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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.[1]
  • James Alan Fox – Four or more killed by gunfire, not including the perpetrator.[2]
  • 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.[3]
  • John R. Lott – Four or more people killed, and not in the course of committing another crime, and not involving struggles over sovereignty.[4]

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.

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References

Further reading

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