Mass shootings and the future: Update

On October 1st, 2017, the most lethal mass shooting in American history occurred in Las Vegas, NV. What has happened and what hasn’t happened since Las Vegas?

What has happened is that in the 50 days since Las Vegas there have been two more shootings that killed five or more people (San Antonio, TX, and Rancho Tehama, CA). If you sense that such shootings are becoming more frequent you are correct. The Figure below plots the number of days between successive mass shootings. The time between successive mass killings is decreasing. Alternatively, we can say that the frequency of mass shootings is steadily increasing.*

Decreases in the number of days between successive mass shootings (5 or more deaths).

What hasn’t happened is any regulation to control the technology that produced the extraordinary casualty rate in Las Vegas. The shooter was able to convert his automatic rifles into functional machine guns using legally available conversion kits (so-called “bump stocks”). These kits remain legal and there is no longer even public discussion of regulating them. There is no reason why a future mass killer cannot repeat the Las Vegas death toll.

Perhaps the Las Vegas death toll is near the limit of what can be achieved with contemporary small arms. However, in my post on Las Vegas, I noted that

the effectiveness of small arms will continue to improve. Current arms automate most of the loading of firearms, but foreseeable technology will also automate their aiming and facilitate their remote operation. If no limits are set on civilian access to continuously improving weapons technology, we should expect to see massacres with 100s of deaths.

The Future of Life Institute has produced an 8-minute video that makes the same point. Please take a moment and watch it.

This is science fiction, but it is near-future sci-fi in that it describes applications of currently available technology. The autonomous weapons in the video are likely illegal because they are explosive devices, which are regulated more strictly than firearms. However, if the drone’s charge propelled a metal disc — or if the drone simply carried a bullet in a short barrel — it’s not clear that the technology would be illegal.

In my post, I argued that

At some point, continued increases in the frequency and scale of mass shootings become incompatible with ordinary civic life.

Unless we either prevent the development of autonomous weapons or somehow limit them exclusively to the military, they will be used by terrorists and other mass killers.

*Similarly, the time between new records in the numbers killed during shootings also appears to be decreasing. Twenty-two people were killed in Killeen, TX, on October 16, 1991. Then 32 people were killed in Blacksburg, VA, on April 17, 2007 (15.5 years after Killeen). Then 37 people were killed in Newtown, CT, on December 14, 2012 (5.7 years after Blacksburg). Then 49 people were killed in Orlando, FL, on June 12, 2016 (3.5 years after Newtown). Then 58 in Las Vegas on October 1, 2017 (1.3 years after Orlando). It’s a short series, but it suggests that the Las Vegas total may be exceeded before the end of 2018.


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