Mass Shootings—Which Are and Which Aren’t

Last updated on Thursday, April 14, 2022, at 6:55 PM by Webmaster.

As the number of shootings increases in the United States, the debate rages over what is and isn’t a mass shooting. Refer to resources on this Website and elsewhere for how different organizations define a mass shooting. Suffice it to say that they range from very conservative to very liberal and everything in between.

Until a federal agency, presumably the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), establishes a universal definition for mass shooting which should have happened decades ago when mass shootings first became prevalent, it’s left to a handful of organizations with very divergent opinions.

Generally, the incident data being used by these organizations doesn’t predate the mass shooting on August 1, 1966, at the UT Tower at the University of Texas, Austin, Texas, where 14 people were killed and 31 people were injured. Most of the dead people and all the injured people were shot from the perpetrators sniper perch on the 28th-floor observation deck of the UT Tower. It should be noted that the perpetrator stabbed his wife and mother to death at their respective homes prior to going to the University of Texas in Austin.

A The Washington Post article states that “In the 50 years before the Texas tower shooting (August 1, 1966), there were just 25 public mass shootings in which four or more people were killed, according to author and criminologist Grant Duwe. Since then, the number has risen dramatically, and many of the deadliest shootings have occurred within the past few years.”

However, for the sake of comparison, some of the current organizational definitions for a mass shooting would have included the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929 which involved the murder of seven associates and members of Chicago’s North Side Gang that occurred on Saint Valentine’s Day. It had to do with gaining control of organized crime in Chicago, Illinois, during Prohibition. What does that incident have to do with the December 14, 2012, mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where 26 people, including 20 first grade students and 6 staff members were killed, and 2 staff members were injured? It should be noted that the perpetrator shot his mother to death at their home prior to going to the Sandy Hook Elementary School. Regardless, the answer is nothing. Gang members, some of whom were led by the notorious Al Capone, protecting their turf for lucrative criminal enterprise has absolutely nothing to do with first graders in their elementary school classroom doing their reading, writing, and arithmetic (three Rs). Does it?

I think we can all agree that the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre (and a lot of like incidents) wasn’t a mass shooting. That is, gang members killing each other. Likewise, I think we can all agree that Sandy Hook Elementary School (and a lot of like incidents) was truly a mass shooting. That is, a shooter indiscriminately killing and injuring innocent bystanders in a public place.

Some would argue that a school shooter student and a workplace shooter employee who kill and injure fellow students and colleagues have some degree of connection or history with the shooter, so they’re not truly innocent bystanders, but they were nonetheless untargeted.

As recently as May 9, 2021, a perpetrator killed six people at a birthday party inside a private residence in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The number killed (six) definitely qualifies as a mass shooting but the location (a private residence) definitely doesn’t qualify it as a mass shooting.

Anyway, there are plenty of incidents that have been labeled as mass shootings but aren’t.

We need to have a mass shooting criteria that truly differentiates all the incidents. Certain incident characteristics must define a mass shooting, and it’s not the number killed (which is far too often prioritized), and which is debatable.

First and foremost, a mass shooting must result in death and injury to innocent bystanders. While one of more victims might have been initially targeted it seems that the vast majority must be in the innocent bystander category. For instance, a disgruntled employee who goes to his workplace to kill his supervisor who he blames for his termination of employment but also kills and injures numerous other people who arguably are just innocent bystanders.

Second, a mass shooting must, very nearly without exception, occur in a public or semipublic place. Why? Because a bunch of people killed and injured in a private residence doesn’t generally involve innocent bystanders. It’s rare, but it can sometimes get murky. Like if a shooter crashes a big party at a private residence to kill his wife’s lover (a domestic situation) and also kills and injures a lot of unrelated people. Weren’t all the unrelated people innocent bystanders?

As already stated, we need a federal agency to establish a solid mass shooting criteria, and if a given case (which are few and far between) is murky, which some will inevitability be, that federal agency needs to have an installed panel that meets to determine its standing.

Perhaps if we as a society could stop hemming and hawing about that constitutes a mass shooting, we might actually be able to focus on what really matters—how to stop them.

Leave a Reply