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Why the workplace is a common site of mass shootings

The Louisville shooting is the latest such incident, though they remain rare.

Wide concrete stairs behind a yellow caution tape hold bouquets of flowers tossed onto them.
Bouquets of flowers lie at the entrance of the Old National Bank for the victims of the mass shooting on April 11, 2023, in Louisville, Kentucky. 
Michael Swensen/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Monday’s mass shooting at Old National Bank in Louisville, Kentucky, is the latest instance of horrific gun violence in a workplace. According to Louisville police, the shooter was an “active employee” at the bank, and there had been no “discussion about this individual being terminated.” CNN had previously reported the shooter had been told he was being fired from his job.

The Louisville attack follows other recent workplace shootings including on a mushroom farm in Half Moon Bay, California, in January and at a Walmart in Chesapeake, Virginia, in November 2022. Both were perpetrated by someone who was employed or formerly employed by these establishments.

Mass shootings at work, like mass shootings generally, are rare occurrences. Though more common in the US than elsewhere in the world, mass shootings make up less than 1 percent of gun violence deaths in the US, and workplace shootings comprise a smaller subset of those fatalities. The workplace is the most common location for a mass shooting, however, according to the Violence Project.

And mass shootings in the workplace have seen a slight uptick in recent years. Since 2020, there have been eight such mass shootings, per data that James Densley, a sociologist at Metropolitan State University, shared with Vox. That’s a higher rate than in preceding years, when there were nine workplace mass shootings documented between 2010-2019. In the decades before, such shootings were more prevalent, however, with 14 taking place between 2000-2009 and 17 occurring between 1990-1999.

According to gun violence experts, workplace mass shootings typically involve current or former employees who have a problem with the workplace, who have easy access to guns, and who may be experiencing their own mental health challenges. “They are underlined by some grievance with the workplace and the people in it. But mass shootings generally, including workplace shootings, are more deeply driven by despair,” says Densley.

What drives workplace mass shootings

There could be several factors behind the increased frequency of workplace mass shootings in recent years compared to the previous decade. The data suggests they’ve gone up slightly as more people physically returned to work when different places reopened. Around that same time, overall workplace gun violence also spiked. In 2021, for example, there were 387 fatal shooting injuries in workplaces, compared to 304 in 2020 and 351 in 2017, per data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“It’s quite possible there will be an increase in these kinds of killings when people who have been working remotely start to return,” James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University in Boston, told NBC News in April 2021. According to the Violence Project, most of these mass shootings — 70 percent — involved an employment issue like a firing, 23 percent involved interpersonal conflict, 13 percent involved an economic issue, and 13 percent involved a legal issue.

Mass shootings have also increased overall, and workplace mass shootings appear to be following the same trends as gun violence in general, says Jaclyn Schildkraut, the executive director of the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium at the Rockefeller Institute. Workplace shooters tend to pick these locations because of “ease of access and familiarity of the location,” she adds.

There were 33,599 gun-related deaths in the US in 2019, and that number jumped to 44,290 in 2022. That broader increase has taken place as more people have purchased guns during the pandemic, and as people continue to navigate emotional and financial stressors related to it. According to one paper published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, roughly 7.5 million people, or nearly 3 percent of US adults, became new gun owners between 2019 and 2021. A study from the University of California Davis and the University of California Firearm Violence Research Center noted that increased gun ownership as well as factors like “financial stress, tension [and] trauma,” exacerbated by the pandemic have played a role in rising violence.

Policies may be a factor, too. During that same time, more states abolished permitting requirements for carrying a concealed handgun in public, which research has linked to a rise in shootings as well. “​​The relaxation of laws about carrying guns in public has clearly led to a rise in gun violence generally, and I assume this impacts workplace violence along with schools, malls, grocery stores, and so on,” says Drury Stevenson, a University of Houston law professor who has studied workplace violence.

Moving forward, experts note that there are proposals that have the potential to reduce mass shootings. Specific gun control policies — such as permitting requirements — have been tied to lower incidences of mass shootings overall. And specific workplace responses, such as early reporting of threats, could help curb such incidents.

“People coming forward and reporting threats and then threat assessment are the main ways that these events are often prevented, both in and out of workplaces,” says Schildkraut.

Stronger gun control and better workplace reporting could help prevent shootings

There are policies, such as requirements for gun permits and licenses, that researchers have found to be related to lower mass shooting rates overall, while other policies, like stronger concealed carry laws, have been found to lower workplace violence in general.

According to a report from the Rockefeller Institute compiled by multiple gun violence researchers, there are state laws that effectively lead to fewer mass public shooting incidents. Massachusetts, which has the lowest rate of gun deaths in the country, for example, requires that people obtain a background check, complete paperwork, and sit for an interview in order to get a license to purchase a gun. Making it harder to get a gun reduces the number of guns in circulation, which appears to reduce rates of gun violence.

Additionally, laws that banned large-capacity magazines, or the ability for a gun to fire off many rounds of ammunition in a short period of time, were tied to fewer victims in shootings. According to data from Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control advocacy group, mass shootings that included shooters using high-capacity magazines had nearly 10 times as many casualties.

“Several studies have demonstrated that permit laws reduce overall rates of firearm homicide,” the researchers write. “Thus, an increased difficulty in obtaining a gun appears to translate into a decreased use of guns in the commission of crime. This same conceptual framework may explain our finding that states with permit laws experience a lower rate of mass public shootings.”

A study published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2020 focused on lowering not just mass shootings, but all workplace violence. It found that “as states strengthened regulations related to firearms, workplace homicide rates decreased.” In particular, more stringent concealed carry permitting, domestic-violence-related restrictions, and stronger background checks, coupled with other gun control polices, could reduce workplace homicides by 3.7 percent.

Extreme risk protection orders (ERPO), also known as “red flag” laws, have also been found to be effective. These laws allow family members and law enforcement to report individuals exhibiting concerning behavior, enabling police to confiscate their firearms.

These laws can ensure that those who’ve made violent threats don’t have access to guns, Stevenson notes. In San Diego, there have been more than 1,000 restraining orders put forth under the state’s ERPO law, including in cases of workplace and school threats.

While gun reform is seen as the most effective way to lower gun deaths, it’s off the table nationally and in many states. And that can place the onus of gun safety on individual workplaces and companies, experts say.

“HR processes are key to workplace violence prevention,” says Densley, including “training all employees to look for warning signs of despair and establishing reporting mechanisms so people can get connected to help they need.” Educating people about how to identify and report threats, and then developing a plan that manages the concern, is important, experts say.

The thinking behind an approach like this — much like in the case of extreme risk protection orders — is that there are observable behaviors that some perpetrators of violence have exhibited in the past, and that identifying these behaviors could help prevent or restrict them from going down a dangerous path.

Studying the effectiveness of threat assessments can be difficult, as the New Yorker’s Matthew Hutson writes, since they are designed to prevent violence before it happens. But putting together a process to identify and address such threats is one thing companies of all sizes can do in the face of government inaction.

Update, April 12, 5 pm ET: This story was originally published on April 11 and has been updated to reflect police statements about the shooter’s employment status.