2012 in review: Newtown tragedy caps a year of mass shootings

Rain soaks parts of a memorial to the Newtown shooting victims in the Sandy Hook village of Newtown, Conn.

Something in the collective conscience of North Americans snapped in mid-December, when a heavily-armed gunman shot his way into a sleepy Connecticut elementary school and murdered a classroom of 20 children, ages six and seven, as well as six school officials.

The tragic shooting in Newtown, Conn., just weeks before the holiday season highlights a particularly deadly year for mass shootings in North America. The Associated Press named mass shootings (plural) the story of the year, beating out a presidential election and a devastating superstorm.

The stark details surrounding the attack — from the high number of child victims to the innocence their slight ages belied — made the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre somehow more gut-wrenching and horrific than those that had preceded it.

“As a nation, we have endured far too many of these tragedies in the last few years,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in the wake of the Newtown school shooting. “An elementary school in Newtown. A shopping mall in Oregon. A house of worship in Wisconsin. A movie theater in Colorado. Countless street corners in places like Chicago and Philadelphia.

“Any of these neighborhoods could be our own.”

The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was the second time this year that Obama personally visited a shattered community in the wake of exceptional gun violence. It was only a recent, now not even the most recent, incident of stark gun violence that struck on both sides of the border in 2012.

[ Related: Any changes in U.S. gun laws will only benefit Canada ]

Four people were killed and three police officers were injured in Pennsylvania on Friday - one week after the Newtown tragedy. The shooting appears to have begun in a church in Frankstown Township, east of Pittsburgh, according to a local newspaper.

The Frankstown and Newtown shootings continue a series of public attacks that began early in the year.

On April 2, nursing school dropout One L. Goh returned to his Oakland university with a gun, reportedly lining up students and administrators, opening fire and killing seven people.

Women embrace after observing a moment of silence outside a firehouse nearby Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, …Exactly two months later, gunfire erupted in Toronto’s Eaton Centre, killing two bystanders and wounding three others. Toronto was not finished being afflicted by mass violence. The following month several suspects opened fire at a barbecue in the north end of the city, killing two innocent attendees and injuring as many as 23 others.

The Toronto Police Service declared the attack, colloquially named the Danzig Street shooting, the worst incident in the city’s history and vowed to implement change that would address the city’s gun problem.

Chief Bill Blair told the Toronto Star that some 70 per cent of the weapons seized in the city had been smuggled into Canada from the U.S. It was a clear nod that Canada’s comparatively smaller gun problem was intrinsically linked to issues plaguing the United States.

In Aurora, Colo., 12 people were gunned down and 58 others wounded on July 20, when a heavily-armed man charged into a theatre during a Batman movie screening. The following month, a white supremacist entered a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and killed six people before turning the gun on himself.

Mass shootings in Texas, Minnesota and Oregon followed, before Adam Lanza burst into Sandy Hook Elementary school on Dec. 14, bent on destruction.

In Canada, mass shootings are still rare enough that each shocking incident sparks outrage and debate. According to Statistics Canada, 158 homicides were committed with firearms in 2011. There were only 10 incidents where more than one person was shot dead, accounting for 22 of the year’s total count.

Stats Canada says about half of such incidents are family-related, leaving only a handful of public and random multi-victim shootings in Canada last year. The group also notes that firearm homicides, specifically multi-victim firearm homicides, have been on the decline over the past 30 years.

[ Full coverage: 2012 Year in Review ]

In America, however, debate rages not over whether shootings are on the incline, but whether mass shootings are becoming more of an issue.

The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention says 11,101 people were intentionally murdered with firearms in 2011 – a number that holds fairly constant over recent years.

In article for the Boston Globe, criminologist James Alan Fox said mass shootings — any incident in which four or more people are killed — have not increased. Figures from the FBI and police reports suggest there have been peaks and valleys in the number of incidents and victims over the past 30 years, but not a specific incline.

He says there are an average of about 20 incidents of mass shootings each year over that period, and an average death toll of about 100.

Fox writes:

Without minimizing the pain and suffering of the hundreds of who have been victimized in seneless attacks, the facts say clearly that there has been no increase in mass killings, and certainly no epidemic.

But those numbers analyzed by Fox include cases of robberies, gang violence and domestic incidents and do not necessarily speak directly to the prevalence of Newtown-style public attacks.

An investigation by American news site Mother Jones broke down 62 such mass shootings that have occurred in the U.S. over the past 30 years and suggests the incident rate has spiked. So far this year there have been seven such shootings in the U.S., with nearly 80 people killed and more than 60 others injured.

Contributor Mark Follman writes:

By our count, there have been two [mass shootings] per year on average since 1982. Yet 25 of the 62 cases we examined have occurred since 2006. This year alone there have already been seven mass shootings—and a record number of casualties, with more than 140 people injured and killed.

Debate continues to rage over how to address this spate of mass shootings, about whether stiffer gun laws in the U.S. will stop the next attack and whether it would have a positive effect on gun violence in Canada.

As Jan. 1 approaches and those who track homicide statistics clear the slate and start again, there is hope that next year will be better. That the mass shootings that marred 2012 will not follow us into 2013.

This year was a bad year for gun violence, perhaps even the worst of its kind. Any of those neighbourhoods forever changed this year could have been our own.

Will next year be any different?