Please note that this is an unfinished opinion piece by Lord Gøn.
Following the mass shooting at a church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015, US president Barack Obama issued a statement in which he uttered the claim "that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency.” This assertion was contested immediately, especially by gun rights activists, and hence gave rise to a controversial debate in the US media and general public about its factuality, a dispute that remains unresolved even after a number of researchers have chimed in with their opinions.
One major issue with the above-cited statement is the vagueness of the phrase "this type of mass violence" which enables everybody to interprete it in their preferential way. The public discourse, not unexpectedly, soon narrowed down on gun violence and especially the perceived epidemic of "mass shootings", a term that itself is problematic due to its undefinedness and thus does little to decomplicate the situation. Many news outlets cited the data compiled at shootingtracker.com as evidence that there has been on average more than one mass shooting in the United States per day, a claim that subsequently generated its own controversy. As a consequence a new discussion emerged on the sideline that revolved around the question what actually constitutes a mass shooting.
This debate may have been long overdue and in the best case will result in a clarification of the terminology used to describe various shades of a specific type of crime that has long been known in Southeast Asia as "amok" and as such found its way into many tongues, including the English. Nonetheless, while other European languages settled on a word in this matter a long time ago, including "amok" in Dutch and German, "tuerie" in French, and "strage" in Italian, the English language to this day struggles to find a common denomination, and during the last one hundred years has changed the preferred term with astounding frequency: "Desperado" in the late 19th century, "amuck" in the early 20th, "berserk" and "rampage" in the decades after World War II, "shooting spree" since the 70s, and nowadays "mass shooting" (not to speak of all the technical terms that sprouted throughout history without managing to establish themselves in the scientific community).
All along its development the terminology became ever more restrictive and specialized, and typologies were developed to differentiate between certain sub-types of mass killing, but an overarching term that would incorporate all of them failed to materialise. It may be somewhat understandable that the discussion in the United States focuses predominantly on shootings, as they constitute the most frequent form of amok there by a large margin and thus pose the biggest issue, but in my eyes it is unnecessarily constricting the discourse to an, admittedly significant, part of this extreme form of human behaviour that shows quite a large spectrum of variability in its expression. Especially if you try to compare the incidence of amok in different areas, restricting the data to shootings causes a massive bias, as the most common method of execution varys from country to country and from era to era. For example, mass murders committed with hand grenades are a non-issue in the United States, but occurred frequently in Laos during the 60s, and Thailand during the 70s, and while China sees mass stabbings on a regular basis in America they are a much rarer occurrence, particularly when compared to mass shootings.
Anyway, the question what actually is a mass shooting cannot be answered satisfactorily and there may never be a definition that pleases everyone. Even while the "shooting" part may be unambiguous in the context that somebody used a gun, it does not specify if any of those shot must have died. However, before the term became synonymous with running amok with a firearm it was mostly used in reference to mass executions. What puts the "mass" in "mass shooting" now is entirely subject to anyone's personal judgement, with the only constraint that it is certainly more than one, and probably more than two persons – of course, given enough pedantry you could also claim that "mass shooting" merely means that a large number of people has fired guns, or that one person has fired a significant amount of bullets, but I suppose that is irrelevant for this discussion.
The definitions and data mostly cited in the media during the discussion were those by:
- shootingtracker.com – A mass shooting is when four or more people are shot in an event, or related series of events, likely without a cooling off period. This may include the gunman himself.
- James Alan Fox – Four or more killed by gunfire, not including the perpetrator.
- Mother Jones – The attack must have occurred essentially in a single incident, in a public place and had to have taken the lives of at least four people. Excluded are crimes of armed robbery, gang violence, or domestic violence in a home.
- John R. Lott – Four or more people killed, and not in the course of committing another crime, and not involving struggles over sovereignty.
In the end, each of these definitions may have its justification, depending on your goal, or the angle from which you want to look at the problem. From a criminological, or psychological point of view the definition used by shootingtracker.com may be of little value, since the dynamics behind gang-related shootings are probably vastly different from those of familicides, or indiscriminate mass murders. However, when looking at the issue from the point of gun control, gun laws, and gun distribution, the background of each shooting is likely of little interest, as it is the weapon, and not the perpetrator that is in your focus.
Problem with Fox's definition: Arguing that 18 people shot during one event is not a mass shooting is absurd Problems with shootingtracker.com definition Problems with Mother Jones definition Even though their claim that other definitions are incorrect comes across as pretty presumptuous I do think they have a point when they mass shootings with many injured, It should be noted that the following statistics say little to nothing about the incidence of multiple casualty shootings committed during the heat of rthe moment, as most rampage attacks are committed only after much deliberation and brooding. For rampage killings the old journalistic saying that One Englishman is a story. Ten Frenchmen is a story. One hundred Germans is a story. One thousand Indians is a story. Nothing ever happens in Chile." holds obviously true, as even cases from Africa with 10 or more people killed rarely get much or any attention from the western media. Regarding the dat from Mother Jones I have little else to say than what I have written here.
“Four people with minor injuries, they count it, but three people killed, they don’t count it,” Fox said of Mass Shooting Tracker's criteria. “Everyone would agree three people killed is worse than four people with minor injuries.... It's really blending together apples with watermelons.”“If you’re one of the victims of a mass killing, it doesn’t matter if a person kills you is a brother or a stranger; you’re just as dead,”
Data: Mass shootings in Switzerland with 4+ killed since 1980: April 16, 1986: Günther Tschanun kills four, wounds one in Zürich. August 31, 1990: Richard Breitler killed five, wounds four in Zürich and Rickenbach, before committing suicide. March 4, 1992: Erminio Criscione kills six, wounds six in Rivera. September 27, 2001: Freidrich Leibacher kills 14, wounds 18 in Zug, before committing suicide. February 27, 2013: Viktor Berisha kills four, wounds five in Menznau, before committing suicide.
Mass shootings in Norway: Björn Braskerud August 20, 1988: A 23-year-old kills four, wounds two in Farsund July 2011: Anders Behring Breivik Nobody would say that a country has a worse problem with terrorism, just beacuase of a single, even though terrible case in the last fifty or one hundred years, than one that is by it on a daily or weekly basis
Mass shootings in Australia: November 12, 1918: Thomas Coolon kills four in Mount Coolon. August 9, 1987: Julian Knight kills seven in Melbourne. December 8, 1987: Frank Vitkovic kills eight in Melbourne. August 17, 1991: Wade Frankum kills seven in Strathfield April 28, 1996: Martin Bryan kills 35 people in Port Arthur
- ↑ GunsAreCool, Reddit
- ↑ James Alan Fox: Umpqua shooting - a tragedy, not a trend, USA Today (October 5, 2015)
- ↑ What Exactly Is a Mass Shooting?, Mother Jones (August 24, 2012)
- ↑ Comparing Death Rates from Mass Public Shootings and Mass Public Violence in the US and Europe, crimeresearch.org (June 23, 2015)
- ↑ Public Law 112–265, congress.gov (January 14, 2013)
- ↑ Has the U.S. had 4 mass shootings this year or 353? Estimates vary that much, Los Angeles Times (December 4, 2015)
- ↑ Comparing U.S. mass shootings to the rest of the world, MSNBC (June 23, 2015)
- ↑ Is Barack Obama correct that mass killings don't happen in other countries?, PolitiFact.com (June 22, 2015)
- ↑ Obama’s inconsistent claim on the ‘frequency’ of mass shootings in the U.S. compared to other countries, The Washington Post (December 3, 2015)
- ↑ Myths of American gun violence, New York Daily News (June 24, 2015)
- ↑ PolitiFact Goes 1-For-2 In Evaluation Of Obama's Mass Shootings Statement, The Huffington Post (June 22, 2015)
- ↑ 5 Things Obama Didn’t Mention When He Blamed America for the Charleston Shooting, [] ()
- ↑ Mailbag: 'What complete and utter nonsense', PolitiFact.com (July 3, 2015)
- ↑ Comparing Death Rates from Mass Public Shootings and Mass Public Violence in the US and Europe, [] ()
- ↑ What makes a ‘mass shooting’ in America, [] ()
- Why Can't Anyone Agree How Many Mass Shootings There Have Been In 2013?, reason.com (September 19, 2013)
- The debate over how to define mass shootings is ridiculous, Vox (December 4, 2015)
- Have there been 353 mass shootings this year — or just 4?, Vox (December 4, 2015)
- How Many Mass Shootings Are There, Really?, The New York Times (December 3, 2015)
- The number of ‘mass shootings’ in the U.S. depends on how you count, The Washington Post (December 4, 2015)
- The math of mass shootings, The Washington Post (December 4, 2015)
- Term mass shooting confuses public and masks phenomenon, USA Today (December 3, 2015)
- Here’s Why No One Can Agree on the Number of Mass Shootings, The New Republic (October 3, 2015)
- What Is A Mass Shooting? Multiple Victims Are Killed By Guns In US Nearly Every Day, International Business Times (December 2, 2015)
- You're not about to die in a mass shooting: James Alan Fox, USA Today (December 7, 2015)