Mass shootings happen to us all. Their town is your town, thanks to the easy accessibility of online police scanners, social media and live-stream video. Now more than ever, it’s possible to feel the immediacy and urgency of a crisis situation, no matter where in the world the events are unfolding.
The national conversation returned to the epidemic of mass shootings Wednesday after 14 people were killed and nearly two dozen others were wounded at a center for persons with developmental disabilities in San Bernardino, Calif.
San Bernardino police identified the shooters as Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and Tashfeen Malik, 27. Both died in a shootout with officers about four hours after the killing spree roughly two miles from the social services center.
During these incidents, Americans have increasingly turned to the Internet for real-time information and reporting about these tragedies, searching for such phrases as “active shooter” and “mass shooting” and then following the updates in real time.
A major and obvious reason that "active shooter" searches are on the rise is because these incidents have tragically become routine.
The FBI identified 160 active shooter incidents between 2000 and 2013, in which 486 people were killed and 557 were wounded. And these incidents are increasing in frequency. There was an average of 6.4 incidents for each of the first seven years, while an average of 16.4 occurred in each of the last seven.
Now news consumers are reading about and viewing major news events before they even come to a close: before the area is secure, before the shooter is neutralized and before the facts are established — let alone confirmed.
According to the bureau, “An active shooter is an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined space or other populated area. In most cases, active shooters use firearms and there is no pattern or method to their selection of victims.”
The precise definitions of terms like these matter when researchers or reporters compile data. Meanings dictate which shootings are included in analyses and which ones are left out. That’s why conflicting reports have been appearing in the press about just how often these incidents occur in the U.S.
Citing the Mass Shooting Tracker, several publications reported Wednesday that there have been at least 351 shootings in the first 334 days of 2015. In other words, mass shootings are a more-than-once-daily occurrence in the United States.
That’s partly because the crowd-sourced tracker, unlike other databases, uses a relatively broad definition of “mass shooting”: an incident where four or more people (including the perpetrator) are injured by gunfire.
Traditionally, scholars and law enforcement officers have defined a mass shooting as an incident in which four or more people (not including the gunman) are killed by gunfire.
This standard grew from and is bolstered by the FBI’s definition for “mass murder”: “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.”
In a 2013 report on mass shootings, the Congressional Research Service, an agency within the Library of Congress, fundamentally stuck with this interpretation, but expanded upon it.
“There is no broadly agreed-to, specific conceptualization of this issue, so this report uses its own definition for public mass shootings. These are incidents occurring in relatively public places, involving four or more deaths — not including the shooter(s) — and gunmen who select victims somewhat indiscriminately. The violence in these cases is not a means to an end — the gunmen do not pursue criminal profit or kill in the name of terrorist ideologies, for example.”
University of Central Florida sociologist Lin Huff-Corzine, a leading scholar in homicide studies, said the definition of “mass murder” was changed in public law about two years ago so the FBI and other federal agencies could respond to shootings where three or more people were killed (not counting the perpetrator).
“They [now] have the right and obligation to respond when there’s fewer people killed,” she said in an interview with Yahoo News. “And more of those situations that have three are actually family annihilations. That’s the most common type of mass murder.”
Huff-Corzine said that public mass murders have a greater impact on society but are more rare.
“The reason you’d want to switch from one [definition] to the other is simply to let more agencies get involved and try to do something about it,” she said.
Left-leaning magazine Mother Jones also maintains a database of mass shootings but has much stricter criteria. For inclusion, the shooting must have happened in a public space and killed at least four people (not including the perpetrator). Gang activity and other crimes were not included; the shooter’s motive must have been mass murder.
Each dot represents a mass shooting incident from 2013 to 2015 with data from the Mass Shooting Tracker.
This puts their count for mass shootings so far this year at just four: a Charleston, S.C., church in June; a Chattanooga military recruitment center in July; Umpqua Community College in October and the latest in San Bernardino.
Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit that advocates for gun control, estimates that 88 people die from gun violence in the United States on an average day and that mass shootings represent a very small fraction of this violence.
“Unfortunately, the way the media works, there is a tendency to histrionics, and it kind of puts the entire focus on mass shooting,” Ted Alcorn, the group’s research director, said to Yahoo News. “The definition that anyone employs should really just be measured by what practical contribution it makes to the conversation about gun violence.”
The lesson that the U.S. should take away from the frequency of gun deaths, he said, is that the San Bernardino shooting is part of a larger phenomenon.
“We have a grotesque problem as a country with the frequency with which people use firearms to kill one another and that goes for shootings that involve one victim or one person injured to the same extent that it goes for these mass casualty events,” Alcorn said. “We should look at them rigorously to see the public policy tools that we already have at our disposal that we can use to keep them from happening, or talk about new measures that could be taken to do so.”
The tragic scope of Wednesday’s shooting is conspicuous, even if those documenting the incidents do not always agree on the terms. It was the country’s deadliest mass shooting since December 2012, when gunman Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
“These moments,” Alcorn said, “are incredibly important for us as a country to come together and think about solving these problems.”