The American way of death: Assessing 2015 mass shootings in the United States

December 22, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 22, 2015

The gun massacre in San Bernardino, Calif., that left 14 dead on Wednesday, Dec. 2, followed shootings and a five-hour-long siege at Colorado Springs, Colo., Planned Parenthood clinic that left three dead on Nov. 27. And that attack, of course followed one at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., that left 10 dead on Oct. 1.

But it’s not as if gun violence in America took a two-month holiday between Roseburg and Colorado Springs. In attempt to understand the extent of mass shooting incidents in America, I went to the Gun Violence Archive and downloaded its data on 2015 mass shootings.

The site defines a mass shooting as an incident in which four or more people are “shot and/or killed in a single event [incident], at the same general time and location not including the shooter.” I realized afterward that what truly interested me were what the archive categorizes as mass murders, in which four or more people are “killed in a single event [incident], at the same general time and location not including the shooter.”

The archive hasn’t broken out data on gun massacres (as I will call them) separately from mass shootings, but I did some number crunching using their information. I found that there had been 300 mass shootings in which 341 people were killed and 1,212 injured.

I noticed a few discrepancies when I looked at the data. For one thing, the front page of the Gun Violence Archive lists 309 incidents, not the 300 that I tabulated. The earliest mass shooting in the data I downloaded from the archive occurred on Jan. 11, which is also the earliest mass shooting displayed on the website’s table of mass shootings.

When I looked at this Rolling Stone mass shooting list based on the website Mass Shooting Tracker, which appears to be offline, I found nine incidents that occurred from Jan. 1 through Jan. 10. So for some reason, the website did not include the earliest mass shootings of 2015 in its exported data. Nor could I get the website to show me those shootings.

My second qualm relates to the deadliest shooting of 2015, the San Bernardino massacre, in which 14 victims and the two shooters were killed. The Gun Violence Archive lists this incident as having a death toll of 16 and an injury count of 21, which I suppose is accurate. However, that entry raises some questions in my mind about how carefully the site’s data is tabulated. Perhaps there are a few mass shootings in the Gun Violence Archive compilation that include the shooter or shooters, thereby violating the site’s own criteria.

There is, by the way, no widely agreed-upon definition for a mass shooting. The Gun Violence Archive’s criteria seems sensible to me, but I’m less satisfied with that of the aforementioned Mass Shooting Tracker. The tracker intentionally counts the perpetrator in its tally of the dead and injured and allows any injury to the shooter to count toward its criterion of a minimum of four people being killed or wounded.

On Friday evening, Kevin Schaul of The Washington Post addressed the fact that there is no universally accepted standard and offered an alternative — an interactive tool based on Reddit users’ compilation of shooting data that allows shooters to set their own definition.

I had two issues with this tool, however. The Post lists the number of mass shootings in 2015 based on criteria that the user can adjust, but it doesn’t give the overall number of deaths and injuries that resulted from the relevant incidents — a serious oversight, I feel. Also, on perhaps a more pedantic level, many of the Post’s numbers didn’t square with my calculations.

At any rate, my noodling around with the Gun Violence Archive information, however flawed it may be, resulted in the following summary table of mass shooting incidents in the United States in (most of) 2015:

Summary table, U.S. mass shootings calendar year 2015 to date — tally of incidents, deaths and injuries. Note: Data covers incidents in the United States from Jan. 1, 2015, through Dec. 3, 2015.

I plan in the coming days or weeks to compare American mass shooting deaths to overall gun deaths in other developed nations. I strongly suspect that even applying such criteria, which eliminate most American gun deaths while counting all gun deaths in other nations, the U.S. will turn out to have an oversized body count.

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