While it feels like we’re hearing about them all the time, “mass shootings” are pretty rare. In fact, mass shootings only account for about 1% to 2% of all gun deaths in a given year, depending upon whose definition you go by. But who’s to say what is or isn’t a mass shooting?
For example, on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019, a gunman in Greenville, Texas, killed two people with a handgun at an unofficial homecoming party for Texas A&M University-Commerce. He also shot six others. And an additional six people were trampled and injured while trying to run away from the violence.
That sounds like a mass shooting, right?
Well, local authorities didn’t think so. “I would describe this as a capital murder case. I wouldn’t describe it as a mass shooting,” said Hunt County Sheriff Randy Meeks. “We believe one person was targeted and for some unknown reason to us he decided to go ahead and shoot other folks. I wouldn’t classify that as a mass shooting.”
And while a recent study from the Rockefeller Institute found most mass shootings involve such a target, it’s all really confusing.
Things get murkier when you begin to hear from survivors of the shooting.
“I was running for my life, I was scared,” Quadria Freeman told KXAS-TV in Dallas. “I’ve never seen so many people— people were climbing out of broken windows.”
Freeman attended the party with her cousin Byron Craven Jr., who was one of the two people killed that night
That same night, 1,100 miles away, five others were shot at an another party in Lansing, Michigan. One person died. But unless you report on gun violence, or knew someone affected, you probably would’ve missed it. Nowhere near the coverage similar shootings received.
So, because this is all so discombobulating, Guns & America has decided to dig in and to try to explain why some shootings are “mass shootings” and others get ignored.
What Is A Mass Shooting?
We started with a pretty simple question: What makes something a mass shooting?
“So there is no accepted definition of a ‘mass shooting,’” said Harvard professor David Hemenway. “There are many, many different definitions of what a mass shooting is.”
Hemenway has studied guns, gun policy and mass shootings for more than three decades. He’s written a book and more than 100 peer-reviewed articles about guns. And Hemenway says there are lots of variables that go into defining a mass shooting.
“In part, it’s whether or not you’re looking at how many people died versus how many people [were] shot,” Hemenway explained, “whether it’s in public or in a private place, and whether it’s directed at certain people or it seems to be more random where anybody can be killed.”
But in most cases it boils down to one of two considerations: the number of people injured and the shooter’s motivation. Even still, there are other factors, too, like, were gangs involved or was it an incident of intimate partner violence?
Hemenway says some folks can be rather generous with their definitions: “The Gun Violence Archive has one that basically says ‘four people being shot under any circumstances in one place at one time is a mass shooting.’”
Other databases are much more conservative.
“Mother Jones has a much more narrow definition,” said Hemenway. The group maintains a database of every “mass shooting” since 2012, “[which it defines as] four people being killed, but it has to be in a public place and it can’t be a gang shooting or intimate partner violence.”
And if that variation didn’t get you scratching your head, it’s also worth noting that in recent years the FBI, which tracks these incidents nationally, has moved away from using the term “mass shooting.”
Check out Guns & America’s trusty definition breakdown
So There’s No Definition. What Does That Mean For Me?
“In my personal opinion,” said Louis Klarevas, “if you start adding all kinds of exclusionary criteria, you’re going to get to a pretty arbitrary definition of what constitutes a ‘mass shooting.’”
Klarevas is a research professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. He’s also the author of “Rampage Nation: Securing America from Mass Shootings.” And he says the best way to avoid that haphazard approach to defining mass shootings is to cast a wide net.
“It’s best to have very few criteria,” he said. “If you have a very wide definition, what you’re going to see is that you have quite a lot of mass shootings happening in the United States. Upwards of one per day, if we’re just talking about people being shot.”
That’s akin to what you see when you consult a resource like the Gun Violence Archive, or hear a number like — there have been over 300 mass shootings so far this year.
“And then if you go to the other extreme,” Klarevas explained,“where it only counts if four or more people have been killed, and the shootings only happen in public, and they exclude domestic and gang violence or terrorism — all of a sudden you’re really creating a wide gap.”
And Klarevas says that gap can confuse news consumers: “The definition really does impact how the public understands the phenomenon.”
Jason Silva agrees. Silva is a professor of Criminal Justice at William Paterson University in New Jersey. Silva researches mass shootings and how the media covers them. He says the lack of a clear definition causes problems for newsmakers, too, resulting in unbalanced coverage:
“So mass shootings, while they receive [an] enormous amount of coverage, they’re a very small percentage of gun violence at large,” Silva explained. “And when we look at sort of these inner-city gun violence crimes and these rising homicide rates associated with gun violence – that is sort of the larger issue.”
And he’s found that this uneven reporting slants how we, as news consumers, perceive violence. It can even affect violence prevention strategies.
“So for example, we see that school shootings often times receive an enormous amount of coverage,” Silva said. “But what we find is the reality is that workplace shootings actually occur much more often. And the fact that they’re not seeing as much coverage [of that type of shooting] means were skewing our perception, and additionally we may be skewing our prevention strategies, too.”
Silva says our efforts to protect kids in schools with mass shooter training is probably an endeavor that should be pursued in workplaces, too. But the necessity may not be being observed by people in leadership positions because of how mass casualty shootings are portrayed on the news.
Okay. What The Heck Is Wrong With The Media?
Brooke Gladstone is the host of WNYC’s On The Media. Gladstone’s been examining the media for more than two decades and paying close attention to how news is shared. She says she’s mystified by the coverage of shootings in the media.
“Who’s to decide? If people are shot en masse, isn’t that literally then a mass shooting?” Gladstone asked.
Gladstone believes there are other factors contributing to what gets covered:
“I think, of course, that the race and class of the victims has a discernible impact on how much coverage there is,” she said.
Researcher Jason Silva says there’s research to back that sort of thinking up.
“We know that this idea of ‘black on black’ crime is considered a routine experience within these newsrooms,” Silva said.“And so it therefore receives less coverage because the news is more interested in sensational and rare instances that don’t align with our standard social constructions of criminality.”
“The term is fuzzy. I don’t think it’s that useful,” Gladstone said. “And I think it’s a headline term. And actually the argument over nomenclature can get very twisted. Just think about how acts of terrorism have been broadened and redefined. I mean, the term has some legal significance. But in a headline or a lede, I’m just not sure.”
So What Can We Do?
“I would say moving forward, that it’s important to contextualize the reality of the mass shooting problem, but also to contextualize how that problem relates to the country’s gun violence problem,” said Silva.
With mass shootings making up such a small percentage of all gun violence, he says, newsmakers need to make sure that we’re not just reporting on updates at the crime scene but actually helping people understand what we’re facing.
And Gladstone says gatekeepers, like news editors, also need to start valuing the lives and stories of people who haven’t traditionally been featured on the news.
“There have been so many voices, so many communities, so many images that have been entirely excluded,” she said. “The Leave It to Beaver time has passed and has been replaced with a time that’s much more chaotic.”
She says that chaos leaves the door open for inclusion. And she credits some news organizations for being better about covering people of color and poorer communities. But she adds that these days we each get to play a role in what gets attention — by what we watch and what we amplify.
“The most important thing is to choose the media you consume with care,” Gladstone said. “And also understand that you’re producing it.”
So, if you’re not seeing something relevant to your experience, Gladstone says, you’re no longer bound to conventional media systems.
“You’ve seen it over and over again, how people demand the right to define themselves in their communities,” said Gladstone.“And they do it with live streaming. They do it in message boards. And they do it so persistently and consistently.”
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.