by Justin Hinckley, LPNC 2A Issues Coordinator
This article is meant as a sort of "pocket guide" for mass shooting discussions. As with any discussion worth having, this is one full of minute details, individual data points that require contextual understanding, and an incredible degree of nuance. With the citations, examples, and discussion in this article I hope to provide easily memorized and transferable data for casual conversations, since that is where most of these discussion happen. It is a difficult thing to expect any one person to have a wide and deep understanding of something as complex as "mass shootings." Therefore, it is our responsibility as the comparative experts in our families and social groups to disallow strong opinions from those who are almost totally ignorant of actual facts without challenging such stances at every opportunity.
MYTH: Mass shootings are shootings that occur at schools, churches, malls, and other similar high-profile vulnerable targets which kill a lot of people.
FACT: There is no agreed upon "official" definition of a mass shooting. It is a media term, not a legal, criminal, or scientific term. On its website, the US DOJ (without a reference to where it is published) cites the FBI (via a report written by a known partisan anti-gun group) as defining a mass shooting as any single shooting event that injures four or more people with a gun (1)(2). The FBI itself uses the term mass killing, since they have no definition for mass shooting, whose definition is laid out in US code in 28 USC 530C: "three or more killings in a single incident."(3).
For the purposes of this article, we will call the "four or more people shot in a single incident" the simplified definition of a mass shooting. As we can see from the myriad issues of simply ascribing a definition, we can tell this is a hazy and confusing topic. Part of the issue in discussing mass shootings, active shooters, school shootings, public shootings, etc. is the realization that any definition one uses will inevitably include multiple shootings that the user feels are not appropriate to the goal of the definition and will exclude multiple shootings which the user feels are relevant to the goal of the definition. For example, a quick search finds multiple instances of bystanders stopping shooters before they can meet the official definition of "mass shooting," but which met the template of what many consider to be a mass shooting.
A key element of most discussions surrounding mass and school shooters is the specific goal of the shooter of death and destruction for their own sake. The overwhelming majority of mass shootings in the US are actually related to more pedestrian criminality such as those tied to drug trafficking and gangs, which just happens to injure or kill four or more people (4). While we do not want to flippantly dispense with these examples of mass shootings, to say they are relevant to the discussion of young men entering schools (and other notably unarmed and usually peaceful places) with the intent of randomly killing as many people as possible is either vastly disingenuous or wildly ignorant.
In recent years, The Violence Project adopted one of the more robust definitions of mass public shooting, written by the Congressional Research Service:
"a multiple homicide incident in which four or more victims are murdered with firearms—not including the offender(s)—within one event, and at least some of the murders occurred in a public location or locations in close geographical proximity (e.g., a workplace, school, restaurant, or other public settings), and the murders are not attributable to any other underlying criminal activity or commonplace circumstance (armed robbery, criminal competition, insurance fraud, argument, or romantic triangle)." (5)(6).
This definition provides a useful tool for what most people mean when they talk about mass shootings, dispensing with the inadequate (but usefully deceptive) simplified definition. For the purposes of this article, we will call The Violence Project’s definition the robust definition.
To see why these differences in definitions matter we can look at the disparity in results of gathering data using each definition. According to the Gun Violence Archive, which uses the simplified definition, so far in 2023 there have been 597 mass shootings (6). In 2022, there were 645. Contrast that to the data assembled by The Violence Project: 191 mass shootings so far in 2023. Oops, no wait that was 2022. Dang, messed up again THAT’S HOW MANY MASS SHOOTINGS HAVE OCCURRED SINCE 1961! All of them. That’s right, 62 years of data reveals a paltry sum of shootings compared to what manipulative politicians and corporate media constantly berates us with. Using the robust definition (which more accurately categorizes the types of shootings we generally mean when we say “mass shooting”), you get fewer shootings in 62 years than you do in a few months using the simplified definition! For comparison’s sake, in 2022 there were seven mass shootings and so far in 2023, there have been eight using the robust definition. 597 mass shootings with the simplified definition compared to eight with the comprehensive definition in 2023 so far. 645 versus seven for 2022.
The corporate media and politicians will of course point out they aren’t lying: they haven’t said that all 597 mass shootings this year were school shootings, or shootings which meet a more specific definition. Or that they all targeted unarmed people in public places at random. All shootings which kill four or more people are bad, aren’t they?! This misdirection is an attempt to paint anyone who addresses their deception as being callous, uncaring, and dismissive. They use the vagueness to their advantage and to avoid responsibility. While they’re not lying outright, they’re also not being honest.
MYTH: Good guys with a gun don’t really exist and they pretty much never stop mass shootings.
FACT: Bystanders regularly intervene in mass shootings. According to the Crime Prevention Research Center armed citizens stopped 35.7 percent of past active shooter events (8).
Good guys with guns tend to stop pretty much all mass shootings and some crime, if we were to include law enforcement in the definition. Since I am honest in my discussion, I can acknowledge that including law enforcement in the "good guy with a gun" might draw mixed reactions. But it is worth noting for anyone who says even if you had a gun, you couldn’t stop someone else with a gun. That is an idiotic statement mean to dismiss the idea of self-defense.
If we were to confine the good guy with a gun definition to that of only bystanders who are carrying a firearm for general purposes, there is still substantial data indicating it happens regularly. Yet again we are faced with a long breakdown of a seemingly simple fact. According to the FBI’s yearly report “Active Shooter Incidents in the United States in 2022”, 4.6 percent (14 incidents) of active shooter incidents were stopped by armed citizen involvement (2). One of these is the infamous Greenwood Mall shooting in Indiana, stopped by Elisjsha “Eli” Dicken. In an analysis of the above-cited FBI reports, The Crime Prevention Research Center states that from 2014 to 2022 armed citizens stopped 35.7 percent (157 incidents) of active shooter events (8). The Gun Violence Archive so far this year have identified 1,022 defensive gun uses. They do not break out further to identify how many of these involved a mass shooting or likely mass shooting. There is little in the way of specific data related to mass shootings here as well, but the CPRC is certainly a leader. Currently, they host a web page documenting hundreds of specific instances of armed citizens stopping active shooters (9).
Of note here is also the rhetorical tool of citing individual, relatable incidents. To create an understanding of the reality of good guys with guns in action, we need real examples to recall in conversation. We already discussed the saga of Elisjsha Dicken, who stopped a mall shooter with 10 rounds from his concealed handgun at 40 yards (10). An example of someone stopping a mass shooting before it met any common definition is Jack Wilson who stopped the West Freeway Church of Christ shooting in Texas. The shooter stood up during Sunday service and shot two people in two seconds and within four seconds Wilson stood up and fired one round, hitting the shooter in the head from 15 yards (11). An example of someone stopping a mass shooting from transitioning to a second location, Stephen Willeford stopped the First Baptist Church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas. The shooter was leaving the church after killing over 20 people and Stephen Willeford shot him twice with his AR-15 rifle. Following the initial engagement, Willeford and another bystander pursued the shooter with a vehicle until the shooter crashed, then took his own life (12).
MYTH: AR-15s are the chosen weapons of mass shooters.
FACT: Handguns are the chosen weapons of mass shooters. According to the Violence Project, AR-15s have been used in 28 percent of mass shootings (13).
In the interest of honesty, the trend of using AR-15s in mass shootings is rising. It is not unexpected, as the very things that make AR-15s good rifles for peaceful citizens also make it a good rifle for mass shooters. Compared to the historic favorite, handguns, AR15s have greater magazine capacity and are easier to shoot quickly and accurately because of the ability to stabilize the gun.
Once again corporate media and politicians often avoid the label of "lying" when they say mass shooters "prefer" AR-15s, a statement of opinion about what sort of preferences a third party has. The implication is of course the analysis of preference is based on how often the AR-15 is selected. Occasionally they stumble into the outright lie of stating AR-15s are used more often in mass shootings, which we see here is clearly false. More importantly, this particular point of how often this or that gun is used is an attempt to misdirect rather than discuss the underlying issues. Whether it is an AR-15 or a handgun, mass shootings are often so deadly more due to the unarmed nature of the selected populations and locations and less because of the specific firearm.
This point is merely addressed by the anti-gun crowd because decades of fighting for handgun bans in the 80s and 90s led to absolute defeat due to an inability to understand people want to be able to arm themselves for daily self defense when out in public. Now, the anti-gun people want to focus on AR-15s because they believe it is a more achievable target then handguns. My prediction is that, like handguns, it will take the anti-gunners way too long to realize that they do not have the pulse of Americans in pursuing bans on the most popular rifle in the US, despite their treacherous tactics of misleading people about what guns are used how often in mass shootings.
MYTH: Almost all mass shooters are white.
FACT: Once again using The Violence Project’s data, we find as a per capita ratio, white people are underrepresented as mass shooters. While 60 percent of the general population is white, 53 percent of mass shooters are white (13).
I decided to add this myth after I wrote most of the article because I stumbled on this data point while reviewing other data for this article. I never attempted to look up racial data of mass shooters, since I don’t find that to be a contributing or relevant factor in mass shootings. Prior to writing this article, if you made me guess the percentage of white representation in mass shooters, I would have probably said 75-85 percent.
This just illustrates how powerful the corporate media's propaganda is. I had never looked it up or even really discussed it, despite hearing it cited in personal conversations. I simply assumed it was true that almost every single mass shooter was white. The constant repetition of the "hundreds of white males murdering kids in schools with AR-15s" trope can burrow itself into your head, even if you spend uncommon amounts of time researching firearm and crime data. If you are not armed with the actual data then you may start to accept the crap the talking heads say, simply because it’s difficult to combat a narrative if you do not have a counter-narrative.
MYTH: There are hundreds of mass shootings every year.
FACT: There have been eight so far in 2023, and seven in 2022.
I’m adding this at the end because it is important to understand the malicious use of murky definitions and out of context data to drive fear and panic. As is the suspiciously common theme, we see that any subtopic in the "mass shooting" topic gets mired in the "what is a mass shooting" obstacle, and usually disintegrates into minutiae about specific guns and demographics following the inability to reach a suitable definition. If we define mass shootings using the simplified definition, there are hundreds of mass shootings per year. Corporate media likes this definition because it inflates the numbers massively, knowing if you were to look through each shooting individually, almost none of them would be akin to the types they cite in their reporting: Newtown, Pulse Nightclub, Uvalde, Sandy Hook, etc.
Just barely scraping the definition of lying, the special interests love being opaque here because they know most people are too busy to understand the many nuanced elements of their lies by omission and obfuscation. They know full well that when Americans hear "there have been X hundred of mass shootings so far this year," they’re envisioning several AR-15-armed white teenage boys walking into schools, hospitals, churches, and malls all across America and executing dozens of kids and families every single day.
They do this to summon emotional reactions and stoke fear, as fear blurs the mind and heightens emotionality, hence the constant calls to "do something," without any substantive policy prescriptions. At over 600 per year, it feels like just a matter of time before your kid’s school is shot to pieces, your chosen grocery store is preyed upon, your church is targeted, and on until you can barely walk outside without fear. After all, humans rapt in fear will shout down political opponents, dehumanize them, accuse them of being complicit in genocide or murder, and use shaming tactics to shut them up.
Well, I am not ashamed to support the idea that all Americans have the right to self defense and all peaceful adults should have the ability to arm themselves to effectively defend against would-be mass shooters. No amount of lies, manipulation, or intimidation will make me refrain from advocating for my fellow humans right to defend themselves with a firearm.
- Violent Crimes Act of 2012, 28 USC § 530C(b)(1)(M)(i): https://uscode.house.gov/view.xhtml?req=granuleid:USC-prelim-title28-section530C&num=0&edition=prelim