Days after a gunman opened fire in a suburban outlet mall in Texas in May, killing eight people, his far-right extremist views became apparent. His online posts and profile, the symbols on the clothing he wore and even his tattoos revealed white-supremacist, neo-Nazi and misogynistic incel ties.
While these views are shocking, the fact that the shooting was committed by someone who held them was not, reports FiveThirtyEight. Data on mass killings in the U.S. show a growing share of violent attacks, as well as attempted or planned attacks, have ties to extremism.
Between 2006 and 2009, fewer than 1 percent of mass-casualty events — intentional, violent attacks where four or more victims are killed within a 24-hour period — had a link to extremism. Between 2018 and 2021, more than 5 percent did, found an analysis of two databases from the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism and a collaboration between USA Today, The Associated Press and Northeastern University.
These data are supported by reports from the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the Anti-Defamation League, all of which show a marked increase in violent attacks linked to extremism in recent years.
Most of these extremist-linked attacks are from far-right extremists, and the vast majority of deaths are caused by shootings. In discussion about gun violence, far-right extremism is rarely the primary focus of discussion, with mental illness and gun control dominating the conversation.
Though a minority of mass-casualty events have an extremist link, those events tend to be more deadly and often have symbolic and political chilling effects that ripple much further than other kinds of mass killings, says Mark Pitcavage of the ADL’s Center on Extremism. “By the very nature of some of these extremist-related mass killings, they’re specifically designed to inspire fear and intimidation and to sway entire populations and governments, which is sort of the definition of terrorism.”
Over the last decade and a half, the number of mass-casualty events each year has remained relatively flat. In 2006, for example, there were 38 mass-casualty events in the U.S., resulting in the deaths of 183 people. In 2021, there were 35 events, resulting in the deaths of 172 people; there were also an average of 31 mass-casualty events for each year from 2006 through 2021.
Despite the total number of mass killings staying static, the number of events with extremist ties has increased, resulting in a higher percentage of extremist-linked mass killings.
There also has been a rise in the number of extremist-linked violent plots. When extremists consider violent acts, they don’t always result in mass-casualty events. Sometimes perpetrators are caught by law enforcement before any violence can take place; other times fewer than four people are killed, even if the perpetrator likely intended to harm a greater number of people.
Using criminal charges and other evidence, researchers at START have tracked extremist-linked violent plots going back to 1990, and the total number has exploded. Between 1990 and 1993, START identified seven extremist plots. Between 2018 and 2021, there were 177 — a 2,400-percent increase.
“Fortunately, most of these plots are not successful,” said START's Michael Jensen.