Mass shootings are extremely rare in America. But you wouldn’t know that if you listened to politicians and much of the media. Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said in a recent Senate hearing on gun control that there had been 309 mass shootings in America so far this year. CNN reported that “U.S. mass shootings are on pace to match last year—the worst ever.”
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said on the floor that there were 13 mass shootings across the country in just one weekend. Major media outlets like The New York Times, NBC News, and ABC News all reported on the—allegedly—“hundreds” of mass shootings this year.
All of this sounds like a national crisis and terrifying to the public, but fewer than 100 people a year are killed in mass shootings in America. While the horrific murder of young children in their school in Uvalde and the innocent people killed in a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park are terrible tragedies, those events do not mean people are at a high risk of being mass shooting victims.
The way in which politicians who want more gun control bills deliberately scare people about mass shootings is by citing a made-up definition and using statistics from an unofficial database called the Gun Violence Archive.
Defining 'Mass Shooting'The standard government definition of “mass shooting” is four or more people killed in a public place who are chosen indiscriminately.
Gun Violence ArchiveThe biggest change came when the Gun Violence Archive (GVA) changed the definition in its widely cited online database. It considers a “mass shooting” any incident in which there are “four victims shot”—not killed.
Also, it includes the crime categories the CRS said are not relevant.
“The Gun Violence Archive’s definition of ‘mass shooting’ can be misleading since it counts among their numbers gang-related crimes, officer-involved cases, and self-defense usages,” said Oliva. “That leads to a much larger figure being used by Gun Violence Archive, but presents the information without context. This can be confusing for readers since many accept the information as an instance of a lone individual preying on multiple people. That isn’t always the case, especially when looking at gang-related and drug-related incidents.”
Mass Shooting StatisticsThe Rand Corporation did a study on the various groups that count mass shootings and looked at how their definitions changed the results. In 2019, the seven main trackers reported mass shootings for the year ranged wildly from six to 503. Those same groups reported victims of mass shootings that year were as far apart as 60 and 628.
But for mass shootings, the first statistics came from the CRS report in 2013. It looked at the previous three decades and identified a total of 78 public mass shootings that claimed 547 lives.
This graphic shows the data for the most recent 10 years from DoJ and the Violence Project. You can see there have been a total of 55 mass shootings and 516 victims in a decade. (The total number of victims was 108 in 2017 because of the horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas in which 58 people were killed.)
Now that so much of the media use the GVA numbers, there is more political and media attention on the rare events. Mass shootings get drastically more focus than the bigger issue of the enormous homicide and crime spike in America. Victims of mass shootings are a tiny percentage of all people killed by firearms each year, as seen in the following graphic.
Media Hype Over Mass Shootings“It bleeds, it leads” is a common saying in the news business to describe how crime is good for ratings. This is partly why the media has been doing such extensive coverage of the three mass shootings this year in Buffalo, Texas, and Illinois.
While major TV networks use the GVA statistics now, the print media is not as sold into the new system.
The “more than 300 mass shootings this year” story has been run repeatedly by media around the country because it sounds terrifying. But the stories don't say how many victims are involved.
Before the GVA existed, the 2013 congressional report concluded that “While tragic and shocking, public mass shootings account for few of the murders related to firearms that occur annually in the United States.”
Mass shootings are horrible and terrifying for the communities where they occur. The Rand study said the impact of mass shootings is damaging to citizens' mental health, anxiety, and perception of safety. However, the fact is that the risk of dying in one is extremely unlikely.