By Emily Larsen
The New York Times editorial board said that there have been more than 1,600 mass shootings in the U.S. since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012.
There is no universally accepted definition of “mass shooting,” but the one used by NYT is extremely broad. The news outlet Mother Jones, for example, has only identified 35 mass shootings since Sandy Hook using a narrower set of criteria.
The NYT stated the number of mass shootings in an editorial that chronicled congressional action (or inaction) on gun control legislation since the Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Connecticut.
“More than five years have passed since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 children and six adults were killed,” the editorial said. “In that time, dozens of gun control proposals have been introduced in Congress attempting to fix glaring issues with gun safety and regulation. More than 1,600 mass shootings have taken place in America since then.”
A footnote at the end of the editorial defines a mass shooting as “four or more people injured or killed in a single event at the same time and location.” This is the same definition used by the Gun Violence Archive (GVA), a gun control advocacy group.
The definition of a mass shooting is debatable, but even some gun control advocates use a narrower definition. Everytown for Gun Safety counted only 156 mass shootings from 2009 through 2016 in a 2017 report.
Most analyses of mass shootings only count instances where at least four people were killed (rather than killed or injured) because that’s how the FBI has defined the term “mass murder.” A 2015 Congressional Research Service report counted at least 317 mass shootings from 1999 to 2013 using the four-deaths definition, though a new law in 2013 defined a “mass killing” as three or more deaths.
Including injuries in the definition dramatically increases the number of mass shootings. GVA’s public data from September 2016 to February 2018 shows that no people died in 223 of the 500 incidents it counts as mass shootings.
Some argue that qualifying a mass shooting solely on the number of victims makes the data “overly broad.” Scholars at the Harvard School of Public Health and Northeastern University told Mother Jones in 2014 that various types of mass murders are “contextually distinct.”
In layman’s terms, a “mass shooting” may evoke the idea of a random public attack akin to the shootings in Newtown, Las Vegas or Parkland. The definition from the NYT and GVA, however, includes instances of domestic violence, drive-by shootings, disagreements at bars and parties, gang violence and robberies. Even the narrower analysis from Everytown, which only counts instances with four or more deaths, found that 54 percent of the mass shooting cases from 2009 to 2016 were related to domestic or family violence.
To better analyze the type of mass public shootings that get a lot media coverage, a mass shootings tracker by Mother Jones only counts incidents that took place in public and were carried out by a lone shooter, and it excludes situations like armed robbery or gang violence. Under that definition, there have been only 35 mass shootings since Sandy Hook.
John Lott, a gun rights advocate and president of the Crime Research Prevention Center, told The Daily Caller News Foundation that the large number can “confuse people” who wouldn’t expect such a wide variety of crimes to be included in the NYT figure, particularly presented in the context of massacres that get media attention. He said the figure isn’t very useful for making policy decisions.
“The thing is, causes and solutions on what to do about gang fights are dramatically different than what you do about these mass public shootings,” Lott said.
But proponents of a broader definition say that some blatant public mass shootings would not count under definitions with a four-deaths threshold. In the school shooting in Benton, Kentucky on Jan. 23, for example, two people were killed and 18 more injured.
Jim Bueermann, a former police chief and president of a policing practices think tank, told The Washington Post that it is valuable to include injuries when counting mass shootings because there can be just a small difference between injury and death.
“I would submit that sometimes the only difference between a shooting and a murder could be a centimeter, an inch, an unlikely ricochet, whatever,” Bueermann said. “If we’re trying to capture true gun violence in our country, a broader definition [of mass shooting] is probably more useful than a narrow one.”
GVA, Everytown and the NYT did not respond to requests for comment.