onald Trump’s campaign has touted a string of records achieved during his administration from employment to the economy to opportunities for black communities.
But there’s one record that he would rather keep quiet: The number of mass shootings in America.
Nine months after he took office, America recorded its deadliest mass shooting in modern history when 58 people were murdered and 850 injured when a gunman opened fire onto crowds enjoying the Route 91 Harvest music festival on the Las Vegas Strip on 1 October, 2017.
Just one month later on 5 November, residents in Texas were rocked by the state’s worst massacre on record when 26 people – mostly children – were shot and killed as worshippers gathered at their regular Sunday church service in Sutherland Springs.
The next year came the deadliest high school shooting on record, when a former student armed with a semi-automatic rifle walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on 14 February, 2018 and murdered 17 students and staff members.
These three record-breaking tragedies – together with the mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, that claimed 23 lives on 2 August, 2019 – account for four of the most deadly shootings that the US has ever seen.
And they all happened under the Trump administration.
Statistics also show the rate of mass shootings has climbed since Mr Trump won the 2016 presidential election.
According to the Gun Violence Archive, there were more mass shootings in 2019 than any other year since it started collecting data back in 2013. It shows there were 417 last year, compared to 335 in 2015, the year before Trump won the election.
The FBI does not have a standard definition for a mass shooting and so the nonprofit research group uses the definition of incidents where four or more people are shot or killed, excluding the shooter. It does not specify on public places meaning incidents such as domestic and gang-related shootings are also included in the figures.
However, even much more modest data collection points to the same uphill trend.
A database compiled by The Associated Press, USA TODAY and Northeastern University found there were more mass killings in 2019 than any other year going back to the 1970s.
A total of 41 mass killings, defined as when four or more people are killed excluding the perpetrator, took place in the US last year, 33 of which were mass shootings – the highest since 2016 when there were 27.
Mass shooting data from The Violence Project, where four or more people are killed excluding the shooter in a public location such as a school, workplace or church, shows a three-year average of 7.67 mass shootings in 2019 – again the highest on record.
Whichever the definition used, the evidence all points to a surge in mass shootings under Trump.
But does this mean that Trump is to blame?
“There is absolutely 100 percent responsibility on the Trump administration for [the rise in mass shootings],’ says gun control activist Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter Jaime Guttenberg was killed in the Parkland high school shooting.
“They’ve purposely politicized the purpose of having guns inciting people to go out and intimidate other Americans and be violent.
“If Trump is reelected Americans will need to watch out. Gun violence will no doubt increase and will do so with the encouragement of Trump and the Supreme Court.”
James Densley, Cofounder and President of The Violence Project and Professor of Criminal Justice at Metropolitan State University says as well as mass shootings becoming ‘more frequent and deadlier’ in recent years it’s also the motivations behind the shootings that have changed.
“There’s an uptick in the last few years of shootings that have been motivated by religious hatred, by racism and fame seeking,” he says.
“It’s really in the last five years there seems to be a trend for mass shootings driven by these factors and they do seem to speak to the broader trends happening in public discourse and the rise of hate.”
Densley says Trump can be viewed as a ‘symptom’ and a ‘cause’ of such trends.
“When you look at the last five years, Donald Trump is a symptom as much as he is a cause and he is a reflection of the ‘fame-seeking’ cultural phenomenon that is this celebrity-driven, social media-driven culture that normalizes bad behavior – and the mass shootings are an extension of the worst extreme of that.”
A rise in religious hatred and racially motivated mass shootings comes at a time when Trump has pushed an anti-immigration agenda during his administration and has been slammed by the Democrats for fueling racist sentiment among far-right supporters.
And Trump has also pushed for greater freedom for gun owners to exercise their Second Amendment right and to use firearms for self-defense.
His administration loosened regulations on firearms exports, blocked attempts by the Democrats to introduce legislation to expand background checks and increase regulations around gun sales, and ended an Obama-era rule restricting people deemed mentally unable to manage their affairs by the Social Security Administration to buy guns.
Parkland student activists speak to The Independent’s Andrew Buncombe about combatting global culture of violence
During the pandemic, Trump classed gun stores as essential businesses allowing them to stay open while other retailers shuttered under stay-at-home orders.
Gun sales soared during this time, with 1.2 million firearm background checks conducted in the week ending March 22 – the highest number in a single week on record in more than 20 years, according to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which is regarded as the best available indicator for US gun sales.
Trump has found strong allies in pro-gun activists. During his 2016 race for the White House, the National Rifle Association spent $50 million to back him and several Republican Senate candidates. So far this year, it has spent around $21 million.
But it’s “too easy” to say Trump’s anti-immigration stance and gun policies have helped fuel a growth in mass shootings, says Densley.
“It’s hard to draw a direct line to say Trump used racist language and then some guy used racist language therefore Trump motivated him,” he says.
Instead, he says the issue runs “deeper than that” to what he calls the “crisis of legitimacy of American institutions” that Trump has fueled.
“What Trump represents or channels is a crisis in legitimacy for Americas institutions,” he says.
“At the moment there’s a real question mark over how much we can trust our institutions.
“Trump is casting doubt on everyone and everything. His whole platform is that you can’t trust elected politicians, the media, even the Post Office and the election process – he divides states into red and blue, he makes sweeping generalizations of Democrats that they’re trying to take away our rights… he has created a narrative that all American institutions are under real threat, that there’s bias and you can’t trust them.
“Trump has challenged every institution at the heart of democracy and called into question whether everything is legitimate. The bottom line is our institutions are in crisis.”
He adds: “And as we have seen in the past where institutions appear to be failing or we have no faith or trust in them, violence goes up.”
2020 has actually been a quiet year for mass shootings and both Densley and James Allen Fox, author and Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern University, put much of this down to the coronavirus pandemic.
Fox says there’s a couple of reasons for this: opportunity – ‘”when the nation was locked down we wouldn’t have a mass shooting in a movie theater as the movie theaters were closed” – and what he describes as the “contagion effect”.
“The more we debate and discuss and worry about it, we continue to send a message to alienated individuals that it’s the new normal to pick up a gun and shoot people when they want justice,” he says.
He explains that between 1995 and 2001 there were eight mass school shootings including four in a single school year in 1998, with experts declaring it an epidemic and schools being sent pamphlets on how to spot the warning signs.
Then after the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks there were none for the next four years.
“School shootings were constantly on people’s minds and then after 9/11 people stopped thinking about them and started thinking about Al Qaeda and terrorism. It doesn’t mean school bullying or other issues stopped but when people stopped talking about shootings, some kids stopped seeing picking up a gun as a way to resolve their issues,” he says.
The pandemic has served as a similar distraction in 2020, he says – something he hopes can continue.
Fox adds he would be ‘hard pressed’ to say the Trump administration is to blame for the surge in mass killings in his first term.
And Republicans argue the increase is instead the legacy left by the Obama-Biden administration.
In school shootings in particular, many have pointed the blame at the ‘restorative justice’ discipline programs put in place under Barack Obama.
The 2014 policy urged schools not to suspend, expel or report students to police except as a last resort in order to reduce the school-to-prison pipeline, particularly for black students after it emerged they were disproportionately more likely to face discipline than white students.
Instead, it promoted “restorative” discipline measures and new ways of tackling student behavior that didn’t see law enforcement getting involved.
Broward County Public Schools in Florida, home to Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, was one of the pioneers of the program and boasted of reducing student-related arrests by double-digit figures before the shooting that left 17 dead.
Trump reversed the policy after the Parkland shooting and set up the Federal Commission on School Safety to provide plans of action to improve the safety of students.
Andrew Pollack, father of Meadow Pollack who was killed in the Parkland school shooting, says the Obama-era policies failed his daughter and many others by letting troubled children slip through the cracks in the system and go on to commit atrocities.
“The fact is that with mass shootings there were policies put in place within the public school system that started with Obama and Biden to stop kids being arrested and put them into healing circles,” he says.
“It doesn’t help. It lets troubled kids slip through the cracks in the school district without ever facing law enforcement and this sets things up for more mass shootings – that’s what Biden and Obama did.
“If they slip through the cracks with mental illness or with getting into trouble at an early age or not being held accountable then this is what happens when they get older – kids need accountability to be successful.”
It emerged after the Parkland shooting that there had been several red flags about gunman Nikolas Cruz including allegations he had threatened to shoot up the school, threatened to kill other students and had brought knives and bullets into the school.
“The Democrats don’t see this. They’re blinded and can’t look at the actual facts of what went wrong,” says Pollack.
A big part of the Democrats’ stance is to drive down gun violence and mass shootings by implementing stricter gun controls around ownership and sales.
Biden has a long record with gun control, and has boasted that he took on the NRA and won.
In 1993, as senator, he helped pass the existing background check system for gun ownership and the next year was a key figure in passing the 10-year ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
When he was vice-president and the nation was reeling from the Sandy Hook school shooting, the Obama administration increased the number of records in the background check system and upped funding for mental health services.
Resurfaced clip shows Joe Biden comforting shooting victim’s son
However, many of the other plans in the wake of the tragedy – such as universal background checks and bans on semiautomatic rifles and magazines that contained more than 10 bullets – died in the Senate when Republicans voted against them.
Biden is promising a sweeping gun control plan if he wins the election including universal background checks, an assault weapons ban, a ban on online sales of guns, more resources to enforce existing gun laws and incentives for states to adopt “red flag” laws, to take guns away from people deemed a risk to themselves or others.
But, despite Biden’s stricter gun policies, Pollack – and a number of survivors of mass shootings – have thrown their support behind Trump.
“Before they look at the facts the Democrats talk about gun control,” says Pollack.
“It’s easy for them to say we need more gun laws. The hard thing to do is to look at the facts of mental illness and of not holding people accountable.”
“Mass shooting would be worse under a Joe Biden administration,” he says.
“He will make schools less safe. He’s going to push those policies back into schools and go after our Second Amendment.”
Whoever wins the war on mass shootings and gun violence won’t simply be won or lost depending on the nation going blue or red in a few days time.
“If the next administration – whether Trump 2.0 or Biden – takes gun violence seriously and enacts policies that could have an impact as well as tackling broader issues such as social and economic challenges, hate and white supremacy then they could reduce mass shootings,” says Densley.
However, he argues that even if we subscribe to the idea that Donald Trump shoulders some of the blame, a loss at the polls could actually create a platform for further violence.
“People think if Biden is elected it will be a new day in January but Trump still has a massive following,” he says.
Trump has already laid the groundwork that if he loses it will be because the election is ‘rigged’ – something Densley warns could encourage ‘more extremist viewpoints to take back our country’ and send ‘militia groups to the streets with the feeling that democracy has been stolen from them.’
“The second thing is I don’t think Trump is going away even if he loses. He has 50 million Twitter followers and he could continue to use his platform to push conspiracy theories, sow discontent and undermine the next government,” he says.
“Trump has built his platform around Americans not being able to trust institutions and leaders and the systems and there might be a few people motivated by some of that rhetoric to take up arms.”