The Washington Post and several other media outlets made hay after Wednesday’s shooting in San Bernardino by claiming the attack was the 355th mass shooting in the U.S. since the beginning of 2015. The reality is a lot more nuanced.
Post reporter Christopher Ingraham doesn’t disguise the argument he’s trying to make.
“Speaking after the Colorado Springs shooting last week, President Obama urged Americans to not let this type of violence ‘become normal,’” Ingraham writes. “But the data show that this type of incident already is normal. There have been more mass shootings than calendar days so far this year.”
The implication of the Post’s reporting was that San Bernardino wasn’t a stand-out event, but instead just the latest incident in a nearly daily deluge of so-called “mass” shootings. The Post’s narrative was imitated by several other outlets, such as the Los Angeles Times and NBC News.
Things aren’t so simple, though. First of all, the Post’s definition of a “mass shooting” isn’t an official one taken from law enforcement, but is instead taken from activists operating on the website Reddit. The activists, who track shootings at the website Shooting Tracker, define a mass shooting as any shooting where 4 or more people are injured or killed.
This is a critical sleight of hand that ends up disguising the reality of most shootings. While “mass shooting” conjures images of bloodbaths like San Bernardino, Sandy Hook, or Columbine, 147 of the shootings tracked by Shooting Tracker actually didn’t result in a single death.
More than 40 percent of all 2015’s mass shootings didn’t kill anybody. Another 104, just under 30 percent, had a single fatality, which means more than two-thirds of all “mass shootings” aren’t even multi-homicide events.
Of the 355 “mass shootings” noted by the Post, only 40 of them (about 11 percent) meet the threshold of a “mass murder” as defined by the FBI, meaning there were at least four fatalities. But even these weren’t all mass shootings in the conventional sense. As pointed out by the Washington Free Beacon, many of them were instead grisly murder-suicides, gangland massacres, or robberies, eliminating at least 15 more “mass shootings” from the list.
The FBI found only 160 “active shooter incidents” between 2000 and 2013, when gang-related shootings were excepted, but those where nobody was shot or killed were included.
The Washington Post uncritically mentioned the high number of shootings while adding no additional context or explanation, and ignoring the nuance of the Shooting Tracker’s numbers.