US saw sharp rise in ‘active shooter’ incidents in 2021, FBI data shows

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Aaron M Sprecher/EPA</span>
Photograph: Aaron M Sprecher/EPA

The United States experienced 61 “active shooter” incidents last year, the highest tally in over 20 years, according to new FBI data.

The number of “active shooter” incidents marked a sharp rise in the sheer number of attacks, casualties and geographic distribution from 2020, according to the FBI. The 2021 total, spread over 30 states, was 52% higher than 2020 and about double each of the three previous years, the agency said.

Last year’s active-shooter carnage left 103 people dead and 140 wounded, the report said.

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The FBI defines an “active shooter” as someone engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a public space in seemingly random fashion. Gang-related shootings and domestic incidents are not included in the count.

All but one of the perpetrators of the active shooting incidents were male, and they ranged in age from 12 to 67. Commercial businesses, from grocery stores to manufacturing sites, accounted for just over half of active shooter incidents. The report noted an emerging trend of “roving active shooters” opening fire in multiple locations, as was the case with a gunman who attacked several Atlanta-area day spas, the FBI said.

In at least 10 of the attacks, the shooter was a current or former employee opening fire at their workplace, the FBI found. In one incident, the shooter was a former business owner. In another, a former patient who was reportedly angry at the medical treatment he had received opened fire inside a health clinic, which he also targeted with IEDs.

Research has suggested that there is a “copycat effect”, in which coverage of one high-profile shooting is likely to inspire similar attacks, but trends in the number of active shooter incidents do not necessarily mirror overall increases or decreases in gun violence.

In 2020, which saw 35% increase in total firearm homicides during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, there were few high-profile public shootings. The FBI counted 40 active-shooter attacks in 19 states that killed 38 people and wounded 126 in 2020, a much lower death toll than in 2021.

Active shooter incidents are the most high-profile form of American gun violence, but the casualties from these incidents represent only a tiny fraction of the nation’s overall firearm deaths. In 2020, more than 19,000 people were killed in firearm homicides, and 24,000 people in firearm suicides, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

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Although active shooter incidents occur in a wide range of settings, including wealthy schools and neighborhoods, overall rates of gun homicide are higher in neighborhoods with larger percentages of residents whose incomes are below the poverty line, according to a recently published CDC study.

Comparisons of active shooter deaths over recent years are heavily skewed by data from 2017, the year a gunman opened fire on an outdoor music festival in Las Vegas from a high-rise hotel window, killing 56 people and wounding hundreds more in a single incident.

The Las Vegas attack alone helped push 2017’s annual casualty toll – 143 killed and 591 wounded – to record highs even though there were only 31 active shooting incidents that year, about half the number in 2021.

As high as last year’s death toll was, it ranks as only the seventh deadliest year in active shooting incidents dating back to 2000, the first year for which FBI figures are available. Still, it marks the biggest number of such attacks on record, exceeding only the 40 recorded in 2020.

California, despite having some of the nation’s toughest gun laws, accounted for more active shooter incidents than any other state last year, six out of 61, followed by Texas and Georgia with five each, according to the report.

California does have lower rates of overall gun homicide and suicide than many states with more permissive gun laws.

The single deadliest incident of 2021 was the mass shooting at the King Soopers grocery store in Boulder, Colorado, in which 10 victims perished. Eight were killed and seven wounded at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis.

The FBI noted that its active shooter report does not encompass all gun violence or even all mass shootings, which the government defines as at least three deaths in a single incident.