America’s Mass Shootings: A Few Problems Confused with One Name 

(Photo: Live 5 News)

(Photo: Live 5 News)


In our last post, we examined the role of guns—specifically semi-automatic rifles—in crime.  


Today, we will specifically look at mass shootings, trying to understand what exactly they are. By striving to understand the horrors that rock our headlines all too often, we may gain insight into how to prevent them.  

Generally, when we talk about mass shootings, we are referring to events like those in Uvalde, Buffalo, or Parkland. The term immediately conjures a pretty clear picture in our minds; a lone gunman entering a school, place of worship, or store and killing many defenseless people for no clear reason beyond psychiatric disturbances. However, given a bit more time to think, we begin to realize there are other types of mass shootings. There’s workplace violence, once so common in America’s Postal Service, that violently lashing out at your co-workers became colloquially known as “going postal.” There are shootings that occur in larger areas such as the Vegas shooting (the largest mass shooting on record). There are clear incidents of terrorism in which the attacker chooses a firearm rather than a bomb or vehicle, such as the Fort Hood shooting

Even still, these examples do not account for anywhere near all of the mass shootings that occur.  

So, what is a mass shooting? 

Believe it or not, there’s no one answer.  

Some organizations define a mass shooting as an incident in which four or more people are shot and killed. 

Some define it as an incident in which four people other than the gunman are shot and killed. 

Others define mass shootings as incidents in which four or more people other than the gunman are shot—regardless of how many people died.  

The FBI does not even define mass shootings, instead, defining an event in which four or more people are killed—regardless of the weapon used—as a “mass murder.” 

To understand any topic, we have to choose a definition, so for the purposes of this article, we will be going with the broadest definition; a mass shooting is an event in which four or more people, other than the shooter, are shot.  

It’s important to understand how broad this definition is. This definition combines events like the Uvalde shooting with gang-related gunfights like this one in Providence, Rhode Island, in which two groups of individuals shot at one another.  

However, if we were to try and limit the definitions to exclude cases in which victims of a shooting fired back, we would discount any case in which, say, church security shot the gunman or an armed vice-principal stopped a shooting.  

Given this, the media and political leaders rely on data of questionable value when discussing waves of violence.  
 
Consider these headlines:  

The Washington Post
CNN

Both of these appeared on major outlets, and both articles specifically call out the Buffalo and Uvalde shootings. However, neither makes any attempt at clarifying, as we have done in this piece, that parsing out gang-related violence is extremely difficult when looking at mass shooting data. 

These stories are rarely run after horrifying shootouts such as this one in St. Louis, last year or this shooting on June 30th in Colorado in which multiple police officers were shot executing a search warrant. 

We are left with the impression that marauders are entering our schoolyards and places of worship daily and committing unspeakable acts. The reality is that we are in the midst of a large spike in violent crime in America, which started in 2020.  

This distinction is extremely important to understand.  

As the headlines above noted, there have been over 250 mass shootings in the United States in 2022. There have been 27 school shootings. That means that if every single school shooting were a mass shooting—and not all are, as in some cases, the number of victims is fewer than four—they would only make up 10% of the total. It should be clear that we cannot hope to prevent a school shooting in the same way that we would prevent gang violence.  

The type of person who shoots school children has a different profile than the individual who joins a gang, for example. The difference that’s easiest to identify? School shooters are almost always extremely socially isolated. Gang members, on the other hand, by definition, identify with a group of people and have strong bonds with that group.  

While both of the youth in these cases would certainly benefit from healthy socialization, in the case of a gang member, one would have to ensure the safety of the youth that one is trying to break out of the gang; a difficulty simply not present in the profile of a young school shooter.  

That’s just one example.  

There are numerous profiles of shooters; some are nihilistic, and some are true believers in a twisted ideology. Some are acting alone, and others choose to be the vanguard of a movement.  

But all of them cause mass casualties, tearing families apart, and staining communities.  

We must find new ways of identifying these crimes, rather than simply relying on the term “mass shooting.” It is so broad that it blurs the nature of the crimes involved.  

This may lead many to say, “what they have in common is the gun. Target their guns!” 

While at first blush this makes sense, we covered the nature of American gun crime in our previous post. Simply put, most guns used in crime are acquired illegally; if every single legally obtained gun were removed from criminals’ hands, it would account for about 10% of the total.  

Instead, we must treat these problems as different as they appear.  

We must create a better method for discovering potential school shooters. At the moment, school resources are stretched beyond their limits in attempting to find any potential mass shooter. 

We have to better fund anti-gang forces in local law enforcement, while also providing clear alternatives to those already trapped in gang life.  

We have to secure potential targets of mass shootings, to ensure that when the systems fail—as they inevitably will—the targets of a shooter are better prepared and safer.  

In a later post, we will detail what these solutions might look like.  

In the meantime, remember; that America’s mass shootings are not all the same. Treating them as such makes our efforts to save lives less effective.  

America’s Mass Shootings: A Few Problems Confused with One Name 

An anti-gun violence rally on the steps of New York City Hall in 2019. (William Alatriste/NYC Council)

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