scene from San Bernandino massacre

Photo courtesy of Reuters

How Many Mass Shootings in 2015?

Don’t Believe Everything on Facebook, or MSNBC

| published December 10, 2015 |

By Keith H. Roberts, Thursday Review contributor


Liberals, progressives, and a lot of people of no particular political stripe, had blasted us last week and over the weekend with posts and reposts of the grimmest of statistics: the United States has endured some 355 mass shootings just since the start of this year. The number was bandied about in memes and social media blurbs—the kind of thing which goes viral very quickly, and for millions of people who get their news from snippets on Twitter and Facebook, the sort of data accepted as gospel.

That dark, sad statistic was also repeated by Rachel Maddow and lots of others on the somewhat left-leaning MSNBC, which—by most accounts—strives to do its journalistic homework, at least better than the bloggers. After MSNBC and other established media sites got a hold of that number, the chorus picked up so much momentum that by the end of the week almost everyone—even some supporters of gun rights—were repeating it as a sad fact. The number was tossed about even on CNN, also scrupulous in its reporting of the facts.

Indeed, the horrifying massacre in San Bernardino, California may have sparked the ugliest debate yet in the United States over the availability of guns, but the attack’s aftermath also morphed within hours into brutally polarizing, multipart arguments about religion, workplace violence, radical Islamic terror, homeland security, immigration law, and even climate change. Picking sides became a point of honor, as well as reason enough for people to unfriend each other on social media.

But the one central fact that seemed to stand apart was that terrible, seemingly inescapable number: 355 mass shootings in less than one year. That would mean, assuming the rate continues unabated through New Year’s Eve, that the U.S. has endured a mass shooting every day—every 24 hours—of all of 2015.

The problem, as even some liberals, many in law enforcement, and some in more responsible journalistic circles have pointed out (including the New York Times and The Washington Post), is that the much-repeated 355 number is patently false. (The Washington Post had, as recently as October, been playing along with the numbers, repeating the oft-quoted late September figure of 294 mass shootings in 274 days).

In fact, there have been five mass shootings in 2015, at least based on the definition most commonly accepted by police departments, the federal agencies which collate crime statistics, several public interest and watchdog groups with no axe to grind on guns, and even the FBI. The problem seems to center on how we, as a nation, define a mass shooting. And here too, the argument cleaves almost precisely along partisan lines.

Here’s the reality check. If there were in fact a “mass shooting” every day of the year, we could assume that the country had tipped over into outright social chaos and mass disorder—a kind of Hollywood zombie versus vampire versus roving bands of maniacs apocalypse where every child is issued lethal firepower at the age of five and every neighborhood has a mass grave site just past the deserted playground now stocked only with shovels and bags of lime. Sort of Mad Max Meets This Is The End. And at such a high rate of mass murder, there would be no businesses, no schools, no campuses, no community centers, no malls open…anywhere. Government would in effect shut down, and law abiding citizens would be left to stand with shotguns in hand in the doorways of their own homes. Besides, did we sleep through the other hundreds of mass shootings in 2015? And, if not, why didn't the other gun massacres make any news?

It's because "massacre" and "mass shootings" turn out to be pretty loose terms, open, it seems, to a lot of elasticity on all sides.

But based on how the FBI and the National Association of Police Chiefs calibrate the figures, there have been roughly 75 mass shootings since 1980. Total. And this year, there have been only four or five (again, depending on the definition). The number of people who have died this year by firearms in the U.S. this year is actually less than last year, a fact rarely repeated even by the mainstream networks.

Why the bizarre distortion of the facts? And why repeat such an obviously bogus statistic? Because, in truth, there is very little consistency within the media as to how to define a “mass shooting.” Law enforcement in general has been too busy to clarify the definition, and many reporters simply don’t want to derail the conversation by simply asking, or demanding that federal agencies drill down on the numbers. And to make matters worse, though one can get down-to-the-person stats on highway accidents or death by liver failure, gun fatality and injury numbers are not fed into any form of national database (like the way liver disease mortality is collated by the Centers for Disease Control, for example). The FBI provides the most comprehensive data; it is drawn from tens of thousands of police and sheriff's departments and state agencies.

Then, to be fair, there is little or no consistency in how to define a "mass shooting." The rampage in San Bernardino evolved quickly from what appeared to be some form of workplace grievance, perhaps sparked by a somewhat staged argument at a Christmas party, into a genuine, by-the-book act of terror—the same sort of terrorism seen only weeks before in Paris. Radical Islamic terror ties or not, however, it still qualified as a mass shooting by the standard criteria, or almost any criteria for that matter.

Part of the problem comes from the clear divide among Americans about guns. Those who support tougher gun laws and more serious restrictions on the purchase of guns cite the wide swath of death-by-gunfire as part of their numbers: anything over two dead bodies in a related shooting incident is defined as “mass.” Those who advocate for no restrictions or loosely-enforced controls over guns—and this includes many gun owners along with the so-called gun lobby—prefer to parse the numbers, slicing gun deaths into specific categories of criminal behavior, a reasonable approach since most law enforcement agencies do the same.

The website Mass Shooter Tracker, for example, counts as a mass shooting any incident in which someone used a gun in a room or space with more than two people, even if no one was killed by the gunfire. In other words, according to this popular site, a "mass shooting" need not have any fatalities—only injuries, minor or serious. Other websites and news sources insist that a mass shooting at least have at least one fatality, even if the others struck by bullets are merely injured or grazed. This leads to labelling as a mass shooting an at-gunpoint robbery of a convenience store if only one person was struck by a bullet but there were six others inside the store, and even if the gunshot wound to the victim was not life-threatening.

The arbitrary standard used for decades—and it is indeed arbitrary—ranges from three to four victims of gunshot wounds by the same gunman within the set of activity or physical locations…a movie theater, or a shopping center, or a school, to name recent examples. But even that gets complicated. The San Bernardino shooters, we now learn, almost certainly intended to inflict more damage with their high powered weapons at other locations that same day, but they died after police engaged them in a gun battle. Either way, logic holds that Tashfeeb Malik and Syed Rizwan Farook were engaged in a single act of terror which constitutes a mass shooting.

But as several writers in the New York Times and in The Washington Post have pointed out, both sides talk past the realities. Liberals prefer the obviously conflated numbers. Using that wider criteria, and casting a sometimes absurdly wide net, a shooting outside a bar frequented by biker gangs in Texas, and a gang-related confrontation gone wrong in Chicago, each count as “mass shootings,” even though these violent incidents bear no resemblance sociologically, culturally or criminologically to the shootings in a Charleston, South Carolina church. Many anti-gun groups use any number of deaths above three as the baseline for “mass,” where some go as low as two for the criteria. This not only creates confusion, but in fact adds to the overall fear. Some would argue that such fear-baiting actually leads to more guns purchased by more people, if for no other reason than they actually believe that there have been “mass shootings” on each and every day of this year.

As the writer James Alan Fox points out in USA Today, conservatives aren’t the only ones who use fear as a political tool. Liberals want to use the abject terror of mass shootings—and the notion that they occur every day—as a wedge to bring amount meaningful gun legislation, preferably on a national scale. Though it is fair to highlight the destructiveness of gun violence, it is no more acceptable for Rachel Maddow to tell her viewers that there have been 355 mass shootings in just one year than it is responsible for Donald Trump to suggest halting allowing Muslims into the United States.

The other problem with lumping all gunplay into one broad category of “mass shooting” is that it erases the critical, sometimes crucial distinctions between types of crime, and blurs an important line between “terrorism” and “violence” at a time when nuanced and thoughtful debate should be the standard for the day, especially in a democracy. Gun violence may in fact have the same outcome—people killed senselessly by guns—but there is a certain and critical difference between the store clerks killed by a robber armed with a 9mm handgun, and the Century 16 multiplex theatergoers shot to death by James Holmes in Aurora, Colorado. Counting the unhinged shootout between biker gangs at the Twin Peaks restaurant and bar in Waco, Texas (which occurred earlier this year) seriously bends the criteria of what police traditionally call a mass shooting, whereas the location-specific, target-specific attacks on a campus in Oregon (October) and a Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado meet the standard law enforcement definition.

All things considered soberly, that means that there have been only five mass shootings in 2015. Other shootings involving two or more people fall into a variety of other categories of crime. By mincing and mashing and hashing any form of gun violence involving two or more into a mega-pot called “mass shooting”—tossing armed robberies in with workplace rage, tossing domestic violence in with carjacking gone awry, tossing murder-suicides in with gang street violence—does a vast and disturbing disservice to the critical process of identifying the root causes and specific patterns of crimes involving guns, and inhibits finding solutions.

None of this is to say that guns aren’t a problem, and one which stretches its ugly shadow into a large tapestry of criminal behavior. But it is to say that creating a ridiculously elastic definition of all types of gun violence, then lumping every form of gunplay into that single category called “mass shooting,” is, well, a patent distortion. It’s a form of fear mongering not unlike Donald Trump’s bizarre call to ban all Muslims for entering the U.S.

What may shock many of our readers the most is that the common perception that gun violence is on the rise in the United States is also patently untrue. Total deaths-by-guns has, so far this year, run slightly less than the 2013 and 2014 figures. And on the whole, gun mortality has been generally flat since the start of the aught years. As a percentage of the population, gun violence was much worse in the 1980s and early 1990s, when, starting around 1993, gun deaths began to fall almost in direct relation to falling crime rates. The peak year was 1990, when gun deaths reached 14 per 100,000 people; the current rate is down to about 11 per 100,000 (based on 2013 statistics). According to a study by the Pew Research Center, gun violence has been on a steady decline as measured by deaths by firearms (per 100,000 people), but only the portion of that statistic which measures suicides has increased. Homicide death by firearm is still steadily but slowly dropping from those high numbers in 1993 and 1994.

The Pew research Center concluded that "the nation's overall gun death rate has declined 31% since 1993." In short, according to several major studies, including that of Pew, you are less likely to die by gunfire than any time in more than 20 years.

Another problem for objective discussion about gun violence: the false notion that Americans die at a higher rate because of shootings than from any other form of death. Again, fear plays a part in this strategy. It’s politically easier to scare people about guns when you characterize mass shootings as happening on a daily cycle. But here’s another nugget of reality. Death by automobile accident beats death by guns. It has for decades, and continues to do so now. Increased safety in cars—airbags, better seatbelts and restraints, child seat requirements, smart braking systems, anti-lock brakes, improved crumple-zones, even better tires—has over the decades been steadily chipping away at what was once the grim statistic of highway deaths. Driving is safer now, so much so that gun fatalities could easily catch up within the next year or two. The only factor nudging highway fatalities back up: an increase in web surfing and social media activity behind the wheel (texting incidents which triggered fatalities actually went down last year).

According to the FBI, during the year 2013 roughly 11,420 people died from gun crimes in the United States. More than half were under the age of 30. That rate was actually somewhat higher between 2000 and 2011, when the annual total averaged closer to 30,000. (In researching this article I found that other than the FBI, which maintains a database structured around criminal stats, there is shocking inconsistency when it comes to finding reliable numbers). Comparing apples to apples, which can be difficult without firm gun violence figures, those who died in car accidents in the U.S. nearly tied those who died from gun violence in 2010—roughly 32,000 and 31,000 respectively.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, which has the most reliable figures after those compiled by the FBI (CDC figures are based on medical statistics, not crime reports), gun deaths in the U.S. in 2013 totaled 33,636, about 11,500 of which were murders.

Where highway deaths have been dropping steadily, gun deaths are flat. The worst year for highway fatalities was 1974, when 54,589 people died on U.S. highways; that number has been inching down ever since. The worst years for firearms fatalities were in the early 1990s, before incarceration rates began their epic final upward climb. Though there is still controversy as to whether those high incarceration rates had a positive impact on crime in general, gun violence did slide downward, levelling out for a ten year period in the aught years, and remaining relatively flat even now—this despite the perception, based surely on the high profile instances of mass shooters last year and this year, that Americans are being wiped out by guns.

By direct comparison, some 610,000 Americans die each year of heart disease, or nearly one in four; roughly 735,000 Americans will have a heart attack each year (fatal and non-fatal numbers combined), according to the Centers for Disease Control. Likewise, diabetes takes the lives of another 75,500 each year. Cancer kills more than a half million, hypertension kills 31,000, and liver disease more than 36,000. Half of those deaths are related directly to alcohol, and alcohol plays a role, as it always has, in both highway fatalities and gun violence.

In the meantime, and as New Year’s draws closer, we can probably expect more in the way of hyperbole and distortion when it comes to reporting the true numbers of people killed in “mass shootings,” just as we can expect that mass shooting total to rise past the holidays. We can also expect more of those memes on Facebook and more talk on Twitter. Fear is powerful, for both sides in this grim debate.

The impact of gun violence in the U.S. should not be minimized, regardless of whether it falls into one category of crime or another. But it should matter to us to get the facts right before we fall victim intellectually to exaggeration, distortion and outright falsehood.

Related Thursday Review articles:

ISIS Praises Couple in San Bernardino Massacre; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; December 5, 2015.

Did Mayoral Election Prompt Chicago Police Conspiracy?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; December 2, 2015.