It hardly takes a criminologist to recognize that 2017 was an especially tragic year when it comes to deadly mass shootings. With 58 killed at a Las Vegas music festival, 25 gunned down during a church service outside of San Antonio, and eight people fatally shot at a cookout in a Dallas suburb, the year recorded the most deaths from gun-related mass killings in modern U.S. history.
As if 2017 wasn’t bad enough, an updated version of the “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” in which 17 were killed and 14 more were wounded at a Parkland, FL, high school, has many observers believing that the trajectory of mass murder signals worse times ahead.
Of course, the aggregate toll of 174 murder victims from last year’s 22 mass killings, using the longstanding definition of four or more killed by a gun-wielding assailant in a single episode, will likely prove to be an aberration. After all, a third of the year’s fatalities came at the hands of one individual. The fact is, that rate of mass killing hasn’t changed in decades, according to our data and research by the Congressional Research Service.
Yet whatever the rate, these incidents, by virtue of their enormity and the extensive media coverage afforded them, easily drive public opinion and fuel public anxiety.
The widely held belief that there is an upward trend in deadly massacres is a product of media misrepresentation and public misunderstanding. In the past few years, following each major mass killing involving firearms, the print and electronic media, desperate for sidebar material to serve as an audience hook, have reported that over 300 mass shootings occur every year, nearly one a day. Frightening figures like these are culled from the Gun Violence Archive with its alternative definition of mass shooting as four or more people shot, but not necessarily killed.
In fact, in nearly half of the Archive’s 1,333 mass shootings from 2014 through 2017, no one was killed, not even the gunman. And in over three-quarters of the cases, at most one person perished.
Because these statistics are typically quoted at times when America is reeling from a deadly shooting with large numbers killed, the audience is easily confused. It is like comparing watermelons to grapes; they are both fruits but of very different size. As a result, many people make the improper inference that something like the Las Vegas massacre occurs with great regularity, hundreds of times a year. The public doesn’t appreciate the nuance surrounding competing definitions; people are just scared.
A Gallup survey taken in the wake of last October’s massacre in Las Vegas found that 39 percent of respondents expressed fear of a family member or themselves becoming a mass shooting victim, and one-quarter of those reported being very worried.
Some consensus over the definition of mass shooting is sorely needed.
Only adding to the mass confusion, the media has become obsessed with a related term “active shooter” the modern-day bogeyman armed to kill. As defined by the FBI, an active shooter is a gunman who (presumably) has designs to kill a lot of people. However, most fail to fulfill their deadly mission. Of the 220 active shooter events between 2000 and 2016 identified by the FBI), as many as 50 resulted in no one being murdered and another 51 claiming the life of just one victim.
Fueling the sense of panic, the FBI research noted that the number of active shooter events has tripled since 2000, a finding that was frequently mischaracterized in the press as a rising tide of mass shootings. However, the reported increase in active shooter incidents is based on a deeply flawed data collection strategy: retrospective identification of cases from news archives for years well before the term active shooter became popularized.
The further back in time you go, the more cases that the FBI researchers overlooked. According to an analysis by John Lott, president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, three-quarters of the many cases missed in the FBI report were from the first half of the study period, biasing any attempt to discern a trend. For example, the FBI identified just one active shooter event from the initial year of the time frame—the December 2000 mass killing of seven employees of a Massachusetts tech firm by a disgruntled co-worker. It is hard to imagine that nowhere and at no time was there any other armed individual entering a school, workplace, restaurant, shopping mall or church during that year with an intent to commit a massacre.
The term “active shooter” was first used in the U.S. after the Columbine massacre, but until recently, rarely so. A search of major newspapers finds nearly 2,000 articles invoking the term over the past two decades, but more than 90 percent occurred since 2010 and nearly half in just the past two years. The term has likewise caught on with online sources. Since 2012, the number of references to active shooters in blogs and news websites has soared.
Television news has also gotten into the act. In some cases, “breaking news” would warn that an active shooter was on the loose at a college campus or a shopping mall. Minutes later, the report would be modified, when the shooter turned out to be gunning for a particular victim and was not on a rampage, or when the situation was determined to be a false alarm.
Putting some much-needed perspective as counterweight to the widespread epidemic-thinking about mass killings and active shooters is more than just a statistical exercise. Over-response can be seen on college campuses large and small, in schools of all levels, in workplaces and elsewhere as more and more adults and children are being subjected to active shooter drills or being trained to “run, hide, fight” should that armed bogeyman appear.
As soon as the “active shooter” term has been applied to a violent situation, rational thinking tends to be transformed into widespread alarm and mass chaos.
In June 2016, for example, CNN reported the presence of an active shooter on the UCLA campus inside a faculty office on the fourth floor of its engineering building. Shortly before 10 am, the school issued a campus-wide alert urging its 50,000 students and employees to avoid the area. There was a massive police response, with hundreds of officers searching the campus and dozens of patrol cars ringing the area.
Fearing the uncontrolled presence of an active shooter, the campus was placed on lockdown. Three elementary schools and a hospital in proximity to UCLA were also locked down. Students unable to secure themselves in a safe area ran for their lives from campus. Many were in tears under the assumption that they were in imminent danger. At the time, everybody seemed convinced that a deranged gunman was on the move, searching to kill large numbers of students, faculty, and anyone else who got in his path.
The killer turned out to be a graduate student who was furious about perceived mistreatment by a faculty advisor and sought revenge through the barrel of a gun for what he considered to be an act of profound injustice. The disgruntled student wasn’t on a rampage. He had no other victims in mind. This was a personal attack aimed at a particular individual. After shooting his faculty advisor, the student then took his own life.
As it happened, by the time that the active-shooter alert was launched, the so-called active shooter on campus was already dead and therefore was not very active at all. Yet this did not prevent thousands of intelligent college students from reacting to a threat they believed to be nothing less than a bloody campus-wide massacre.
James Alan Fox, a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors, and Jack Levin, co-director of the Brudnick Center on Violence, are professors at Northeastern University and co-authors of Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder.They welcome comments from readers.