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December 6, 2015
Mass shootings in the U.S. this year? 353 — or 4, depending on yourdefinition
By Jeffrey Weiss
Source: The Dallas Morning News
Minutes after the San Bernardino attack, a meme rocketed through the Internet, as it
has after every recent major shooting: America, it said, has averaged more than one
mass shooting a day in 2015.
That’s an idea that feeds into hard-wired human fear reactions. Homo sapiens have a
keen ability to search for patterns of danger. Surely there’s a pattern we can find in
that many shootings that would guide changes in public policies or private behaviors?
Maybe not. In fact, most of those “mass shootings” look nothing like San Bernardino
and a lot like tens of thousands of fewer-victim examples of firearm-related violence in
And searching in vain for a common thread in the high-casualty examples may derail
even basic discussions about how to prevent them, some experts say.
So how many “mass shootings” have there been in the U.S. this year? That depends
on the definition. One widely seen version says there had been 353 as of Saturday,
the 339th day of the year. By another respected definition, there had been four.
Using any definition, the likelihood of being caught in a mass shooting remains
exceedingly rare, even compared with other kinds of shootings. More than 32,000
people have been killed and more than 67,000 injured by firearms each recent year in
But the public reaction does not follow the logic of the numbers, said Dr. Garen
Wintemute, a longtime researcher into the effects of gun violence and director of the
Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California at Davis.
“Public mass shootings don’t allow us to distance ourselves, so they have a hugely
disproportionate effect on the public’s attitude,” he said.
Wintemute uses figures from a Congressional Research Service report to illustrate
how unlikely it was to become the victim of a mass shooting in 2014: 1 in 10 million,
compared with at least 335 in 10 million for homicides and 670 in 10 million for
And yet, he says, people want to connect the relatively few dots of mass killings in
search of something helpful. Even though most of the events are actually no more
connected than the stars in a constellation.
“I use constellation-making as my example of our need to see patterns even when
they aren’t there and to imbue them with meaning,” Wintemute said.
That’s where the meme comes in. The count that fuels it comes from a crowdsourced
database, shootingtracker.com, that seeks to list every incident in which at least four
people were hit by bullets — killed, wounded or grazed.
In Texas, the shootingtracker site lists 21 “mass shootings” in 2015. Almost all fall into
sadly mundane categories: domestic violence, gang conflicts, battles over a girl,
robberies gone bad, drug-related arguments, fights that ended in gunplay.
Only one of this year’s Texas examples carries the whiff of random carnage: the
massacre of six people at an Anderson County campsite last month.
Other than bullets, what does that event have in common with any of the other Texas
shootings on the database? Much less with the San Bernardino attack, which has all
the markings of politically and religiously inspired terrorism? Is there anything that
connects all mass shootings that would make it possible to prevent future
occurrences? Or that should prompt us to change our lives?
These are not simple questions. Start with the definition of a “mass shooting.”
Three other private databases have the same general mission as shootingtracker.
com. The Stanford Mass Shootings site counts events with at least three people killed
or wounded, not including the shooter, that aren’t identifiably gang- or drug-related.
The Gun Violence Archive counts incidents in which four or more people are shot and
wounded or killed, not including the shooter. Mother Jones counts only cases in which
a lone (or sometimes paired) shooter has killed at least four people in a public place.
Gang, drug and domestic violence are not counted.
For years, federal statistics counted four or more deaths as a mass shooting. That
has been reduced to three or more.
Researchers admit there’s something arbitrary in all of these measures. Why three or
four victims? Why not two or 10? Why count only the dead, given that the difference
between an injury and a fatal wound may be only a matter of inches? Why exclude
gang killings but not politically inspired attacks, such as the 2009 Fort Hood shooting
in which 13 people died?
No method is “correct.” It all depends on what you want to measure and how you want
to use the results. Focus tightly on specific kinds of shootings or broaden the criteria
to include less-similar events? Based on the Internet response, the larger number has
great emotional resonance.
Which leads back to the question of how many mass shootings there have been this
year. Shootingtracker has the count at 353. Mother Jones counts four.
Consider three of the Texas “mass shootings” from the shootingtracker site.
On Feb. 25, a man went to his neighbor’s house in Killeen, where his wife was visiting.
He shot the three people who lived there, dragged his wife back to his house and
killed her and then himself.
In November 2013, at a house party near Houston, someone shot into the air in
celebration, police said. Others at the party thought they were being shot at and
“returned fire.” Two dead, 19 injured.
And last month, according to police reports, family and friends were camping in
Anderson County when a man joined them, shared drinks, used his truck to pull theirs
from the mud, and then slaughtered them. But even this terrifying account may
involve a disagreement about who owned the campsite land.
All “mass shootings.” Pistols and long guns; passion, greed and stupidity;
premeditated and near-random.
What pattern connects them? Maybe nothing but easy access to firearms and
Some advocates of greater control of firearms say that’s pattern enough, that
tightening access to guns would reduce all shootings — mass and otherwise.
But if the definition is narrowed enough, there are some useful patterns in a small
subset of these events, said Pete Blair director of the Advanced Law Enforcement
Rapid Response Training Center at Texas State University in San Marcos.
He uses a different term that is also employed by the FBI: “active shooter.”
Of course, all shooters are active at some point. But Blair is focused on attempted
indiscriminate mass murder — whether successful or not. So the number of victims isn’
t even an issue. Only 40 percent of “active shooters” killed at least three other people
in recent years, he said.
By Blair’s count, the United States has had about 18 active shooters a year for the
last several years. That’s up significantly from his count from a decade or more ago,
but the difference may be partly due to the ability to pull together the information, Blair
These shooters generally have a beef with something or somebody, he said. And
though they have a main target, they are willing and maybe even eager to kill others.
Blair teaches law enforcement officers how to deal with the rare and dangerous active
shooters. He also has some advice for the general public: Spend a little time thinking
about how to be more mindful of your surroundings. Like Wintemute, he turns to the
way our brains are wired.
“The thing we always tell people in preparation events is your brain has hundreds of
thousands of years of evolutionary survival strategies programmed into it,” he said.
In other words, if something doesn’t feel right, pay attention. And tell somebody. But
don’t overthink the danger of a mass shooting, he said.
“People shouldn’t be fearful. They should be aware,” he said. “You can’t allow this
kind of thing to run your life.”
On the other hand, that active shooters or mass shootings are rare doesn’t mean
they shouldn’t have an important impact on pubic policy, Blair said.
“After all, we changed our fire codes because of a few major events,” he said. And
that has surely saved lives.
Wintemute agrees that even a somewhat irrational fear of mass shootings can have
“Don’t just let that fear dissipate; transmute it into action,” he said. “If you want a free,
safe society, you have to fight for it. You have a powerful weapon — democracy’s
weapon. It’s your vote. If your representatives aren’t representing your views on this,
replace them with others who will.”
Staff writer Christine Ayala in Washington contributed to this report.