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Mass confusion around mass shootings
By Michael Rocque and James Alan Fox, Opinion guest column August 27, 2019
Updated: August 27, 2019 7:24 am
Jorge Salgado | AP
People hold up their cellphones as the names of
the victims of the Aug. 3 mass shooting are read during a memorial service,
14, 2019, at Southwest University Park, in El Paso, Texas.
Link To The Acual Article:
The first weekend of August bore witness to what is seemingly more
commonplace in America, with two mass shootings within successive days that
left 31 dead. In our rush to understand and prevent these attacks, there has
been a lot of mixing of apples and oranges due to a failure to define mass
As is generally the case with such horrific
displays of random violence, Americans quickly began to seek answers and
solutions. The lively debate on various media platforms included a wide
range of proposals for stemming the tide of bloodshed -from gun control to
immigration reform and from expanded access to mental health treatment to
limits on violent video games.
At the same time, of course, others
argue vociferously that gun control, immigration, mental illness and violent
video games are not the reason why the U.S. has experienced such a high rate
of mass shootings, but rather these are little more than "red herrings" and
A major problem with this cultural narrative is
that we continue to hear disparate statistics on mass shooting based on very
different criteria. This has caused mass confusion, if not mass hysteria.
A common and longstanding definition of mass shootings stipulates four
or more victims killed in a relatively restricted time period (e.g., 24
hours). A mass public shooting takes place in a public location, as opposed
to a private residence and is not tied to any other criminal activity.
Definitions are important. They allow us to distinguish between
familicides, for example, and the more fear-inducing public massacres like
those that occurred in El Paso and Dayton.
Definitions also allow us
to conduct informed research. Claims that there have been 251 mass shootings
in 216 days rely on an alternative definition employed by the Gun Violence
Archive that only requires four or more people to be shot. In half of these
cases, however, no one is killed, and three-quarters include at most one
fatality (which may just be the shooter). It is important to differentiate
these mass shootings from mass killings, especially when statistics on the
former are publicized in the wake of a mass killing. Not doing so makes it
easy for people to be misled into believing that mass killings are happening
all the time.
In addition, a particularly controversial talking point
of late involves whether mental illness can be "blamed" for mass shootings.
Some argue that this cannot be so, because other countries have mental
illness rates similar to the U.S. but not nearly the same prevalence of mass
shootings. Yet, data do suggest that mental illness plays some role in mass
shootings, at least those of an indiscriminate nature.
Part of the
reason such differing views can co-exist is that we are often not talking
about the same thing. For example, in order to dispel the notion that mental
illness plays a role in mass shootings, some have pointed to studies of
overall gun violence that show little relationship to mental illness.
However, it is public rampages as opposed to ordinary gun violence in which
mental illness is more apt to be implicated.
Along with criminologist
Grant Duwe, we are examining mass public shootings over a 40-year period
with one of the end goals to offer publicly available data subject to
clear-cut parameters. Using the definition detailed above, we find that mass
public shootings have increased in the last two years, but were relatively
stable for at least a decade before that. Moreover, from 1976 to 2018, 158
mass public shootings occurred, a far cry from the 500 or more cases other
We do not know whether this increase signals a
long-term trend. But one change is clear: the majority of high body count
shootings (e.g., at least 20 victims killed) have taken place over the past
Definitions matter. It is essential that we compare
apples to apples, otherwise contradictory findings will continue to plague
our discussions and make it difficult to achieve progress on any
preventative measures.Michael Rocque
is an associate professor of Sociology at Bates College and a member of the
Scholars Strategy Network. James Alan Fox is the Lipman Professor of
Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University and co-author
of Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder. SSN members'
columns appear in the BDN every other week.