What Is A Mass Shooting, Anyway?
June 24, 2016 (Fault Lines) – In the wake of the Orlando shooting, people from all over the political spectrum are debating the role of guns in American society. Along with “assault weapons,” one phrase that keeps popping up is “mass shooting.”
Let’s be clear. It doesn’t matter what your politics are. Anyone looking to take a stance on the arguments used by pro- and anti-gun groups should know what the words they use mean. Ignorance has a way of cheapening public discourse. Worse, when partisan groups use empty, vague, obscure or jargon-riddled expressions, it means they’re less interested in having a conversation with their political counterparts than in demonstrating their orthodoxy to others who think like them. Confirmation bias, like puppies and Play-Doh, may do wonders for your mental health, but it’s worse than useless if you want a genuine exchange of ideas.
In that spirit, we’re going to try and find a working definition of “mass shooting.” Unlike ”assault weapons,” which is a lost cause because even people who use it approvingly say it means nothing, “mass shooting” at least looks like it might describe something concrete.
Trigger warning: we’re going to fail. Sort of.
Let’s start with the Investigative Assistance for Violent Crimes Act of 2012. Passed by Congress in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, the bill authorizes DoJ and Homeland Security to help states and local authorities investigate “violent acts and shootings occurring in a place of public use,” as well as “mass killings.” Helpfully, the bill includes a definition of “mass killings:” “3 or more killings in a single incident.”
But the Congressional definition hasn’t been that influential. Gun controllers who provide definitions, like the people behind the Gun Violence Archive and Mass Shooting Tracker, prefer the term “mass murder” to “mass killing.” And they usually set the cutoff for a mass “murder” or “killing” at four, rather than three victims.
This is because they use an older definition of “mass murder” they got from the FBI. In 2008, FBI researchers published a report, Serial Murder: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives for Investigators, where they tried to distinguish between serial killers and mass murderers. The feds were forced to acknowledge that since at least the 1970s, researchers and the government have used “serial killer” and “mass murderer” to mean whatever they want them to mean. In an effort to standardize things, the feds hosted a “Serial Murder Symposium” where they looked for what the various definitions had in common.
Here’s what they found:
Generally, mass murder was described as a number of murders (four or more) occurring during the same incident, with no distinctive time period between the murders. These events typically involved a single location […]
In other words, the FBI didn’t find an especially good reason to use a cutoff of four. They just went with what they kept hearing.1
And the rest of the federal government noticed. In 2015, the Congressional Research Service published a report on “mass murder with firearms,” a term it uses interchangeably with “mass shooting.” It does us a huge favor by giving an actual definition:
“mass shooting” means a multiple homicide incident in which four or more victims are murdered with firearms—not including the offender(s)—within one event, and in one or more locations in close geographical proximity.
Reasoning inductively, CRS takes the FBI’s working definition of “mass murder” and turns it into “mass shooting” by adding guns. Case closed, right?
Not so fast. As CRS acknowledges, this is where gun controllers depart from the government line. Unless they’re writing a list of the deadliest mass shootings, gun controllers tend to use a much more expansive definition that classifies a crime as a “mass shooting” if four or more people were killed or injured with firearms.2 This is a bad thing for several reasons.
First, it massively inflates the numbers. Second, by shifting the focus onto the (inflated) frequency and away from the lethality of mass shootings, it keeps people from accurately assessing the threat. In Mass Shootings (2016), criminologists Jaclyn Schildkraut and Jaymi Elsass point out that deaths, as well as injuries, per capita from mass shootings are significantly higher in European countries like Norway and Finland than in the US. Finally, it opens the door to yet more selective reporting.
As Fault Lines contributor and former cop Greg Prickett points out, none of the media outlets billing Orlando as America’s worst mass shooting mentioned Wounded Knee, a far deadlier government-orchestrated mass murder of Native Americans. An expanded definition helps interest groups and the media “forget about” more stuff. Try and find a “mass shootings” database or list that mentions the 2012 Empire State Building shooting, where the NYPD sprayed nine innocent bystanders with bullets in an attempt to hit one man.
So it’s not impossible to define a mass shooting. But beware of methodological pitfalls. And beware of anyone, liberal or conservative, who won’t say what definition he’s using.
1 For instance, from criminologists James Alan Fox and Jack Levin, who adopted the four-or-more cutoff in their 1985 book Extreme Killing.