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The debate over how to define mass shootings is ridiculous

The aftermath of the San Bernardino shooting on December 4, 2015.
The aftermath of the San Bernardino shooting on December 4, 2015.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

On Thursday, Mark Follman claimed in the New York Times that Vox, other news outlets, and the Mass Shooting Tracker are wrong, and there haven't been 353 mass shootings in 2015. Instead, Follman wrote that there have only been four mass shootings this year, based on a database he helped build at Mother Jones.

How could two organizations come to such tremendously different numbers for mass shootings? As Vox's Dylan Matthews explained, it all depends on which definition you use. Follman prefers a very narrow definition, in which an event only counts as a mass shooting if you only include shootings in which four or more people are killed and exclude domestic, gang, and drug violence. Some criminologists, such as Northeastern University professor James Alan Fox, prefer to include any shooting in which four more people are killed.

Personally, I prefer — and this is reflected in Vox's map — a definition that includes any event in which four or more people are shot, not necessarily killed. I have a hard time understanding why this wouldn't be the definition. Events in which four or more people are shot seem to meet a very plain reading of the term "mass shooting." The only legitimate gripe I can think of is whether four is the right number for "mass" — maybe there's a case for making it three, five, six, or higher.

Whatever the case, only including shootings in which a certain number of people were killed seem ridiculously arbitrary. As the Mass Shooting Tracker explains, "For instance, in 2012 Travis Steed and others shot 18 people total. Miraculously, he only killed one. Under the incorrect definition of mass shooting, that event would not be considered a mass shooting! Arguing that 18 people shot during one event is not a mass shooting is absurd."

Follman argues that expanding the definition of mass shootings too much makes it harder to narrow down and research trends for certain kinds of mass shootings that may be on the rise. But I'm not sure why researchers and experts couldn't do that kind of work by just looking at specific events on their own. After all, they're going to have to do that kind of narrowing down anyway — even under Follman's definition, which includes shootings as varied as white supremacists going into predominantly black churches to kill people, religious extremists attacking others at military bases, and workplace massacres.

But as I've written before, this entire debate is ridiculous. A shooting is a shooting. The broader problem is that the US has levels of gun deaths that are far beyond what any other developed country deals with — even though we know that gun control policies could help bring down the number of gun deaths.

America's levels of gun violence are unique in the developed world

America has far more gun homicides than other developed countries.

Javier Zarracina/Vox

No other developed country in the world has anywhere near the same rate of gun violence as America. The US has nearly six times the gun homicide rate of Canada, more than seven times of Sweden, and nearly 16 times of Germany, according to UN data compiled by the Guardian. (These gun deaths are a big reason America has a much higher overall homicide rate, which includes non-gun deaths, than other developed nations.)

In fact, no other developed country comes close to the levels of gun violence, including suicides, that America has, as this chart from Tewksbury Lab shows:

The correlation this chart demonstrates — more guns mean more gun deaths — has been backed by a lot of research. Whether at the state or country level, reviews of the evidence by the Harvard School of Public Health's Injury Control Research Center have consistently found that places with more guns have more deaths after controlling for variables like socioeconomic factors and other crime. "Within the United States, a wide array of empirical evidence indicates that more guns in a community leads to more homicide," David Hemenway, the Injury Control Research Center's director, wrote in Private Guns, Public Health.

This is widely believed by experts to be the consequence of America's relaxed policy approach to and culture of guns: Making more guns more accessible means more guns, and more guns mean more gun deaths. Researchers have found this is true not just with gun homicides but also with suicides, domestic violence, and even violence against police.

At the same time, other developed nations have had some big successes curtailing gun violence by reducing the number of guns. After a 1996 mass shooting in Port Arthur, Australia, killed 35 people and wounded 23 more, lawmakers passed new restrictions on guns and imposed a mandatory buyback program that essentially confiscated people's guns, seizing at least 650,000 firearms.

According to one review of the evidence by Harvard researchers, Australia's firearm homicide rate dropped by about 42 percent in the seven years after the law passed, and its firearm suicide rate fell by 57 percent. Although it's hard to gauge how much of this was driven by the buyback program, researchers argue it likely played some role: "First, the drop in firearm deaths was largest among the type of firearms most affected by the buyback. Second, firearm deaths in states with higher buyback rates per capita fell proportionately more than in states with lower buyback rates."

In the aftermath of mass shootings, these are the facts and numbers we should focus on. Trying to argue about the definition of mass shootings misses the broader point that America stands out in terms of gun violence — in large part due to political and cultural decisions that have left us with far too many guns.

Watch: America's biggest gun problem is the one we don't talk about