On Thursday morning, after the horrific mass shooting at Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, CA, where at least 12 people were killed at a party for college students from Pepperdine University, California State University Channel Islands, and California Lutheran University, a theme was sounded on Twitter that the terrible incident was the 304th mass shooting in 2018. That claim was often tied to the fact that Wednesday was the 312th day of the year, likely to indicate that mass shootings happen daily in America.
The statistic that the Thousand Oaks shooting was the 304th mass shooting in the United States may well have been derived from the Gun Violence Archive, which describes itself as a “not for profit corporation formed in 2013 to provide free online public access to accurate information about gun-related violence.”
Mass Shooting Tracker notes that Gun Violence Archive uses the FBI-derived definition: four or more shot and/or killed in a single event [incident], at the same general time and location, not including the shooter.
Mass Shooting Tracker continues, “This difference is that we do not count the shooter among the victims when determining if a shooting reaches the threshold of Mass Shooting. It insures a clear separation between victims of a shooting and those who perpetrate the crime. GVA also does not parse the definition to exclude any type of gun violence such as gang shooting or domestic violence. The definition is purely numerical and reflects ALL shootings which reach that statistical threshold.”
But the statistic that the Thousand Oaks shooting was the 304th mass shooting of the year bears some scrutiny. When reviewing the list from Gun Violence Archive, some of the incidents include gang warfare, and at least one incident on their list does not match the source material referenced.
This is not to say that the Gun Violence Archive is wholly inaccurate. They indeed do yeoman work charting shootings around the country, but the picture of a mass shooting held by the public is often not one of a gang warfare killing, but of the perpetrator entering a public place or a school and indiscriminately opening fire on a group of unsuspecting victims.
In early 2018, after the horrible shooting on February 14 at the Marjory Stoneman High School in Florida, the claim was often parroted by those pushing for harsher gun control that the shooting was the 18th school shooting of the year. Even former President Barack Obama, who consistently argued for harsher gun control laws, echoed the claim.
According to The Washington Examiner, when Obama spoke to the audience at the interventional cardiology conference, aka CRT 2018, at the DAR Constitutional Hall, he intoned:
If you ask me the thing that broke my heart, particularly when now I see there have been, and I've gotta update this, [...] 18 shootings in schools this year... this year! And for the medical community, you see the statistics. The leading causes of death among young people in this country have all but, [car] traffic starts going down and stabilizing, gun-inflicted fatalities where you combine suicide and gun violence, it just keeps rising.
But that claim was debunked by sites such as The Washington Post and snopes.com. The Post wrote, “The figure originated with Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit group, co-founded by Michael Bloomberg, that works to prevent gun violence and is most famous for its running tally of school shootings.” The Post noted how the claim had been bandied about by numerous figures on the political Left:
A tweet by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) including the claim had been liked more than 45,000 times by Thursday evening, and one from political analyst Jeff Greenfield had cracked 126,000. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted it, too, as did performers Cher and Alexander William and actors Misha Collins and Albert Brooks. News organizations — including MSNBC, ABC News, NBC News, CBS News, Time, MSN, the BBC, the New York Daily News and HuffPost — also used the number in their coverage. By Wednesday night, the top suggested search after typing “18” into Google was “18 school shootings in 2018.”
The Post then wrote bluntly, “It is a horrifying statistic. And it is wrong. Everytown has long inflated its total by including incidents of gunfire that are not really school shootings.”
When we looked into it, we found that although all the incidents involved the firing of weapons on school grounds, some bore little resemblance to what most of us would think of when we hear that a school shooting has taken place. Two were solely suicides, for example (one of which Everytown retracted on 15 February after the Washington Post pointed out that it occurred at a school that had been closed for several months). Three involved the accidental firing of a weapon. Eight resulted in no injuries. Only seven were intentional shootings that occurred during normal school hours.
The shooting in Thousand Oaks was frightening, tragic, and horrible. But it would seem to be important when discussing the use of guns in America to try to understand why the perpetrators commit these monstrous acts in addition to worrying about who has access to guns. And if a statistic might obscure the distinctions between various shootings, that doesn’t help Americans get any closer to solving the problem.