After spikes in the 1990s and 2000s, mass shootings have followed no discernible trend.
A gunman armed with several handguns walks into a school, kills 16 children and an adult, then turns the gun on himself, in an all-too familiar scenario of horror.
Photos: Sandy Hook Connecticut school shooting pictures
But it wasn't a U.S. tragedy: the Dunblane school massacre of 1996, in Scotland, was one of the United Kingdom's deadliest shooting rampages in that country's history.
Such shootings take an emotional toll on communities wherever they happen - and even though experts say mass shootings are not on the rise, the images of such tragedies have become all too common lately.
A rampage in Aurora. Another in Portland. Now, unbelievably, 27 dead in an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. Among the victims: 20 young children.
The grim suburban body count of the past few months makes it sometimes seem as if nowhere is safe in 2012, as if mass shootings in public places are happening more than ever.
But decades of crime statistics suggest a different picture: After spikes in the 1990s and 2000s, both in the number of deadly shootings and victims, mass public shootings have followed no discernible trend. The number of shootings rose in the early 1990s, then dropped just as precipitously. A decade later, it happened again.
In spite of high-profile cases of the past few weeks, there hasn't been an uptick in mass shootings this year, said James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology, law and public policy at Northeastern University. Fox tracks mass murders dating back to 1976 and said most occur inside places such as homes and workplaces. But he said public shootings in restaurants and malls are nothing new.
"It's awful," Fox said. "Yet this is not an epidemic and we're not seeing a new upward trend."
In schools, where public angst over shootings is often highest, the truth is actually more definitive: Deadly shootings are rare and getting rarer.
School shootings have declined dramatically over the past few decades, even as attacks such as those at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 and Scotland's Dunblane Primary School in 1996 have loomed large in our imaginations. The early 1990s were among the worst years for school killings, as gang-related incidents "spilled over into schools," Fox said.
After reaching a high of 63 deaths in the 2006-2007 school year, the number of people killed in "school-associated" incidents dropped to 33 in 2009-2010 - the lowest in two decades, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
While a few dozen children are killed each year in school, statistically speaking it remains the safest place a child will likely ever be, with the lowest chance of being killed. "When you consider the fact that there are over 50 million schoolchildren in America, the chances are over 1 in 2 million, not a high probability," Fox said. "And most cases that do occur are in high schools and less so in middle schools - and hardly ever in elementary schools."
Such shootings make up only a "small fraction" of incidents, said Dewey Cornell, director of the University of Virginia's Youth Violence Project.
"We must be careful not to let the enormity of this tragedy affect our perception of the safety of our schools," Cornell said. "Violence is far more common outside of schools than in schools."
He said the answer to preventing such tragedies involves a broader approach to mental health and violence. "It is a bit misleading to call these events 'school shootings,' because the school is simply the location and not the cause of the event."
Cornell said simply making school buildings more secure won't solve the problem.
"Real prevention begins long before there is a gunman in the parking lot," he said. "Our society needs more effective ways to provide help for troubled individuals before their conflicts escalate into a crisis event."
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