As California and the United States recover from two devastating mass shootings in three days that left 18 dead and many more injured, detectives comb crime scenes in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay for motives.
They will have to contend with one aspect that makes California tragedies stand out from the grim mass of American shootings with firearms, and that is the advanced age of the shooters. In both cases, the alleged killers were between 60 and 70 years old, making them a very rare group.
Related: Monterey Park shooter: Police ask why he attacked a dance hall he frequented
On Sunday, Huu Kang Tran was found dead in a white van, having killed himself after a shootout the night before at a Monterey Park dance studio in which he killed 11 people. He was 72 years old.
Then, Monday afternoon, at two different locations in Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco, a gunman opened fire and killed seven people. The suspect who was arrested and is said to be collaborating with the police, Zhao Chunli, was 67 years old.
According to the Violence Project’s authoritative database, which tracks all mass shootings in which four or more victims died in a public place, the age of the California suspects this week puts them in the top three people on record for nearly 60 years. Of the 168 events listed by the project between 1966 and 2020, the previous oldest shooter who killed five people in Kentucky at a retail store in 1981 was 70 years old.
Overall, the Violence Project estimates that the average age of mass shooters in the modern era is 34 years old. Over the past three years, under the influence of the pandemic, this figure has fallen sharply to 21 years.
Project executive director Gillian Peterson said older suspects in California were “strikingly rare.”
“It’s a completely different profile that I didn’t expect,” she said.
Given the rarity of subjects, researchers know relatively little about the elderly perpetrators of mass public shootings. As with any such event in the US, there is always an increased risk of copycating in the days following a massacre.
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This may have been a factor in the Half Moon Bay that followed shortly after the Monterey Park shooting, not only in the nature of the attack itself, but also in the age of the suspect.
Peterson said that one aspect of the actions of older gunmen (most mass shooters are indeed men, the database suggests about 98% of them are men) was that, unlike younger killers, they did not appear to be motivated by a desire to propagate any particular ideology or message.
“Older shooters don’t seem to leave behind manifestos or videos explaining why they did it, as young criminals often do,” Peterson said. “For young people, the purpose of filming is to get the message out to the world – this is my anger, this is my pain – and they are working to make it go viral.”
On the contrary, such a performance-element of violence is often absent or less noticeable among the older cohort. “We don’t see that here,” Peterson said.
“Actually, the motive is really confusing. I’m guessing it has more to do with interpersonal relationships because we don’t see that broader message.”
In addition to the age of the suspects, Californians have to come to terms with how such a gruesome pair of shootings could have happened in a state with some of the strictest gun control laws in America. In a scorecard compiled by Giffords, a gun safety campaign led by former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords who was shot in the head in an assassination attempt in 2011, an “A” grade for what she calls common sense gun laws only ranks two states, California and the United States. New Jersey.
Questions will be asked about how the Monterey Park killer was able to wield a 9mm semi-automatic assault weapon of the type that is strictly prohibited in California. The tragedy highlights the problems associated with the patchwork of laws that exist in the country, which largely leaves decisions on gun regulation to individual states.
On the other hand, California can continue to take comfort in the fact that, despite this week’s disasters, its relatively tough approach to gun safety is clearly having a positive impact. According to the Centers for Disease Control, California’s firearm death rate is 8.5 for every 100,000 people, the seventh lowest in the US.
By contrast, states that pride themselves on gun ownership, such as Louisiana and Mississippi, have gun death rates of 26.3 and 28.6 for every 100,000 people, respectively.
Conversely, even California has a disastrous track record compared to societies where guns are not as common as in the US. In continental Europe, about 7,000 people die each year from gunshot wounds.
This is a death rate of just 0.9 for every 100,000 people.