As California, and the United States, reel from two devastating mass shootings in three days that have left 18 people dead and many more injured, detectives are combing through the crime scenes in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay in search of motives.
One aspect they will have to grapple with that makes the California tragedies stand out from the grim pack of American gun massacres is the older age of the shooters. In both cases the alleged killers were in their 60s and 70s, placing them in a very rare group.
On Sunday, Huu Can Tran was found dead in a white van having killed himself after a shooting spree the night before at a Monterey Park dance studio in which he killed 11 people. He was 72.
Then, on Monday afternoon, at two separate 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 cooperating with police, Zhao Chunli, was 67.
According to the authoritative database the Violence Project, which tracks all mass shootings in which four or more victims died in a public space, the ages of this week’s California suspects put them within the top three individuals recorded in almost 60 years. Of 168 events itemized by the project between 1966 and 2020, the previous oldest shooter, who killed five people in Kentucky in a retail store in 1981, was 70.
Overall, the Violence Project estimates the average age for mass shooters in the modern era is 34 years old. In the last three years, under the sway of the pandemic, that figure has dropped dramatically to as young as 21.
The project’s executive director, Jillian Peterson, said that the older age of the California suspects was “strikingly rare”.
“This is a stunningly different profile that I did not see coming,” she said.
Given the rarity of the subjects, researchers know relatively little about the older perpetrators of mass public shootings. As with any such event in the US, there is always a heightened risk of copycat sprees in the days after a massacre.
That may have been a factor in Half Moon Bay, following soon after the Monterey Park shooting, not only in the nature of the attack itself but also in the suspect’s age.
Peterson said that one aspect of the actions of older gunmen – most mass shooters are indeed men, the database suggesting that about 98% are male – was that unlike younger killers they do 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 this, as younger perpetrators often do,” Peterson said. “For the younger people, the goal of the shooting is to make a message go out to the world – here’s my anger, here’s my pain – and they work to make that go viral.”
By contrast, such a performance element of the violence is often absent or less evident among the older cohort. “We’re not seeing that here,” Peterson said.
“In fact, the motive is really confusing. My guess is that it’s more interpersonally driven because we’re not seeing that broader message.”
In addition to the age of the suspects, Californians are left coming to terms with how such a gruesome pair of shooting sprees could happen in a state with some of the most stringent gun control laws in America. A scorecard compiled by Giffords, the gun safety campaign led by the former congresswoman Gabby Giffords who was shot in the head in an attempted assassination in 2011, gives an “A” grade for what it calls commonsense gun laws to only two states – California and 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 banned in California. The tragedy underlines the challenges posed by the patchwork of laws that exist in a country that largely leaves decisions over gun regulation to individual states.
On the other hand, California can continue to draw comfort 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 rate of death by firearm is 8.5 for every 100,000 people – the seventh lowest in the US.
By contrast, states that pride themselves on their loose approach to gun possession such as Louisiana and Mississippi have firearm death rates of 26.3 and 28.6 for every 100,000 respectively.
Conversely, even California has a disastrous record when it is compared to societies in which guns are not ubiquitous as they are in the US. In continental Europe, about 7,000 people die each year from gunshot wounds.
That’s a death rate of just 0.9 for every 100,000 people.