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Mass Shooting Weapons of Choice: Myths and Trends

Attention-getting mass shootings often spark debate over bans on assault-style rifles. Critics of these policies point out that handguns are much more often used in mass shootings, and in all other types of gun violence. The Trace compiled an explainer showing the data, which generally prove the critics right — but with a significant asterisk attached to that finding. The vast majority of shootings, including mass shootings, are indeed committed with handguns. According to The Violence Project, which focuses on mass shootings with four or more fatalities that occur in public places with no connection to underlying criminal activity, provides data showing 80% of attackers in 190 incidents dating back to 1966 used at least one handgun. Semiautomatic assault rifles were used in 28% of those incidents, and 73% of those shooters also carried a handgun.

Mass shootings make up less than 2% of all gun violence. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives says that handguns accounted for nearly three-quarters of guns recovered at crime scenes in 2021 versus only 10% for rifles. But the data also show that in the decade starting in 2010, some 34% of mass shootings involved an assault weapon, while 66% didn’t. And if you look at incidents in the last three years, assault weapons rifles have been used in 59% of mass shootings. The data also shows that shootings involving rifles took the most lives. Semi-automatic assault weapons have been used in the deadliest shootings on record — including Las Vegas (2017), Orlando (2016), Sutherland Springs (2017), Sandy Hook (2012), and Uvalde (2022), which is why the weapons are overrepresented in media reports.


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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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