The NY Times Conflates “Active Shooters” and “Mass Shootings” And Misreads FBI Report

September 27th, 2014

The New York Times proclaims in a headline, “F.B.I. Confirms a Sharp Rise in Mass Shootings Since 2000.” The lede amplifies that claim:

A report released by the F.B.I. on Wednesday confirmed what many Americans had feared but law enforcement officials had never documented: Mass shootings have risen drastically in the past half-dozen years.

Throughout the article, over and over again, the Times makes several claims about how the number of “mass shootings” has sharply increased. From the article, you would think the FBI report is about mass shootings. But it’s not. Instead, if you read the third and fourth words of the title, you find that this report focuses on “A Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States Between 2000 and 2013.”

“Active Shooters” and “Mass Shootings” are not the same thing. If you read the fifth paragraph of the article you find this important statement:

This is not a study of mass killings or mass shootings, but rather a study of a specific type of shooting situation law enforcement and the public may face.

The New York Times publishes an article discussing mass shootings, when this report is specifically “not” about mass shootings.  Mass Shootings (or “mass killings” in the criminal justice parlance) are incidents where there are three or more killings in a single incident.

Rather, this report is about “Active shooters.” This term is defined on page 5 of the report:

The agreed-upon definition of an active shooter by U.S. government agencies—including the White House, U.S. Department of Justice/FBI, U.S. Department of Education, and U.S. Department of Homeland Security/Federal Emergency Management Agency—is “an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.”3 Implicit in this definition is that the subject’s criminal actions involve the use of firearms.4

For purposes of its study, the FBI extended this definition to include individuals, because some incidents involved two or more shooters. Though the federal definition includes the word “confined,” the FBI excluded this word in its study, as the term confined could omit incidents that occurred outside a building.

There are key differences. First, it includes not only murders, but “attempts” as well as injuries. Second it is not limited to three or more deaths, but includes zero or more attempted murders.

It is sensationalistic for the Times to lede with such a misleading claim, and try to tie it in with Newtown and Aurora, when this is *not* the focus on the report. In fact, four incidents Aurora (12 killed and 58 wounded), Virginia Tech (32 killed and 17 wounded), Ft. Hood (13 killed and 32 wounded), and Sandy Hook (27 killed and 2 wounded), account for a total of 84 casualties. That’s less than 8% of the total 1043 casualties, showing again that the large, mass shootings are rare, and account for a small number of deaths. (Update: I misplaced the decimal. It is 8%, not .8%. Though, the point I was trying to make stands. These few events are the outliers, and constitute a disproportionate share of casualties from mass shootings).

If you read till page 9 of the FBI report, you find the numbers concerning casualties:

The FBI found that 64 incidents [out of 160] (40.0%) would have been categorized as falling within the new federal definition of “mass killing,” which is defined as “three or more killings in a single incident.”19

Later we find that over these 64 incidents occurred within the last 7 years. The report does not break down whether these mass killings are increasing. There is no proof, as the headline suggests, that these are on the rise. Though, as I argue in The Shooting Cycle (with fairly recent numbers), they are not.

It is all too common for the media to conflate “Mass Shootings” (a term that makes people scared) and “Active Shooter” (a term that doesn’t really have any cultural resonance). In fact, the word “Active Shooter” appears only in the caption to the Infographic the Times provided. It’s important to get terminology right–especially when public policy decisions are made on these bases.

I submitted this letter to the Editor of the Times:

F.B.I. Confirms a Sharp Rise in Mass Shootings Since 2000” (Sept. 24) provides an inaccurate account of new statistics about gun violence. Although the article repeatedly references “mass shootings,” the F.B.I. report focuses on “active shooters.” The F.B.I. states in the fifth paragraph “This is not a study of mass killings or mass shootings.” Mass shootings, or mass killings, are defined as “three or more killings in a single incident.” In contrast, an “active shooter” is “an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.” While the former involves three or more casualties, the latter includes unsuccessful attempts, as well as using a gun to wound. Contrary to the title, the F.B.I report does not prove that mass shootings are on the rise. A recent article I published in the Connecticut Law Review demonstrates these tragedies are rare, and not occurring more frequently.