Opinion: The veteran - mass shooter connection doesn't add up

Rob Jones
December 06, 2018 - 10:54 am
Nov. 12, 2018; Thousand Oaks, CA, USA; Visitors continue to bring flowers and leave personal messages at the mass shooting memorial

© The Arizona Republic-USA TODAY NETWORK

Not long ago, America was struck by yet another tragic mass shooting.  Now that the dust has settled, and the victims have been mourned, the time has come for the analysis of the event.  Who committed this disgusting act?  Why did they do it?  And how can we prevent this from happening again?  Part of this analysis and commentary has resulted in a theory presented by some mainstream media sources that is based on a single similarity that this perpetrator of evil had with another sinister perpetrator of a mass shooting last year: they were both veterans. 

The main point of this theory was that there existed a link between military service and the committing of mass shootings.  Specifically, the piece on ABC News claimed that despite only making up 14% of the male population of the United States, male veterans are responsible for roughly 33% of the mass shootings with which our country is plagued.  This theory was reported on Connecting Vets shortly after the ABC News publication.  If this theory were true, it would shine a light on a potential huge problem in the veteran community that is so exalted in our country.  At first glance, the theory seems to fit exactly in to the current and all too common assumption that, while heroes to us all, veterans are individuals who are inevitably and hopelessly damaged by war.  Except in most instances, and especially in this one, this is far from the truth.

I admit that upon seeing this statistic in a headline on Connecting Vets, I took it for face value and became concerned.  However, luckily, I read the entire article with the knowledge that most veterans are able to process their experiences in war.  Upon doing so I recognized that the reasoning and data that led to the “14%/33%” statement was dubious at best, and at worst, purposefully misinterpreted.

It is difficult to begin dismantling this claim, as its error is so blatant that it is mind boggling.  It is as if someone came up to me and said, “two plus two equals five.”  Where does one even start to refute that?  It appears that the biggest error in this data has to do with the fact that the 14% number is accurate for the year 2016(14%), and roughly true for 2017(13.6%) and 2018, according to the US Census, but if one were to calculate these percentages back to 2005(I did), one would see that as many as 21% of American males were veterans in that year.  Therefore, we cannot simply say that 14% of the population is comprised of male veterans.  We also have to ask in which year.  This percentage of Americans committing one third of shootings would still be quite a problem.  However, there is even more to the story.

The writer of the original ABC News article failed to respond to my tweet requesting where he got his data from, but as far as I can tell, he is quoting a piece from Mint Press News.  The author of this piece vaguely details how he came up with his percentages.  To do his calculation, he first determined the number of mass shootings (as defined by the FBI) in the United States from a Mother Jones article. Next, he researched and determined how many of these 82 shootings (actually, there were 95 between 1984 and 2017, but he arbitrarily eliminated 13 of them) were perpetrated by male veterans.  27 divided by 82 multiplied by 100 equals 33%.  The last step for the author was to apply that 33% to the 14% number he calculated earlier, and voila, a groundbreaking and startling statistic is formed, and an article with a click baiting headline is written.

The issue with this calculation and comparison may be obvious.  The author of this article seems to be attributing every single mass shooting in the United States since 1984 to the living male veterans of 2016.  This is the mind boggling part.  How can one think that doing so would be even close to accurate enough to draw any kind of conclusion, or suggest anything?  In order to make this comparison accurate, one would have to do some kind of special analysis that is probably only doable by the best and brightest in the field of statistics.  I may be too stupid to do such an analysis (contact me if you can), but I am smart enough to know that the way that the author did his calculation was completely bogus.

As if this weren’t enough, it is common sense that correlation does not equate to causation.  Even if there were to be an association between veterans and mass shootings, without doing a controlled study, one cannot claim a causal link.  The fact of the matter here, however, is that there isn’t even a remote correlation.

In an article on Task and Purpose covering this so-called link, the author, assuming this link was true, asked why this was the case.  Despite it not being true, let us assume, for the sake of arguement, that it is.  The fact of the matter is that the qualities that make a person capable of killing innocent people are often also found in people who are capable of saving innocent people.  The two people, despite being polar opposites, are cut from the same cloth.  Add the right stitching, and you have a dress blue uniform.  Add the wrong stitching, and you have a trench coat.  So even if this link existed, would it be worth sacrificing the heroes so that we can protect ourselves from the demons?  This is the greater question, and I don’t know the answer.

The unfortunate publication of these articles makes it clear that we need to be more rigorous in our research so that we do not spread false information.  Otherwise, we risk adding to the undeserved reputation veterans seem to be plagued with that we should be pitied or feared because of what we have seen.  This is not the case, and I for one will not rest until I have eliminated this reputation entirely.

Want to get more connected to the great stories and resources Connecting Vets has to offer? Click here and sign up for our weekly newsletter.