Politics & Policy

The Media’s Inflated ‘Mass Shootings’ Count Is Wildly Misleading

Law enforcement officers search for shooting suspects in San Bernardino, Calif. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty)

On Wednesday, as police continued the hunt for the murderers of 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif., mainstream media outlets noted with alarm that “mass shootings” were outpacing the calendar. San Bernardino’s massacre was the 355th “mass shooting” — in 336 days. The Washington Post’s Wonkblog even provided a dramatic graphic:

The numbers are provocative — and, unsurprisingly, misleading.

The source of the much-publicized data is the “Mass Shooting Tracker” at shootingtracker.com, a crowdsourced page that defines a “mass shooting” as any in which “four or more people are shot in one event, or related series of events, likely without a cooling off period.” Victims might include the gunman; the data is based on news reports.

There are obvious problems, one identified by the FBI in a 2014 report on active-shooter situations, which couches its own statistics by noting:

A handful of those identified as “wounded” were not injured by gunfire but rather suffered injuries incidental to the event, such as being hit by flying objects/shattered glass or falling while running.

It may be for this reason, among others, that the FBI does not define “mass shootings,” only “mass killings.” The latter are those incidents with at least three dead, a metric based on the Investigative Assistance for Violent Crimes Act of 2012, which passed into law in 2013 and grants the U.S. attorney general authority to aid in the investigation of “mass killings and attempted mass killings at the request of an appropriate law enforcement official of a state or political subdivision.” Under this definition, there have been 67 “mass killings” this year.

The Congressional Research Service, however, goes further: “Mass murder” is a multiple homicide with at least four victims, not including the offender; a “mass shooting” is a mass murder committed with a firearm; and a “mass public shooting” is a mass shooting “in at least one or more public locations, such as a workplace, school, restaurant, house of worship, neighborhood, or other public setting . . . and not attributable to any other underlying criminal activity or commonplace circumstance (armed robbery, criminal competition, insurance fraud, argument, or romantic triangle).” Using these definitions, Grant Duwe, in his 2007 book Mass Murder in the United States: A History, notes: “Excluding those that occurred in connection with criminal activity such as robbery, drug dealing, and organized crime, there were 116 mass public shootings during the twentieth century” (emphasis mine). The Congressional Research Service reported 317 mass shootings between 1999 and 2013, only 66 of which qualified under their criteria as mass public shootings.

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This disaggregation of the data makes clear the problem with the Mass Shooting Tracker’s chronicle: It fails to distinguish between the various types of mass shootings, of which some are more amenable to public-policy responses than others. Under the Tracker’s broad definition, crimes are lumped together that have nothing in common — except for the use of firearms, and a certain number of victims.

#share#Consider the mass shooting that took place in Platte, S.D., on September 17, and left six people dead. It is, by death toll, one of the eight deadliest shootings of 2015. Why, then, did few people hear about it? Because the victims were the wife and four children of Scott Westerhuis, who police believed murdered them, then committed suicide. This was a tragedy. But it was also a wildly different circumstance than what transpired in Aurora, Colo., or Newtown, Conn.

Likewise, the mass shooting that caused the most injuries this year was the gunfight that took place between two biker gangs in Waco, Texas, in May. That was a heinous crime. But, again, it was very different from the targeted assault on Virginia Tech in 2007.

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It is not even necessary to drill down into the data to recognize that the Mass Shooting Tracker’s catalogue is misleading. A quick glance shows that mass shootings, using the Tracker’s definition, are concentrated exactly where one might expect — in large urban areas, many of them notorious for poverty, gang violence, municipal mismanagement, etc. Seven of this year’s “mass shootings” were in New Orleans, ten were in Baltimore, and 14 were in Chicago; there were six in both Detroit and Indianapolis, and five apiece in St. Louis, Philadelphia, Miami, Houston, and Cincinnati. Concentrations of violence in metropolises suggest to any clear-thinking observer that we’re talking about something different than the type of violence on display in Roseburg, Ore., in October.

And, in fact, gang-related shootings, crimes that occasion gunfire, disputes among families and friends that turn explosive — these account for the vast majority of “mass” gun violence in the United States. The Congressional Research Service reports that, of the average of 21 mass shootings (their definition) annually between 1991 and 2013, “familicides” and shootings “attributable to an underlying criminal activity or commonplace circumstance” were both almost twice as common as “mass public shootings” of the sort that more commonly arrest the public eye.

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However, conflating the much rarer incidents — the Auroras and Newtowns — with the gang shootouts and familicides that are responsible for many more victims (57 percent more, total, between 1999 and 2013), is politically expedient. The notion that there is a James Holmes or an Adam Lanza wreaking havoc every day in the United States is a form of fearmongering, a way of whipping up the sort of worry that might make voters more amenable to the sorts of policy proposals liberals at the Washington Post and elsewhere already prefer.

#related#To that point, the curators of the “Mass Shooting Tracker” do not veil their own agenda, making pointed reference to the NRA; they believe their work, among other things, “punches a hole in the NRA argument that if mass shootings are televised, more mass shootings will occur via copycats” (an argument, by the way, that is almost certainly correct for specific types of shooters, i.e., not Crips or deranged husbands). As an example of the sort of under-broadcast shooting they have in mind, they cite the case of Travis Steed, who shot 18 people in Jackson, Tenn., in 2012, fortunately killing only one. But was Steed a demented killer, out to massacre innocents? No. He was one of three people who opened fire after a dispute broke out in a nightclub around 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning.

The Mass Shooting Tracker obfuscates the variety of circumstances that give rise to gun violence in the United States — and uses that misleading data to push a political point. On Wednesday, mainstream media outlets and politicians indulged in exactly the same behavior. Whatever policy prescriptions may exist to curtail gun violence in the United States, they ought to be based on an accurate assessment of the problem, not on data slyly misinterpreted by those with partisan purposes.

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