun ownership, as this chart from Tewksbury Lab shows:

America has more guns — and more gun deaths.

Tewksbury Lab

Research reviews by the Harvard School of Public Health's Injury Control Research Center have concluded that more gun ownership leads to more gun violence. Other factors, such as socioeconomic issues, contribute to violence, but guns are the one issue that makes America unique relative to other developed countries in comparable socioeconomic circumstances.

Studies have found this at both the state and country level. Take, for instance, this chart, from a 2007 study by Harvard researchers, showing the correlation between statewide firearm homicide victimization rates and household gun ownership after controlling for robbery rates:

More guns means more gun homicides. Social Science and Medicine

A more recent study from 2013, led by a Boston University School of Public Health researcher, reached similar conclusions: After controlling for multiple variables, the study found that a 1 percent increase in gun ownership correlated with a roughly 0.9 percent rise in the firearm homicide rate at the state level.

This holds up around the world. As Vox's Zack Beauchamp explained, a breakthrough analysis in the 1990s by UC Berkeley's Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins found that the US does not, contrary to the old conventional wisdom, have more crime in general than other Western industrial nations. Instead, the US appears to have more lethal violence — and that's driven in large part by the prevalence of guns.

"A series of specific comparisons of the death rates from property crime and assault in New York City and London show how enormous differences in death risk can be explained even while general patterns are similar," Zimring and Hawkins wrote. "A preference for crimes of personal force and the willingness and ability to use guns in robbery make similar levels of property crime 54 times as deadly in New York City as in London."

How can the country address this? The research shows tightening existing gun control measures in the US would help.

But as Harvard's David Hemenway told Vox's Dylan Matthews, it would likely take decades for the mild gun control measures proposed in the US to have a significant impact. "It's all speculation," Hemenway said. "I suspect it would take a while (decades) for the US to get down to gun violence levels of other developed countries because a) we have so many guns which are durable, and b) we have a gun culture — we tend to use guns more often in more situations than citizens of other developed countries."

To have a more immediate impact, then, the US would have to find a way to quickly remove the number of guns in circulation. Other countries have actually done that: In Australia, after a 1996 mass shooting, lawmakers passed new restrictions on guns and imposed a mandatory buyback program that essentially confiscated people's guns, seizing at least 650,000 firearms.

According to one review of the evidence by Harvard researchers, Australia's firearm homicide rate dropped by about 42 percent in the seven years after the law passed, and its firearm suicide rate fell by 57 percent.

Although it's hard to gauge how much of this was driven by the buyback program, researchers argue it likely played some role: "First, the drop in firearm deaths was largest among the type of firearms most affected by the buyback. Second, firearm deaths in states with higher buyback rates per capita fell proportionately more than in states with lower buyback rates."

Still, similar policies would be difficult to pass in America, a nation in which gun culture and ownership are tremendously ingrained — notably, in the Second Amendment. And gun owners are backed by a powerful lobby: the National Rifle Association. Combined, these forces have stopped any serious gun legislation from passing at the federal level — although some states have passed new restrictions in the past few years.

But given the research, America's policies and attitudes toward guns have clear, deadly costs — including, perhaps, more events like the Kalamazoo shooting.

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