Why counting mass shootings is a bad way to understand gun violence in America
It glosses over the broader reality of who is most at risk of being murdered with guns
This story was originally published by ProPublica.
ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.
According to articles this week across the Internet, there has been an average of one mass shooting every day in the United States: 355 so far this year. It’s a jarring statistic, and one that has gone viral in the wake of this week’s massacre in San Bernardino, California.
But there are two problems with the number: It doesn’t actually provide a clear estimate of how often the country has seen shooting rampages like the one in San Bernardino. And it obscures the broader reality of gun violence in America.
Counting “mass shootings” is notoriously complicated and contested, since there is no standard definition of what they are. Is it best to count shootings that injure or kill a certain number of people? Or should the definition focus more narrowly on attacks in which the motivation of the shooter “appears to be indiscriminate killing”?
Mother Jones, which has been tracking mass shootings since 2012, has counted just four mass shootings this year, and a total of 73 since 1982, as Mother Jones editor Mark Follman has noted in The New York Times.
In 2014, the FBI released its own count of “active shooter” incidents, focusing on events where law enforcement and citizens may have the chance to intervene and change the outcome of the ongoing shooting. It tallied a total of 160 of these events from 2000 to 2013–including high-profile shootings at Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, and Sandy Hook Elementary School– with an average of 11 per year.
The “355 mass shootings this year” that has been rocketing around the Internet comes from a crowdsourced Reddit initiative that gathers media reports of shootings in which four or more people were shot.
The Reddit project’s organizers suggest this broader approach does a better job of capturing the burden of gun violence–including the suffering and costs of treating people who are shot and survive.
“The most obscene incidents of gun violence usually do not make the mainstream news at all,” the project’s introduction says, citing a nightclub shooting in Tennessee in which 18 people were shot and only one person killed. “We believe the media does a disservice to mass shooting victims by virtually ignoring them unless large numbers are killed.”
Yet bundling together all incidents in which four people or more people are shot doesn’t capture the bigger picture.
As ProPublica detailed last week, gun murder in America is largely a story of race and geography. Half of all gun murder victims are black men. The gun murder rate for black Americans is dramatically higher than it is for white Americans. And the burden of violence tends to be concentrated in certain neighborhoods of certain cities.
Reddit’s Mass Shooting Tracker does not include any breakdown by race. In response to questions about the group’s numbers, one project organizer, GhostofAlyeska, wrote, “Our intent is not to analyze the causes or cures for gun violence, but simply to expose the available data. We're volunteers working from a reddit community, nothing more.”
The Reddit project cites 462 people killed under its broad definition of mass shootings. The number of gun homicides of black men killed in 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: 5,798.
Baltimore alone has seen a total of 316 total homicides so far this year–the vast majority of them shooting deaths of black victims, according to the Baltimore Sun’s homicide map. The city’s homicide rate is now at a record high. The Reddit tracker captures eight of those deaths.
San Bernardino has two entries in this year’s Mass Shooting Tracker: yesterday’s attack, and a nightclub shooting reportedly linked to gang violence. The area has long struggled with poverty, gangs, and homicide. “My son was shot to death with an AK–47. My nephew was murdered and his body was burned and buried,” San Bernardino resident Marisa Hernandez told Vice News on Wednesday. "This type of mass shootings happens everyday here to our kids and nobody stops it, nobody does anything.”