I had hoped to post some of my own thoughts on mass shootings this week, but the last week of class and other responsibilities overwhelmed me. Which is probably for the best because I am never anxious to speak publicly about a topic in the immediate of a major event.
Fortunately, scrolling through my Facebook feed I came across a “Note” penned by Dave Schroeder, who is a member of the academic staff at my alma mater (master’s and Ph.D.), the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an officer in the U.S. Navy.
Schroeder highlights and reflects on different definitions of “mass shootings” and their implications for our understanding of gun violence and its possible solutions. I appreciate his willingness to allow me to reproduce his note in full below. I don’t agree with everything he says, and in the coming days I hope to elaborate. But his reflections offer a good starting point for a necessary discussion about the topic.
The recent and troubling redefinition of “mass shooting”
What happens when you redefine something that has held a certain meaning for decades?
What happens when you redefine “mass shooting”?
In the wake of the San Bernardino mass shooting, the New York Times ran this story:
The Washington Post ran these stories:
You may have seen many other stories making this same claim: that there is, on average, now at least one “mass shooting” every day in the United States.
It is enough to make a person ask, “What have we done so wrong as a country, that a tragedy like a mass shooting happens at least every single day?” Except it’s not true. Or, at least, it hasn’t been true until recently. And it’s not only true now because the incidence of mass shootings has increased.
So what happened?
An independent, internet-based, “crowdsourced” movement started by two people — “Redditors”, for those familiar with Reddit, the popular web site — has taken it upon itself, in about the last year or so, to unilaterally redefine the longstanding, if informal, national federal definition of “mass shooting” to mean any time more than 3 people, including the shooter, have been killed or injured in any incident, of any type, with any motivation, under any circumstances, where a firearm is involved. Gang-related, drugs, robberies, domestic violence, you name it — as long as at least 3 people, including the shooter, are even injured. That’s now a “mass shooting”. This means virtually the only thing that isn’t considered a mass shooting is when 2 or fewer people are involved — just the shooter and a victim, or a person committing suicide.
This redefinition means that over 350, instead of 3 (now 4), “mass shootings” have happened in 2015 (2 of them related to international terrorism). It is intentional — even if not the intent of everyone involved in “tracking” and cataloguing incidents — to make people think a mini Columbine, Virginia Tech, or Sandy Hook-type event is happening, on average, every single day. It doesn’t matter if it’s gang-related, a robbery, or anything else — it’s now a “mass shooting”. Even if no one died. Critically, the national media — like CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, PBS, NPR, BBC, and others, and wire services like the Associated Press and Reuters — have eagerly adopted this new definition, seemingly without question. When did Reddit become the sole authority on what constitutes a “mass shooting”?
For the traditional — more accurate — compilation of mass shootings, see Mother Jones’ work here:
To see the data, see: Full database
3 (now 4; again, 2 of which were international terrorism) in 2015, versus over 350. That’s a huge difference. That’s not a brush-it-aside, ignore-it, why-are-you-talking-about-that, we-should-focus-on-the-problem-anyway type of thing. That is an intentional, deliberate attempt to recast what constitutes a “mass shooting”, to capitalize on what “mass shooting” has come to mean in the public psyche, by two orders of magnitude in frequency. Whether one uses the Mother Jones methodology or FBI crime statistics, the numbers of what has been long understood to be a “mass shooting” are in the low single digits to the teens, and have been for decades. Until now.
Recent articles have again weighed in on this issue:
By this new specious definition of “mass shooting”, this event now counts as a “mass shooting”:
1 person killed. At least 3 people, and a firearm, involved. Another “mass shooting” that will be added to the list of “mass shootings”, recast in the public discourse on the same level as Columbine or Sandy Hook.
Perhaps it is time to redefine the term “mass shooting”? Why? Because there are more shootings? No. There are less shootings, overall. Less deaths by firearms.
So while overall gun violence and gun deaths have actually decreased — yes, decreased — over the last decade, redefining “mass shooting” reframes the debate to make it seem that we are in the midst of a growing crisis-level epidemic of mass shootings, which is then invariably used to urgently argue for gun control laws and measures, which, by definition, would only impact the legal and Constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens.
Nearly all of the contemporaneous commentary on the San Bernardino shooting — which itself is related to international terrorism, on the basis of early federal law enforcement statements — are lamenting that mass shootings are a “new normal” that we have shamefully accepted as a nation.
That is FALSE. Completely, categorically false.
First, mass shootings — using the actual, meaningful definition of what a “mass shooting” even is, as understood legally, statistically, and functionally for decades in academic and legal discussions, which is more than 3 people being killed where the intent of the killer is just that: to murder people — are exceedingly, vanishingly rare and anomalous events. In fact, many of the deadliest mass shootings in history have not even been in the US at all. Now, general gun violence? Yeah, we have a huge problem with that, compared to nations with no, or virtually no, private gun ownership. (Is that really a surprise?)
Second, mass shootings with an international terrorist motivation or nexus have zero to do with domestic gun control arguments, in the context of a free and open society with a Constitutional right for its citizens to bear arms, and 350 million+ existing privately-owned firearms — specifically, that people who desire to do bad things with firearms will always be able to do so, especially if executing an attack is their aim. We are an open society that lets people move about freely and generally do what they want, and we are a society that has lots of guns, and has for its entire history.
The urgent calls for gun control are based on a fabricated narrative that relies on the false belief that mass shootings are a growing epidemic which constitutes a national crisis. Retorts that even if gun deaths have decreased, we still have a lot of them and should be trying to do something about it may be true, as far as it goes. But the calls to “do something about it” are using an utterly false premise — an epidemic of “mass shootings” — as a catalyst for action. People offering condolences and prayers are shamed, while others predictably and feverishly call for immediate movement on gun control.
So what do we do about it, as a society? And why is this important?
Because these disingenuous tactics sully, polarize, and pervert any possibility for honest, dispassionate discussion on what can or should actually be done about gun violence — before any discussion can even begin. (Like this does.)
Many question the interpretation of the Second Amendment as an individual right, or point out the landscape has changed in 200+ years. The legal and practical application of other rights have expanded with the advance of technology — the right to free speech and freedom of the press didn’t stop with one’s own vocal cords or the printing press. And unlike rights like those described in the First and Fourth Amendments, every new type of technology developed since the Founding Fathers’ time has not, in fact, been grandfathered into the understanding of the Second, with the exception of conventional, non-automatic firearms. There is a universe of weapons, and a dizzying array of guns, not envisioned by the Founding Fathers — and still not covered by the Second Amendment. Nor should they be.
New restrictions in the form of laws will, by definition, only impact law-abiding citizens. In a nation with more privately owned firearms than people, criminals and the mentally ill will continue to get weapons to perpetrate occasional “mass shootings”, which appear to be the catalyst for every new call for gun control. To be clear, the thing people expect would “stop” if only we “did something” would be the one statistically small facet of our gun problem that would never stop or abate in any way.
If politicians who advocate for gun control aren’t for “taking people’s guns” or drastically rolling back “gun rights”, some would ask why are they always referencing, and sometimes outright praising, other nations that have no, or virtually no, private firearm ownership rights at all?
What’s worse, when it is discussed in the national media — the same media which has now adopted the Reddit definition of “mass shooting” for US shootings — the comparisons are not even on even footing, such as this in the New York Times:
“The oft-cited statistic in Australia is a simple one: There have been no mass killings — defined by experts there as a gunman killing five or more people besides himself — since the nation significantly tightened its gun control laws almost 20 years ago.”
Interesting. Why are we using their “expert” definition, and not the new-fangled Reddit definition, which includes the shooter, counts injuries (not just deaths), and completely disregards motive or circumstances as well? If we use that same definition and apply it to the US over the same time period — the last 20 years — the US has had 1.75 mass shootings per year. Not “over 350 per year”. Not “at least one every day”. Under 2 — per year. (If we use the traditional US definition, which our “experts” use, there are two more mass shootings included in the last two decades.) For a country with 320 million people, versus Australia’s 23 million.
(As an aside, Tim Fischer, a former Australia deputy prime minister, has called for travel warnings for Australians visiting the United States, saying, “352 mass shootings in the USA so far this year but about 80 a day you don’t hear about.”)
The response here may be “even one is too many”. Vague platitudes aside, why are the comparisons to Australia, which are implicitly (or explicitly) urging a need for massive new US gun restrictions to stop “mass shootings”, not even using the same criteria for mass shooting? “Look, the US has had over 350 mass shootings this year, and Australia has had zero! We need to do something!”
The evidence is clear that states with more gun restrictions do have lower overall gun violence, aside from urban areas:
So, certainly we can discuss what it would take to address overall gun violence. But the debate has often been so dishonest, it is difficult to talk about, much less study, objectively.
Universal background checks, closure of so-called “loop holes”, and registration can make a significant dent in gun violence. Many would agree we can and should do what’s required — such as closing the so-called “gun show loop hole” — to prevent people on consolidated terror watch lists, such as the No Fly List, from legally purchasing weapons, which itself is an extremely complex problem. But many people won’t talk about those things because they hear the rhetoric that comes from a lot of gun control advocates, which essentially amounts to a wish that we really could somehow “take all the guns”, and that the Second Amendment ever getting interpreted as an individual right was a national mistake, so any “restrictions” — especially registration — are a stepping stone to the eventual goal.
The problem is that a lot of the positions and policy proposals of people who are “pro gun control” are based on this false premise: that “mass shootings” are a massively growing epidemic, so we desperately need “gun control”, whatever that is, to stop them. But they are not. They are only in the sense that we have had this strange redefinition of what a mass shooting even is, so that now a gang member killing one person and injuring two others in a drug feud, and perhaps getting injured himself, is counted as a “mass shooting”. Some might say, I don’t care what you call it: it has to stop. But again, even gun deaths and gun violence, overall, have decreased, and in the last decade especially.
So if we are trying to continue to reduce gun deaths and gun violence, that is a reasonable goal. But let’s have those discussions against the clear backdrop of acknowledgment that gun ownership is, in fact, a Constitutional right with equal footing as the right to free speech and freedom of assembly, and the right from unreasonable search and seizure. People don’t have to agree with it, but that’s the nice thing about rights: it’s not mandatory to exercise them; you just can’t infringe on others’ rights to do so. We do temper all of these rights with the law to various degrees. The First and Fourth amendments are tempered in various ways for what has been judged the good of society. So is, and so further can be, the Second.
But when within the first half hour of the San Bernardino shooting we already have talking heads and politicians calling for “gun control” as if something like this event is happening every day, and happening more frequently, that is based on a lie. Two lies, in fact. Because conventional gun control efforts — all the “common sense” restrictions in the world, if we could ever agree on them — will not stop anomalous events like mass shootings, and mass shootings are not more common. If the idea is to never let a good crisis go to waste, so to speak — to use mass shootings as a convenient jumpstart for further talk about gun control, which may positively impact non-mass-shooting gun violence — I can understand that.
But it’s a dishonest tactic, and part of the reason that some gun owners are suspicious of any efforts for gun control: because they believe the real motivation is not just to have “common sense restrictions”, but to eventually have enough inertia behind “anti-gun” attitudes to excise guns from society. Some might ask, what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with it is that there are a lot of ways that we could be a much more orderly society, and also less free. That’s not what we are as a nation. As trite as it may sound, freedom is a messy thing. Perhaps as a nation we would have handled the gun issue differently two hundred years ago, knowing then what we know now. This is not to say we can’t change for the better, but the first order of business is for people to stop looking down their noses at their fellow law-abiding citizens if they choose to exercise one of their Constitutional rights.
Unless we could snap our fingers and magically make all 350 million+ firearms disappear, only the law-abiding citizens will be impacted by new laws, and criminals or people without the mental faculties to tell right from wrong will continue to kill, and occasionally mass-kill.
The President has again called on the country to “search ourselves as a society”, an oblique reference to the need for movement on gun control, and is seeking to use executive authority to do so — even though the proposed measures would not have impacted the San Bernardino incident, which is, in turn, being used as the justification for action.
Any debate on gun control needs to start from an honest place:
- We are a nation with a long-established legal and Constitutional individual right to bear arms.
- This right, irrespective of whether one exercises it or personally agrees with it, is on equal legal, practical, and historical footing as all other Constitutional rights.
- We are a nation with more privately owned firearms than people.
- Because of this, we have a problem with guns being used for violence.
- The tens of millions of law-abiding citizens who own guns are not the problem. (Sometimes, they even stop or prevent shootings before they become actual mass shootings. And before you dismiss this, read it.)
- Gun violence (of the non-“mass shooting” kind) and “mass shootings” (to say nothing of international terrorist incidents) are largely unrelated, uncorrelated issues — they only thing they share in common is the use of a firearm.
- Using “mass shootings” to argue for measures that would never realistically impact mass shootings is fundamentally dishonest.
- Ignoring factors like total population, social factors, mental health, motive, and so on, in comparisons — and not even using the same criteria for comparisons — is not a logically valid basis for discussion.
- Many of the deadliest mass shootings have not even occurred in the US, and have occurred in places with virtually no private gun rights of any kind.
- If the actual goal — which it is for some — is eventual cultural shunning and eventual elimination of firearms, that is not compatible with the free society we have established — warts and all.
- If we believe that the United States can and should do more to further reduce already-declining overall gun violence, redefining key metrics for understanding the problem, using unrelated incidents to argue for unrelated controls, false comparisons, and treating fellow citizens exercising their Constitutional rights as the enemy, is not an honest place.
Redefining “mass shootings”, and then using that as a catalyst for unrelated action, is fallacious and dishonest in discourse in a democratic society. To whatever extent there are other liars in the national discourse, that does not excuse this lie, in any form.
The author is academic staff at the University of Wisconsin—Madison and an officer in the United States Navy. Normally, he argues about the F-35 on the internet. The views expressed herein are his own.
Dave Schroeder | @daveschroeder | firstname.lastname@example.org