Recent events and the new EU directive to “fight terrorism” have rised a lot of debate about mass shootings on both sides of the Atlantic, with writers and opinion makers claiming wildly varying numbers about mass shootings in the US. And some of these claims are pretty ludicrous
Nancy Pelosi for example stated there had been 273 mass shootings in the US in 2017 at the time she wrote her letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan the day after the Las Vegas shooting, with the now famous and often misquoted statement “one for each day of the year”.
With figures like these, made so as to resemble there had been 273 “Las Vegas shootings” in the US in 2017, one had to wonder there was anybody left alive in the US, at all.
Things are obviously quite different, but while it’s pretty easy to discount such claims as blatantly inflated, at least for anybody able to apply the most basic common sense to the news they read, some others sound much more reasonable, while still pretty alarming.
So: which of these numbers represent the actual situation?
The simple answer is: all. It just depends on what you call a “mass shooting”.
The term, indeed, is wide and generic enough to be subjected to various interpretations. Obviously different agencies in the US had to convene some sort of standard definition, if for no other reason that they had to speak to one another on uniform terms.
For Federal law enforcement and legal agencies such as the FBI, the Department Of Homeland Security, the Bureau of Justice Statistics and such, which had to define a common term to define a crime like the events in Las Vegas or at Columbine School, a mass shooting was "A shooting incident where four or more people die excluding the shooter."
So, notice how, according to this definition,
1) It has to be a single shooting incident
2) Four or more people have to die for it to be a mass shooting
3) The shooter does not add up to the count
According to this definition, which stood good for decades, very few incidents were classified “mass shootings”.
Another aspect to consider is the size of the population: while 10 mass shootings a year in a country like, say, Ireland, with its 6 millions inhabitants and 84,000 square km area would be appalling, the same in the US with its almost 10 million square km and over 325 million inhabitants, it scarcely registers.
Actually after a short time the FBI restricted the definition even more, excluding family homicides/sucides where dad blows a fuse and shoots his merry family to kingdom come, as well as crime related shootings where gangbangers riddle each other with holes over turf, drug or props matters, leaving just what the term originally stood for: the lone gunman venting his frustration on school or workmates through the muzzle of a gun.
Then came anti-gun advocacy groups, and things went wild.
According to Gun Violence Archive, a mass shooting is when you have "Four or more shot and/or killed in a single event, at the same general time and location, not including the shooter."
It still has to be a single incident, but now any shot people counts. This really rises the number of “mass shootings” in a given area. And, according to this definition, if someone shoots four people with an air gun lightly wounding them, well, that’s a “mass shooting” all the same.
If we look at Mass Shooting Tracker, things become even wilder: "Four or more people are shot in a single shooting spree. This may include the gunman himself or police shootings of civilians around the gunman."
Now not only the shooter counts, but even civilians mistakenly hit by police… Say a bank robber shoots a guard and a policeman, while police shoots the gunman and, mistakenly, a customer, that’s a “mass shooting”. By this definition, even a gang-related shootout is a mass shooting.
While one can certainly call it so, if so inclined, as it isn’t contrary to the literal meaning of the term, it’s pretty obvious the event has nothing whatsoever to do with what the original definition was meant to identify.
And we reach the extreme with what Lott and Landes define as a mass shooting: any shooting where there are “two or more injured victims”.
While in their study Lott and Landes honestly and correctly excluded any felony involved shooting, their definition does not mention the circumstances at all, so anybody else going by their definition could find mass shootings everywhere.
Say a cop is injured by a robber and shoots him?
Two perps are shot by the cops after a stick up at a convenience store?
A hunting accident with two injured, or the classical stalker scenario ending with homicide-suicide?
And, while indeed a robbery ending with wounded and dead people is awful news, if we compare it to mass shootings, as Samuel L. Jackson would have said, “they are not in the same ball park, not even in the same series” from a public safety and crime point of view.
Unfortunately, while bunching together gang related shootings, robberies, family murders and real, genuine mass shootings serves no useful purpose from a law enforcement point of view, it perfectly fits the anti-gun agenda.
So, before accepting any given statistics about a subject, first and foremost we should ask those citing them how the subject is defined, and ask ourselves which agenda they are furthering with their claims.