You're not about to die in a mass shooting.
James Alan Fox 10:19 a.m. EDT
December 7, 2015
Only an absurdly
broad definition yields media-touted statistic of hundreds of mass shootings
I'm getting rather tired of hearing that there have been
several hundred mass shootings thus far this year more than one a day on
average, whenfewer than two dozen of these incidents are mass killings. I'm
also tired of having to point out that, without any historical benchmark
prior to 2013 for this newer and seemingly popular notion of mass shooting,
it is easy to think that the problem is growing out of control.
two narratives out there. One claims that mass shootings are rampant and on
the rise while the other says that mass shootings are rare and trendless.
One is based on unofficial data of questionable reliability while the other
originates from a careful assemblage of official crime reports.
construct an argument that a mass shooting doesn't technically require any
fatalities at all, as the promoters of the three-year-old crowd-sourced Mass
Shooter Tracker suggest. For that matter, why not go even further and say
that a mass shooting need not have any injuries despite a gunman's attempt
to shoot into a crowd. However, without diminishing the impact of non-lethal
attacks, if there are no fatalities (as is the case in over one-third of the
Internet-based tracker incidents), why obsess over something that can be
If we choose to treat injuries as deaths but for some
poor aim or good luck, then why even keep statistics on the homicide rate
rather than just lumping them together with assaults? In a related arena,
why do we focus on highway fatalities and not combine them with highway
injuries? Obviously, death is different and it should be treated as such.
Defining mass shooting as four or more people killed or injured, as the
shooting tracker does, would include an incident in which four sustain
minor, non-life-threatening injuries but would exclude the murder of three
victims. Of course, three killed would not be included in the traditional
and long-accepted definition of mass shooting as four or more killed either,
but then neither would the four injury case. Although the four-victim
threshold is somewhat arbitrary, the fatality element is not. And, of
course, there are varying degrees of injury from a bullet grazing to
something debilitating, whereas death is a more singular (and permanent)
What I find both amazing and disturbing is the sudden traction
and attraction of the broader, scarier yet flawed approach to defining mass
shooting. It trivializes the unparalleled seriousness of large-scale mass
killings by pooling them with the kind of shooting events that occur on a
more or less daily basis in America.
They say that no news is good news.
It appears more accurate to say that good news is no news, and that bad news
is big news. It is no surprise that questionable statements about a
one-a-day rate of mass shootings is a headline grabber. But why is it that
rational people seem ready to embrace this idea? Why do we choose to think
in epidemic terms and why do we prefer frantic over calm? It must say
something about our need for drama, excitement and a break from the daily
buzz in which even ordinary crimes seem mundane and uninteresting.
the preference for making matters seem worse is somewhat akin to why some
people love a scary movie or riding upside down on a towering roller
coaster. Of course, you really are safe in your comfy living room chair
watching the monster devour Cleveland and (reasonably) safe strapped into a
small metal vehicle high above the fairground.
As for the risk of mass shooting, it is also
something we need to keep in perspective. About 100 Americans, on average,
are killed each year in mass shootings out of a population of over 300
million. I kind of like those odds.
Most people will live their entire
life without personally knowing anyone gunned down in a mass killing. For
most of us, we can talk about epidemics without feeling personally
threatened. Mass slaughters, like last week's shooting in San Bernardino,
are tragedies we witness on television, not real life. In terms of threat to
the viewer, it might as well be a movie.James Alan Fox is the Lipman
Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University
and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors. He is co-author of
Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder.