'Spray and Pray' Mass Shootings Are a Fact of Life in America

Indiscriminate hails of bullets from handguns in public spaces aren't unique to America, but they sure are common.
June 29, 2016, 1:30pm

The recent shooting at a T.I. show in New York City technically doesn't qualify as a mass shooting by VICE metrics—one of the four people struck was the shooter—but saw many of the "spray and pray" dynamics at play. Rainmaker Photo/MediaPunch/IPX

If you keep tabs on the deluge of mass shootings plaguing the United States, it's hard not to notice that a large number involve wild, indiscriminate gunfire. Take, for example, the seemingly targeted attack on a 18-year-old man in Nashville, Tennessee, this April that also hit three others in a crowded bus station. Or the incident in May where a fight in line for a food truck in Austin, Texas, somehow resulted in a man getting shot to death—and three seemingly uninvolved women enduring gunshot wounds of their own.

It's impossible to put a precise figure on how many mass shooting victims are intended targets and how many are collateral damage from random bullets. This is partly because, hate crime-cum-terrorist attacks like the recent tragedy in Orlando notwithstanding, so many cases go unsolved, leaving the shooters' motives opaque at best. But if you look at mass shootings in Europe so far in 2016, not only is the pool of events drastically smaller, but the ones that do occur seem to involve haphazard gunfire in public areas less often. Some of that disparity probably stems from the ridiculous number of guns floating around America compared to other countries. But it also raises the question of whether, even if you leave aside what most of us would call terrorists, the typical American mass shooter is somehow more reckless, cruel, or insane than counterparts across the globe.


Without robust data on the motives, circumstances, and results of every mass shooting in the US and Europe over a long period, it's important to exercise caution in interpreting anecdotal evidence. But experts on gun culture and mechanics say there are a few key factors at play in America that help set the stage for a special prevalence of "spray and pray" gunfire. From entrenched street violence tactics born during the heyday of the War on Drugs to not just the number but the type of firearms available to the average shooter, careless mass gun violence is baked into the American experience.

The ubiquity of the phenomenon stems in part from evolving tactics of US street violence in the 1980s and 90s. A sort of arms race broke out where cops and gangs accumulated unprecedented armories. At the same time, drive-by shootings—and other tactics that allow attackers to carry heavy arsenals without detection and unload on a target from cover—became more common despite their miserable accuracy. "It's generally easier for a standing person to hit a moving target than for a moving person to hit a standing target," as firearms instructor Massad Ayoob tells VICE matter-of-factly.

Over time, these tactics probably became normalized in some areas, according to University of Baltimore criminologist Jeffrey Ian Ross. Which is to say that if people think they have to unload an entire clip to hit someone, they're going to do so, whether from a car or not. This can be exacerbated by the perceived cultural value of firing a gun as a means of expressing power, without much thought of the damage it might do.


Experts broadly agree that the type of guns used by American shooters has to be part of the problem, too. "In Russia [the site of six of this year's 18 European mass shootings], it's very, very hard for the average citizen to get their hands on a handgun," says Aaron Cowan, a shooting instructor at Sage Dynamics, a training shop for law enforcement types. Longer guns like rifles, which show up in many European mass shootings, are "easier to shoot than a handgun by orders of magnitude," according to Ayoob—by which he means shoot accurately.

Though they draw less attention than terrorists who unleash bloodshed on a truly gargantuan scale, often with high-powered rifles, the typical American mass shooter tends to prefer a handgun, and for an obvious reason: concealment. But in addition to being highly inaccurate without thorough training, the handguns people obtain illegally are often out of shape or sometimes loaded with the wrong ammo, further diminishing their accuracy. Plus, shooters are known to employ widely available semi-automatic firearms, handguns or otherwise, which make it easy to squeeze off a hefty number of rounds and trust in the quantity rather than the quality of one's shots to strike a desired target.

And despite a gun culture run amok, American mass shooters tend to have very limited marksmanship skills at best.

"In Russia, it's extremely common for people to receive firearms training in schools," Cowan says. Likewise, many other nations with some form of compulsory military service ensure that many people with guns will have basic knowledge of how to use them. In America, that kind of training or even just exposure and knowledge is growing rarer as the country continues to pack urban centers at the expense of rural ones. The result, according to Ayoob, is a "magic wand" mentality in which a fair number of people know how to load ammunition and pull a trigger but can only hope a hole actually shows up in the right target.


What cursory knowledge Americans do have about guns tends to encourage poor aim. People often ape what they see in the media; according to Cowan, even police officers have been known to crumple when hit by a bullet—not for any physiological reason, but because that's what television and other social cues have conditioned humans to believe is the correct response. For many shooters, that translates into holding handguns with poor grips that invite wild firing patterns.

The net result of these forces is a country in which it is not only incredibly easy to get a gun, but also for people with no idea what they're doing to get especially unwieldy guns and do awful things with them all the time.

"We live in a violent society here in the United States," Ross, the criminologist, tells me. "It isn't just one person dying. It's a lot of random people dying in these encounters. It doesn't seem like it's abating."

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