If I had a nickel for every different definition of ‘mass shooting’ that’s floating around out there, I could go back to sleep this morning instead of getting dressed to go to work. Last time I counted, there are at least four different ‘mass shooting’ definitions appearing in the media based on how many people get killed, how many people get shot whether they die or not, where the event takes place, and whether or not to include ‘domestic’ acts of violence, aa if anyone has a definition of ‘domestic’ that fits every case.
The issue of mass shootings has taken on a certain importance not just because of Parkland, but because the organizational response of the gun-control movement has been to push one of their favorite ideas, namely, a new assault weapons ban (AWB.) The idea, of course, is being vigorously contested by the other side, whose chief ally in this regard is DD Trump, who seems to have a peculiar affection for getting rid of gun-free zones. And since Trump is now tying mass shootings to gun-free zones, all the more reason why the #resist movement would try to get more traction for a new AWB.
Let’s get back to the definition of a ‘mass shooting,’ because here is where the rubber meets the road. Earlier this month our friend Lott published a critique of what is an important book on mass shootings, Rampage Nation, in which the author, Lewis Klaveras, argues that mass shootings declined during the 1995-2004 AWB, despite the fact that the number of mass shootings involving the use of an ‘assault weapon’ was: a) quite small; and, b) didn’t change during the years covered by the ban.
Klarevas has responded to Lott’s criticism by saying that the latter’s definition of ‘mass shootings’ is “arbitrary,” when, in fact, it is the definition employed by Klarevas himself (6 or more deaths) which has never been used by Lott or any other gun researcher, including the folks who write the reports on mass shootings for the FBI. Lott uses the FBI definition which sets the number of deaths at four and excludes shooting events that are either gang-related or occur within a domestic situation, a definition with which I wholeheartedly agree.
What makes mass shootings such terrifying events is not just the loss of life; it’s the randomness of the event and the anonymity of the victims who are injured or killed. Steve Paddock didn’t know the name of anyone attending the rock concert in Vegas when he opened fire on October 1st. Nikolas Cruz had been a student at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, but he didn’t go to the school to hunt down a specific kid or kids. With all due respect to my many GVP friends, John Lott is absolutely correct when he says that mass shootings are unique events in which the motives of the shooter can’t be simply explained because someone holds a grudge against someone else.
I am beginning to believe that gun-violence arguments based on numbers are a dead end. I say this, first of all, because in other columns and studies I have addressed the fact that most of the data we use to create numerics about gun violence are at best rough estimates, at worst simply made up out of whole cloth. And if we can’t even agree on the numerical definition of mass shootings, how could we ever come up with a rational strategy to deal with mass shooting events at all?
So I’m going to go out on a limb and offer a definition of a mass shooting which at least might get us beyond the useless arguments being engaged in today. A mass shooting is when someone points a gun at someone else, pulls the trigger and keeps firing until he’s out of ammo and has to reload. I like this definition because it gets around behavior or motive and simply acknowledges a basic truth: Guns aimed at human beings will kill them faster than any other device that we know.