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What Qualifies As A Mass Shooting and Why It Matters

by R. Anthony Arnold
July 2022

What is a mass shooting? Is it a public shooting at a random place like the kind we saw in Texas and Buffalo? Or a domestic disagreement turned violent? Or a gang shooting? The answer is that it depends on who you ask.

If you look up the number of mass shootings, you’ll see there have been nearly 300 of them this year according to the Gun Violence Archive. This is also where you’ll see Democrat politicians and activists get their number from when they advocate for various policy responses. But that number includes all the examples listed above.

Websites like that one use the broadest criteria possible, which is any incident with “a minimum of four victims shot, either injured or killed, not including any shooter who may also have been killed or injured in the incident.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but it does complicate things considerably when talking about effective policy solutions.

Each of the three examples listed above have very different potential solutions, outside of just taking away people’s guns; which may not be something that’s possible in the United States. With that removed as an option, we’re left having to figure out specific fixes.

With public place shootings, we’ve seen suggestions before, red flag laws, background check laws and restrictions on the kinds of gun or the magazine capacity. All of these suggestions are meant to address the times where an individual walks into a publicly accessible place and shoots people. These incidents tend to be high profile, have the largest death tolls, and generate the most public backlash. So, it makes sense that they get the most attention and the most legislative action.

But, most of the potential fixes listed wouldn’t address the other examples mentioned in the opening paragraph. A domestic disagreement where a man, who already owns a gun, shoots his wife and 3 kids, while killing none, is a very different scenario. Further, an exchange of gunfire between multiple parties that’s an extension of the criminal activity related to gang violence is also going to require its own suite of responses. And yet, for statistical purposes, all of these get lumped into the same category.

There are two consequences of this. The first is that it muddies the water when discussing the issue. While some people may not object to using a broad methodology, there are others who think that counting this way exaggerates the number of mass shootings in this country. While it’s true that even with a more restrained counting method we’d still have more of these incidents than our peer countries, it’s also true that if we just counted the high profile random place shootings, the total number of mass shootings would be much smaller. The problem wouldn’t disappear, but it might appear manageable, if you're optimistic.

This leads to the second problem. Even if you address the most heavily covered public place shootings, the total number of mass shootings won’t decline much statistically. Because most mass shootings, as currently counted, aren’t of that type. Which means that even if legislatures do craft something that makes a difference, it won’t show up in the numbers we use. Meaning they won’t get credit for doing something. And when politicians don’t think there’s much to gain, they’re not very likely to do much of anything in the first place.

How we choose to count mass shootings matters. A good definition can help to provide focus and clarity, but it can also be used to make a broader point. Our current definition is very good at the latter, but there are some fair questions about how well it accomplishes the former. The danger in limiting it is also clear, though, as a needlessly restrictive meaning would give the illusion of progress where there wasn’t any.

There are no right or wrong answers here, but it’s worth keeping all of this in mind the next time you see the statistic floating around.