Fifty-year-old Ronald Butler was driving his four children to a birthday party in Milwaukee when he leaned out the window to tell another driver to slow down and was fatally shot, according to his older sister, Romonia Butler-Foster.
Road rage is suspected in the July shooting, the Milwaukee Police Department said. It’s a growing problem: More than 550 people were shot in road rage incidents in the U.S. in 2022, according to a report Monday from advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety. That means someone was fatally shot or injured in a road rage incident every 16 hours, on average.
Context: Gun violence in the U.S. soared during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a disproportionate impact on kids. Data from dozens of big cities suggests homicides and shootings are falling again, but road rage shootings appear to be an exception.
“He didn’t deserve this,” Butler-Foster said Friday. “His kids miss him.”
What is road rage?
Aggressive driving – like driving too closely or weaving through traffic – can escalate to confrontations, physical assault and murder, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Road rage describes “the angry and violent behaviors at the extreme of the aggressive driving continuum,” the agency says.
Beloved youth baseball coach Jay Boughton, 56, was driving home from a game with his son in Minnesota when an exchange with a man in another vehicle escalated and the man shot Boughton. A man found guilty in the 2021 shooting was sentenced to life in prison.
“It could happen to anyone. It happened to us,” said Jay Boughton’s wife, Kristin Boughton.
Road rage shootings increasing
Road rage injuries and deaths involving guns have increased every year since 2018 and approximately doubled from 2018 to 2022, the report found.
The authors used publicly sourced data from the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive, which tracks shootings where at least one person was shot, and police or media reports that explicitly identified a connection to road rage. Previous iterations of the report used data that included incidents where a gun was involved but no one was injured.
The five states with the highest rate of people shot in road rage incidents – New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Wisconsin – make up 8% of the U.S. population but accounted for 20% of road rage shooting victims, the report found.
Last week, Illinois State Police warned the public about “an increasing trend in road rage.”
What’s causing the rise in road rage shootings?
The authors could not say what is driving the increase in road rage shootings but cited possible factors, including the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic and surging firearm sales in recent years.
Ryan Martin, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay who has studied road rage, cited general levels of increased stress and anxiety, due to the pandemic and economic uncertainty, as well as increased impatience with one another, exacerbated by the political atmosphere.
That’s what drives the road rage, he said. But it’s easy access to guns while driving that allows for the shootings, he added.
“If the guns weren’t present, people would still be mad, and they may do something else aggressive,” Martin said.
Brad Bushman, a communications professor at Ohio State University, said the report is “alarming” but “unsurprising.” His research has shown the presence of a gun can increase aggressive driving.
“It is a ‘double whammy’ — driving a car makes people feel powerful and possessing a gun makes people feel powerful,” he said.
Concerns about a Supreme Court ruling
The authors warned a summer Supreme Court decision that found a constitutional right to carry a gun in public could exacerbate the trend of rising road rage shootings.
Last year, eight states required would-be gun carriers to provide a specific reason for needing a gun in public, according to the report. Eighteen others required a carry permit but did not require a justification, and 24 did not require a permit at all.
States that did not require a permit to carry a concealed gun in public had nearly triple the rate of dangerous road rage incidents involving a gun than those states with the most protective standards, the report found.
The authors argue the ruling is forcing states to weaken guns laws, leaving residents more vulnerable to road rage shootings. Some states have already seen increases in concealed carry application rates, and Florida is considering legislation that would allow gun owners to carry a concealed weapon without a permit.
“This analysis shines a spotlight on the inherent dangers of carrying a gun in public and the importance of gun safety measures like permit requirements and safety training for making Americans safer on the roadways,” said Sarah Burd-Sharps, senior director of research at Everytown.
For her part, Butler-Foster, 52, urged people to be cautious on roadways.No one has been criminally charged in her brother’s case.
“Nothing is ever gonna bring it to peace with us,” Butler-Foster said. “But closure would be good.”