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Where'd They Get Their Guns?

An Analysis of the Firearms Used in High-Profile Shootings, 1963 to 2001


On October 16, 1991, George Hennard drove his Ford Ranger through the plate- glass window of a crowded Luby's cafeteria in Killeen, Texas. Armed with two legally purchased 9mm handguns�a Glock and a Ruger�Hennard climbed out of his pickup truck and proceeded to methodically gun down 23 of the restaurant's patrons and employees. Wounded by police gunfire, he then ended his own life with the Glock pistol.a

Ten years later, Hennard's attack stands as America's deadliest shooting. The Luby's massacre marked the beginning of a decade that would leave as its legacy the palpable fear among Americans that no place outside the home is guaranteed safe. Restaurants, post offices, public transportation, and office buildings would soon be joined by schools, houses of worship, and day care centers as sites remembered for the suffering and death imposed by handguns.

Mass-shooting victims comprise only a fraction of the thousands of Americans who die in gun homicides each year. Yet the effects of mass shootings are immeasurable. Day-in and day-out handgun shootings ending in the death of a single victim are routinely relegated to the back pages of local newspapers. While many Americans are able to dismiss the bulk of handgun deaths by viewing them through an "it can't happen to me" prism colored by race, class, personal beliefs, or lack of information, it is the very randomness of mass shootings�that they can happen at any time, anywhere, and to anyone�that gives them such an inordinately powerful effect on the overall quality of our national life.

This report looks at 65 high-profile shootings over the past four decades. The bulk of the shootings are from 1980 onwards; of these 59 shootings�

  • A handgun was used in 71 percent of the shootings (42 cases) as the only or primary weapon, while in 29 percent (17 cases) a rifle or shotgun was used as the only or primary weapon.

  • In 62 percent of the handgun shootings (26 cases), the handguns were acquired legally.

  • In 71 percent of the long-gun shootings (12 cases), the guns were acquired legally.

For this study, the determination as to whether a gun was obtained legally or illegally was made based on the law in effect at the time the firearm was acquired. (See Table)

The shooters in these killings included school-aged children, disgruntled employees, lone-wolf assassins, domestic terrorists, jilted lovers, and people solely noted for their utter colorlessness�acting out of a wide range of motives. The one constant factor among them was the use of firearms, usually handguns. The attraction of the handgun to this class of shooter is that it is highly concealable and, in recent incarnations, boasts increased firepower in terms of ammunition capacity and caliber. Trying to prevent mass shootings without taking into account the central role of handguns is an exercise in futility.

School Shootings

From October 1997 to March 2001 there were 10 high-profile shootings in America's schools. Handguns were among the weapons used in nine of the 10 shootings. Despite the fact that school-aged children cannot legally purchase handguns, obtaining a handgun is often as easy as opening a parent's dresser drawer. In eight of the 10 school shootings the guns were obtained from a family member or friend of the shooter. In the remaining two cases, the gun was taken from a neighbor's garage in one instance and, in the other, the gun was already owned by the shooter. Kip Kinkel of Springfield, Oregon, was given a 9mm Glock pistol by his father in order to help the aimless youth develop an interest in something.b Kinkel shot his parents and two schoolmates to death in May 1998.

A common question heard after these shootings, with Columbine as the most infamous example, is: "How do these kids get guns?" Often the question is recited with a tone verging on wonder, but just as in the cases cited above, survey data consistently show that the majority of children and teens who carry guns get them from the people they know best: their family and friends. In a national survey of male 10th and 11th graders conducted for the National Institute of Justice in 1996, 52 percent of those who carried a handgun outside the home had obtained it from a family member or friend, while an additional 19 percent had purchased a handgun from a family member or friend.c

In addition, an October 2000 study of school shootings by the United States Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center looked at 37 violent incidents in schools. The study found that the weapons of choice were firearms, and that in nearly two-thirds of the incidents the attackers obtained the guns from their own home or that of a relative. In some instances, the guns had been gifts from their parents. The study also determined that more than half of the attackers had a history of gun use.d

Recent school shootings have garnered greater publicity than in previous years, with one clear reason being the larger number of victims. Perhaps just as important is the demographic profile of the victims and shooters: mostly white, from either the suburbs or rural America. As a result of the high rates of violence seen among urban, primarily black, youths in the late 1980s and early 1990s, such violence came to be seen by many as solely a plague of the cities. Viewing the issue literally in terms of black and white, rural, white youth were portrayed as having "respect" for guns, using them only for hunting or other sporting activities. Shootings among black youths were often falsely portrayed as a virtually inevitable, almost normal, component of the urban environment. And when "good" kids go bad, the gun lobby is quick to blame virtually anything�television, movies, bad parenting, even an undefined "wave of evil"�except the one thing that comes up time and time again: the easy availability of handguns.

It is an indisputable fact that most school shooters obtain their guns from their own home or that of relatives. Therefore, the most important and immediate step that parents can take to help prevent school shootings is to remove all firearms�especially handguns�from the home.

Workplace Shootings

Since 1986 there have been 14 high-profile mass shootings in workplaces by current or former employees. As with school shootings, the one virtually constant factor has been the use of handguns. Handguns were the primary weapon used in nine of the 14 shootings. Rifles were the primary weapon used in the remaining five shootings. In 11 of the shootings, the guns were legally obtained, in three cases they were obtained illegally. In the 1999 killing of seven at a Xerox Corporation office in Honolulu, not only was the handgun purchased legally, the owner was licensed and the gun was registered with the state of Hawaii.

Mass shootings in the workplace have imprinted themselves onto the public consciousness and even entered the language. "Going postal," for example, is a reference to a series of shootings beginning with the 1986 handgun murder of 14 employees at an Edmond, Oklahoma, post office. In the 1997 novel Going Postal, the protagonist "bears a grudging admiration for...those frustrated and overworked postal workers who finally snap and start shooting."e


After Columbine, our nation, supposedly utterly jaded by gun violence, showed that it still had the capacity to be shocked and sickened. And yet after each mass shooting, the unspoken public hope is that it can't possibly get any worse. But it always does. From George Hennard in Killeen, Texas, to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold in Littleton, Colorado. And when the next shooting occurs, violating a previously safe haven�a ballpark, concert hall, supermarket, or shopping mall�what will our reaction be?

Lawmakers must be accountable to the public for the lack of health and safety regulation of the firearms industry. Guns are virtually the last unregulated consumer product. Specific firearm design characteristics�concealability, high capacity, and large caliber, among others�make certain guns more prone to use in multiple shootings. Today, the gun industry is virtually free of any government oversight regarding the design, manufacture, and distribution of firearms. The result is the ready availability of assault weapons; ultra-concealable, high-capacity, high-caliber "pocket rockets;" and, junk guns small and light enough for six-year-olds to carry and fire. The Firearms Safety and Consumer Protection Act (H.R. 671 and S. 330) would end the firearms industry's deadly exemption from health and safety regulation. The bill would empower the Department of the Treasury to set minimum safety and design standards, issue recalls, and ban specific firearms in extreme cases when no other remedy is sufficient. Shootings such as those described in this study are America's future until the firearms industry is held accountable for its deadly products.

  1. Mark Wrolstad, "Mass Killer Led Life of Contradictions," The Gazette (Montreal), 30 November 1991, sec. H, p. 9; Todd J. Gillman, "A Time to Heal; Anniversary of Luby's Massacre Marked," Dallas Morning News, 17 October 1992, sec. A, p. 1.
  2. Joseph B. Frazier, "Before Kinkel Killed, His Psychologist Said He Should Not Have Guns," Associated Press, 18 January 2000.
  3. Joseph F. Sheley and James D. Wright, High School Youths, Weapons, and Violence: A National Survey (Washington, D.C.: National Institute of Justice, 1998), 4.
  4. United States Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center, Safe School Initiative, An Interim Report on the Prevention of Targeted Violence in Schools, October 2000.
  5. Editorial review of Stephan Jaramillo, Going Postal (Berkley Publishing Group, 1997), downloaded March 13, 2000, from; INTERNET.




 All contents � 2001 Violence Policy Center


The Violence Policy Center is a national non-profit educational foundation that conducts research on violence in America and works to develop violence-reduction policies and proposals. The Center examines the role of firearms in America, conducts research on firearms violence, and explores new ways to decrease firearm-related death and injury.