What Constitutes a Mass Shooting and Why You Should Care

What Constitutes a Mass Shooting and Why You Should Care

By: Tristan Bridges, Tara Leigh Tober, and Nicole Wheeler

Originally posted at Feminist Reflections.

How many mass shootings occurred in the United States in 2015? It seems like a relatively simple question; it sounds like just a matter of counting them. Yet, it is challenging to answer for two separate reasons: one is related to how we define mass shootings and the other to reliable sources of data on mass shootings.  And neither of these challenges have easy solutions.

As scholars and teachers, we need to think about the kinds of events we should and should not include when we make claims about mass shootings.  Earlier this year, we posted a gendered analysis of the rise of mass shootings in the U.S. relying the Mass Shootings in America database produced by the Stanford Geospatial Center. That dataset shows an incredible increase in mass shootings in 2015. Through June of 2015, we showed that there were 43 mass shootings in the U.S. The next closest year in terms of number of mass shootings was 2014, which had 16 (see graph below).  That particular dataset relies heavily on mass shootings that achieve a good deal of media attention.  So, it’s possible that the increase is due to an increase in reporting on mass shootings, rather than an increase in the actual number of mass shootings that occurred.  Though, if and which mass shootings are receiving more media attention are certainly valid questions as well.

Mass Shootings (Stanford) 1If you’ve been following the news on mass shootings, you may have noticed that the Washington Post has repeatedly reported that there have been more mass shootings than days in 2015. That claim relies on a different dataset produced by ShootingTracker.com. And both the Stanford Geospatial Center dataset and ShootingTracker.com data differ from the report on mass shootings regularly updated by Mother Jones.* For instance, below are the figures from ShootingTracker.com for the years 2013-2015.

Mass Shootings, 2013-2015 (ShootingTracker.com)1For a detailed day-by-day visualization of the mass shootings collected in the ShootingTracker.com dataset between 2013 and 2015, see below (click each graph to enlarge).

Mass Shootings 2013

Mass Shootings 2014

Mass Shootings 2015

 

The reason for this discrepancy has to do with definition in addition to data collection.  The dataset produced by the Stanford Geospatial Center is not necessarily exhaustive.  But they also rely on different definitions to decide what qualifies as a “mass shooting” in the first place.

The Stanford Geospatial Center’s Mass Shootings in America database defines mass shootings as shooting incidents that are not identifiably gang- or drug-related with 3 or more shooting victims (not necessarily fatalities) not including the shooter.  The dramatic spike apparent in this dataset in 2015 is likely exaggerated due to online media and increased reporting on mass shootings in recent years.  ShootingTracker.com claims to ensure a more exhaustive sample (if over a shorter period of time).  These data include any incidents in which four or more people are shot and/or killed at the same general time and location.  Thus, some data do not include drug and gang related shootings or cases of domestic violence, while others do.  What is important to note is that neither dataset requires that a certain number of people is actually killed.  And this differs in important ways from how the FBI has counted these events.

Neither ShootingTracker.com nor the Stanford Geospatial Center dataset rely on the definition of mass shootings used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Supplementary Homicide Reporting (SHR) program which tracks the number of mass shooting incidents involving at least four fatalities (not including the shooter). The table below indicates how different types of gun-related homicides are labeled by the FBI.

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 2.05.18 PMOften, the media report on events that involve a lot of shooting, but fail to qualify as “mass murders” or “spree killings” by the FBI’s definition.  Some scholarship has suggested that we stick with the objective definition supplied by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  And when we do that, whether mass shootings are on the rise or not becomes less easy to say.  Some scholars suggest that they are not on the rise, while others suggest that they are.  And both of these perspectives, in addition to others, influence the media.

One way of looking at this issue is asking, “Who’s right?”  Which of these various ways of measuring mass shootings, in other words, is the most accurate?  This is, we think, the wrong question to be asking.  What is more likely true is that we’ll gather different kinds of information with different definitions – and that is an important realization, and one that ought to be taken more seriously.  For instance, does the racial and ethnic breakdown of shooters look similar or different with different definitions?  No matter which definition you use, men between the ages of 20 and 40 are almost the entire dataset.  We also know less than we should about the profiles of the victims (those injured and killed).  And we know even less about how those profiles might change as we adopt different definitions of the problem we’re measuring.

There is some recognition of this fact as, in 2013, President Obama signed the Investigative Assistance for Violent Crimes Act into law, granting the attorney general authority to study mass killings and attempted mass killings.  The result was the production of an FBI study of “active shooting incidents” between 2000 and 2013 in the U.S.  The study defines active shooting incidents as:

“an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.” Implicit in this definition is that the subject’s criminal actions involve the use of firearms. (here: 5)

The study discovered 160 incidents between 2000 and 2013.  And, unlike mass murders (events shown to be relatively stable over the past 40 years), this study showed active shooter incidents to be on the rise.  This study is important as it helps to illustrate that the ways we have operationalized mass shootings in the past are keeping us from understanding all that we might be able to about them.  The graph below charts the numbers of incidents documented by some of the different datasets used to study mass shootings.

Mass Shootings Comparison

Fox and DeLateur suggested that it is a myth that mass shootings are on the rise using data collected by the FBI Supplementary Homicide Report.  We added a trendline to that particular dataset on the graph to illustrate that even with what is likely the most narrow definition (in terms of deaths), the absolute number of mass shootings appears to be on the rise. We do not include the ShootingTracker.com data here as those rates are so much higher that it renders much of what we can see on this graph invisible.  What is also less known is what kind of overlap there is between these different sources of data.

All of this is to say that when you hear someone say that mass shootings are on the rise, they are probably right.  But just how right they are is a matter of data and definition.  And we need to be more transparent about the limits of both.

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*Mother Jones defines mass shootings as single incidents that take place in a public setting focusing on cases in which a lone shooter acted with the apparent goal of committing indiscriminate mass murder and in which at least four people were killed (other than the shooter).  Thus, the Mother Jones dataset does not include gang violence, armed robbery, drug violence or domestic violence cases.  Some have suggested that not all of shootings they include are consistent with their definition (like Columbine or San Bernardino, both of which had more than one shooter).

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Masculinity and Mass Shootings in the U.S.

By: Tristan Bridges and Tara Leigh Tober

Originally posted at Feminist Reflections.

Following the recent mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17th, 2015–a racially motivated act of domestic terrorism–President Barack Obama delivered a sobering address to the American people. With a heavy heart, President Obama spoke the day following the attack, stating:

At some point we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. And it is in our power to do something about it. I say that recognizing that politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now. But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge. (here)

President Obama was primarily referring to gun control in the portion of his speech addressing the cause of attacks like this. Not all mass shootings are racially motivated, and not all qualify as “terrorist” attacks—though Charleston certainly qualifies.  And the mass shooting that occurred a just a month later in Chattanooga, Tennessee by a Kuwati-born American citizen was quickly labeled an act of domestic terrorism. But, President Obama makes an important point here: mass shootings are a distinctly American problem. This type of rampage violence happens more in the United States of America than anywhere else (see here for a thorough analysis of international comparisons). And gun control is a significant part of the problem. But, gun control is only a partial explanation for mass shootings in the United States. Mass shootings are also almost universally committed by men.  So, this is not just an American problem; it’s a problem related to American masculinity and to the ways American men use guns.  But asking whether “guns” or “masculinity” is more of the problem misses the central point that separating the two might not be as simple as it sounds.  And, as Mark Follman, Gavin Aronsen, and Deanna Pan note in the Mother Jones Guide to Mass Shootings in America, the problem is getting worse.

We recently wrote a chapter summarizing the research on masculinity and mass shootings for Mindy Stombler and Amanda Jungels’ forthcoming volume, Focus on Social Problems: A Contemporary Reader (forthcoming, Oxford University Press). And we subsequently learned of a new dataset on mass shootings in the U.S. produced by the Stanford Geospatial Center. Their Mass Shootings in America database defines a “mass shooting” as an incident during which an active shooter shoots three or more people in a single episode. Some databases define mass shootings as involving 4 shootings in a single episode. And part of this reveals that the number is, in some ways, arbitrary. What is significant is that we can definitively say that mass shootings in the U.S. are on the rise, however they are defined. The Mother Jones database has shown that mass shootings have become more frequent over the past three decades.  And, using the Stanford Mass Shootings in America database, we can see this trend here (below) by relying on data that stretches back a bit further.

Mass Shootings FrequencyAdditionally, we know that the number of victims of mass shootings is also at an historic high (below).Victims of Mass ShootingsWe also produced a time-lapse map of mass shootings in the United States illustrating both where and when mass shootings have occurred using the Stanford Geospatial Center’s database to illustrate this trend over time (see below).

Our map charts mass shootings with 3 or more victims over roughly 5 decades, since 1966. The dataset takes us through the Chattanooga, Tennessee shooting, which brought 2015 to 42 mass shootings (as of July).* The dataset is composed of 216 separate incidents only 5 of which were committed by lone woman shooters. Below we produced an interactive map depicting all of the mass shootings in the dataset with brief descriptions of the shootings.

In our chapter in Stombler and Jungels’ forthcoming book, we cull existing research to answer two questions about mass shootings: (1) Why is it men who commit mass shootings? and (2) Why do American men commit mass shootings so much more than men anywhere else?  Based on sociological research, we argue that there are two separate explanations–a social psychological explanation and a cultural explanation (see the book for much more detail on each).

A Social Psychological Explanation–Research shows that when an identity someone cares about is called into question, they are likely to react by over-demonstrating qualities associated with that identity.  As this relates to gender, some sociologists call this “masculinity threat.”  And while mass shootings are not common, research suggests that mass shooters experience masculinity threats from their peers and, sometimes, simply from an inability to live up to societal expectations associated with masculinity (like holding down a steady job, being able to obtain sexual access to women’s bodies, etc.)–some certainly more toxic than others.  The research on this topic is primarily experimental.  Men who are brought into labs and have their masculinity experimentally “threatened” (see here for more details) react in patterned ways: they are more supportive of violence, less likely to identify sexual coercion, more likely to support statements about the inherent superiority of males, and more.  This research provides important evidence of what men perceive as masculine in the first place (resources they rely on in a crisis) and a new kind evidence regarding the relationship of masculinity and violence.  The research does not suggest that men are somehow inherently more violent than women.  Rather, it suggests that men are likely to turn to violence when they perceive themselves to be otherwise unable to stake a claim to a masculine gender identity.

A Cultural Explanation–But certainly boys and men experience all manner of gender identity threat in other societies.  Why are American boys and men more likely to react with such extreme displays?  To answer this question, we need an explanation that articulates the role that American culture plays in influencing boys and young men to turn to this kind of violence at rates higher than anywhere else in the world.  This means we need to turn our attention away from the individual characteristics of the shooters themselves and to more carefully investigate the sociocultural contexts in which violent masculinities are produced and valorized.  Men have historically benefited from a great deal of privilege–white, educated, middle and upper class, able-bodied, heterosexual men in particular.  Social movements of all kinds have slowly chipped away at some of these privileges.  So, while inequality is alive and well, men have also seen a gradual erosion of privileges that flowed more seamlessly to previous generations of men (white, heterosexual, class-privileged men in particular).  Michael Kimmel suggests that these changes have produced a uniquely American gendered sentiment that he calls “aggrieved entitlement.”  Of course, being pissed off about an inability to cash in on privileges previous generations of men received without question doesn’t always lead to mass shootings.  But, from this cultural perspective, mass shootings can be understood as an extremely violent example of a more general issue regarding changes in relations between men and women and historical transformations in gender, race, and class inequality.

Mass shootings are a pressing issue in the United States.  And gun control is an important part of this problem.  But, when we focus only on the guns, we sometimes gloss over an important fact: mass shootings are also enactments of masculinity.  And they will continue to occur when this fact is combined with a sense among some men that male privilege is a birthright–and one that many feel unjustly denied.

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*The mass shootings in Charleston, South Carolina in June of 2015 and Chattanooga, Tennessee in July of 2015 were not in the dataset when we received it.  The data ran through May of 2015.  So, we’ve added the Charleston and Chattanooga shootings into the dataset for the graphs and maps on this post.