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Church Shootings Are Becoming Much More Common

Yet the existing data suggests churches aren't more or less vulnerable to gun violence than other publicly accessible spaces.
Law enforcement officials gather near the First Baptist Church following a shooting on November 5th, 2017, in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

Law enforcement officials gather near the First Baptist Church following a shooting on November 5th, 2017, in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

When criminologist Dallas Drake and two interns first searched for church shootings in the United States, they found 137 instances between 1980 and 2005, the majority of them causing no deaths. More recently, Drake decided to update the database, and found a disturbing trend: There were more shootings in Christian churches between 2006 and 2016—147 of them—than in the 25 years prior. (The database does not include non-Christian houses of worship, such as mosques or synagogues.)

In the wake of a shooting on Sunday that left 26 dead in a small church in rural Sutherland Springs, Texas, Drake's research helps answer some questions about shootings in churches, which would seem to be particularly vulnerable in that they are often welcoming to any passerby. Yet the data suggests churches aren't any more or less likely to be sites of gun violence in the U.S. than other publicly accessible spaces. "It's almost that there isn't any place that's not at risk," says Drake, the senior researcher at the Center for Homicide Research, an independent non-profit based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Overall, Drake has found mass shootings in churches to be quite rare. Between 1980 and 2005, he and his team found only seven shootings in which four or more people died. The existing results echo numbers about deadly shootings in the U.S. overall, the large majority of which kill just one person. In addition, the most common reason for shootings in churches is intimate partner violence, which accounted for 17 percent of the events recorded by the Center for Homicide Research. Another 14 percent of events were recorded as having an "unknown" reason.

Overall in America, domestic violence accounts for 40 to 45 percent of shooting homicides carried out against girls and women aged 15 and over, and 2 percent of boys and men. The motive for the Sutherland Springs shooter is still not known.

Drake and his team haven't finished analyzing their 2006–16 data yet, so they don't know those shootings' death counts or circumstances. The researchers also don't know exactly why shootings have gone up so drastically in Christian churches in America over the last decade. Drake has an idea, however. "I think that, as a society, we're giving too much attention and credit to offenders," he says. "We need to stop naming the offender over and over again and showing the photograph. We need to stop saying, 'This is the worst shooting in X number of years,' because that just gives potential shooters a mark to try to beat." Research does show that media coverage can inspire copycat crimes in the two weeks that follow a mass shooting.

Drake points out that, considering the number of churches in the U.S. and their open nature, church shootings remain rare. In fact, gun homicides in America have declined a lot since the 1990s, with numbers stabilizing in recent years, although they're still much higher in the U.S. than in other high-income countries. And the individual tragedy remains. "Everybody is pretty grief-stricken," one Sutherland Springs resident told the New York Times. "Everyone's worried."

In that small community, the known death toll from the First Baptist Church shooting would amount to about 7 percent of the population.