Mass Murder in America: Who is the Ignorant One? Not Me!

Last week on my way to the Gun Rights Policy Conference in Chicago, I saw news stories being published about a new FBI report that seemed to show that mass shootings were on the rise in America – something I had previously called into question based on the work of Grant Duwe and James Alan Fox.

NYT Mass Shooting Headline FBI ReportAs I wrote in my blog that day, I felt like all of a sudden I knew less about the world than I had the day before, given the revelatory nature of the report. Turns out, my ignorance was a bit of an illusion, created by frankly ignorant and misleading headlines like:

Now back from Chicago, I have had a chance to look a bit more at the report and also to read some reflections on it. The first thing that struck me? The clear statement, on page 5 of the report, that: “This is not a study of mass killings or mass shootings.”

This is not a study of mass killings or mass shootings? Huh? I thought the FBI confirmed a sharp rise in mass shootings since 2000 (New York Times)?

This is not a study of mass killings or mass shootings? Huh? I thought mass shootings on the rise, FBI says (Wall Street Journal)?

This is not a study of mass killings or mass shootings? Huh? I thought FBI study finds mass shootings on the rise (Huffington Post)?

Come to find out, the FBI report focuses on “a specific type of shooting situation law enforcement and the public may face. Incidents identified in this study do not encompass all gun-related situations; therefore caution should be taken when using this information without placing it in context. Specifically, shootings that resulted from gang or drug violence—pervasive, long-tracked, criminal acts that could also affect the public—were not included in this study. In addition, other gun-related shootings were not included when those incidents appeared generally not to have put others in peril (e.g., the accidental discharge of a firearm in a school building or a person who chose to publicly commit suicide in a parking lot). The study does not encompass all mass killings or shootings in public places and therefore is limited in its scope” (p. 5).

This is not to say that there are no lessons to be drawn from the report, but those lessons cannot be about something the report does not by design address.

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