Courtesy of Occupy Democrats, with over 28,000 likes and 23,000 shares. This meme claims that there have been 355 mass shootings this year in the US (as of December 3rd), an average of more than one a day. Other, more respected outlets also picked up this stat, including the Washington Post. In examining this claim, there is some truth to it, but when the full context is exposed, any fair person will see it’s extremely misleading and dishonest.
What is a Mass Shooting?
It turns out there is no standard, accepted definition of “mass shooting”. This results in dramatically different statistics depending on the criteria one uses. Traditionally, the FBI defined a mass shooting as a single attack where 4 or more victims were killed. In 2013, the Obama Administration lowered their definition to 3 or more victims killed.
There are other factors to consider as well. Should gang violence and drive-by’s be counted in mass shootings? How about a robbery, where the criminal engages in a shootout with the cops? Or a family murder, which make up the majority of these incidents? When most people hear the word “mass shooting”, they immediately think of a Newtown or San Bernardino type incident, where a crazed gunman goes into a public space and shoots a bunch of innocent people. Not a situation where the shootings were incidental to another crime, or in a family home. This makes the whole term hard to define, and ripe for biased groups to mislead for political purposes.
If we use the traditional FBI definition, we find 29 mass shootings so far in 2015, according to a USA Today study. However, most of these are family murders. If we use a more restrictive definition, one more suited to the public’s notion of a mass shooting, there have been 4 such cases in 2015, according to a Mother Jones’ study endorsed by the New York Times.
There is really no correct statistic here, but ask yourself what do you think of when you hear “mass shooting”, and go with the corresponding data.
How do they get 355 mass shootings?
By using a different definition! It turns out this statistic comes from a group on Reddit called GunsAreCool, which is mirrored on the website Shooting Tracker. This is not an official source, but a pro-gun control group who compile news stories from around the country involving shootings. According to the New York Times, the founder of this project, “Billy Speed”, told them, “Three years ago I decided, all by myself, to change the United States’ definition of mass shooting.”
This new definition includes 4 or more people killed or injured in a shooting. Their rationale is that a shooting means just that; a shooting. Instances like San Bernardino should be considered “mass killings”. There is some logic to this, but without giving context to the statistics, it ends up grouping events that no reasonable person would consider “mass shootings”, considering the media reports events like Newtown and San Bernardino with the same name. The GunsAreCool statistics are also based largely on local news media stories, which can be flawed, particularly since many of these incidents are relatively minor and don’t warrant any follow-up media investigation. They are not from more objective sources, like FBI crime statistics.
Here are just some examples of the “mass shooting” incidents included in the Shooting Tracker’s statistics, and this meme:
- 1 dead and 3 injured in an argument over a dice game in Nashville.
- 1 dead and 3 injured in a failed home robbery attempt in Illinois, where teens on a sleepover were shot.
- 4 injured in a 2:40 am shooting outside a club in Kansas City, due to an argument.
- 4 injured in a drive-by shooting in south Chicago.
- 4 injured when a San Antonio man shot their feet in an argument over a woman in a hookah bar at 3:45 am.
A truly ridiculous example included in their 2013 statistics involved 2 boys, aged 11 and 12, who shot 4 people with a pellet gun. Clearly, this measure of “mass shootings” is not what a reasonable person would consider it to be, particularly when it’s trotted out right after a tragedy like the San Bernardino shooting. The vast majority of them include drive-by shootings, robberies or drunken arguments. By looking at their data, the Meme Policeman found that out of the 355 mass shooting events cited in this meme, 147 resulted in zero fatalities! By not giving the full story, this number is deceiving, and meant to have the viewer draw their own, erroneous conclusion.
Clearly, any shooting is a tragedy, but given the full context, this meme should be considered blatant propaganda by any reasonable person, and an example of lying with statistics.