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PolitiFact Florida Examines Mass Shootings And Gun-Free Zones

Scene outside the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando
Wikipedia Commons
Scene outside the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando

Loosening regulations on who can own guns - and where they can be carried - is a hot topic in the run-up to this spring's legislative session in Tallahassee. The Florida Speaker of the House claims that most mass shootings happen in places where guns aren't allowed. WUSF's Steve Newborn checks out the claim with Amy Hollyfield of PolitiFact Florida.

It's a scene that has become all too recent in Florida: mass shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Some people say the way to prevent this from happening again is to tighten the rules on who can buy a gun. Others - including Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes - say we should allow law-abiding people to carry weapons in what are now gun-free zones.

Here's what he told CBS4 Miami’s Jim DeFede in early February:

"Most of these mass shootings take place in arenas where you're not allowed to have a concealed weapons permit."  (By "arenas" Corcoran seemed to be referring to places in general, not sports arenas.)

Corcoran argued that people who commit mass shootings say they chose certain areas because they "knew nobody had guns."

Here's PolitiFact Florida's ruling on that claim:

Varying definitions of mass shootings

Corcoran’s spokesman said he was referring to the numbersof mass public shootings compiled by economist John Lott, president of the pro-gun Crime Prevention Research Center.

Lott’s research has been quoted by those who support expanding gun rights, but academics often attack his research as flawed. His book More Guns, Less Crime has been a subject of ongoing academic and policy debates as well numerous fact-checks.

His book argues that crime data over multiple years shows reductions in crime in states that have "right to carry" laws. But many other academics have said his work doesn’t account for other factors that influence crime rates, and that he manipulates the data to reach his conclusions. The National Academies of Sciences concluded in 2005 that "no link between right-to-carry laws and changes in crime is apparent in the raw data."

Before we delve into the numbers compiled by Lott, we will explain why it’s complicated to make sweeping claims of mass shootings in gun-free zones.

There is not an agreed-upon definition of what constitutes a mass shooting -- even the federal government has cited various criteria at times.

FBI spokesman Stephen Fischer pointed to a 2012 law setting the threshold for a "mass killing"  as three or more people killed, but another reportby the federal Congressional Research Service says that  "mass murder" has been defined generally as a threshold of four or more deaths. Lott points to the types of shootings the FBI included in this study of active shooter situations, but that study clearly says it isn’t covering all mass shootings.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran being interviewed on CBS4 Miami
Credit CBS4 Miami
House Speaker Richard Corcoran being interviewed on CBS4 Miami

Lott said he included mass shootings in which four or more were killed that occurred in public, and he excluded those that occurred within the commission of another crime such as an armed robbery.

Lott’s data showed that between 1988 and 2015, about 3.8 percent of mass shootings occurred in areas where guns were allowed.

Everytown for Gun Safety found that among 133 mass shootings between January 2009 and July 2015, 70 percent took place in private homes while 13 percent took place in "gun-free zones," where carrying of concealed guns were prohibited. Another 17 percent took place in public areas where the carrying of firearms are allowed.

Daniel Webster, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, who has disagreed with Lott’s findings, pointed to research by Louis Klarevas, a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston.

In Klarevas’ book Rampage Nation, he said that Lott has used too loose a concept of gun-free zones.

Klarevas disagrees with gun advocates who define a "gun-free zone" as simply an area that bans private citizens from carrying a gun.  

For example, Lott characterized Fort Hood and Washington Navy Yard, military sites attacked by gunmen, as gun-free despite the presence of armed security.

"There’s an obvious logical problem with such a conceptualization: How can a place be a gun-free zone if guns are present?" Klarevas writes. "The implication is that rampage shooters are only deterred by armed civilians, not by armed guards and cops. But that’s an absurd suggestion."

Klarevas uses three definitions: he refers to "gun-free zones" as places where civilians are not allowed to carry guns, and there aren’t armed personnel stationed on the property. He calls "gun-restricting zones" as places where civilians can’t carry guns, yet armed security is routinely present -- such as military facilities or certain college campuses. He refers to places that allow civilians to carry guns as "gun-allowing zones."

Using these categories, Klarevas examined 111 shootings since 1966 in which six or more people had been killed in each incident -- regardless of whether it occurred in a public or private location or if it was in the commission of another crime.

He found 13 took place in gun-free zones and five took place in gun-restricting zones. That means that the majority occurred in areas where there was no evidence that private guns were prohibited.

Our assessment is that it is difficult to draw broad conclusions about the motivations of the perpetrators of mass shootings or whether they are influenced by gun restrictions. We rate Corcoran’s statement Half True.


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Steve Newborn is WUSF's assistant news director as well as a reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.