More than one mass shooting a day? How the media were misled

The Washington Post headline didn’t mince words: “The San Bernardino Shooting Is The Second Mass Shooting Today and the 355th This Year.”

The New York Times led its piece this way:

“More than one a day.

“That is how often, on average, shootings that left four or more people wounded or dead occurred in the United States this year, according to compilations of episodes derived from news reports.”

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, the Los Angeles Times and others have used the stunning statistic. I’ve heard at least one guest repeat it on Fox.

But it’s way off base.

It certainly feels like there’s a shooting every day. There was something about the San Bernardino massacre, coming so soon after the Planned Parenthood shootings (not to mention the Paris attacks), that seems to me like a tipping point. There was a collective groan in the country: Not again!!??

But as Mark Folman of Mother Jones reports--and the Times deserves credit for putting his piece online--there have been four mass shootings this year in the way most of us understand the term.

The misleading figures come from a site called, built by members of an online Reddit forum that supports gun control, called Guns Are Cool. The larger number includes gang shootings, robberies and other violent outbreaks—not exactly in the same category as the Planned Parenthood killings in Colorado or Newtown or Charleston.

As the Post noted in an updated piece, ShootingTracker even included a couple of incidents involving pellet guns (though these were removed after criticism).

On the other side of the debate, the FBI has defined mass shootings as those that those in which three or more people were killed, recently changed from four—regardless of circumstance.

But this can be too restrictive: “Earlier this year, a gunman killed two people and wounded nine others during a shooting at a theater in Lafayette, La. Because only two people died, not including the gunman, that incident wouldn't meet the federal definition of a ‘mass killing’ — even though it garnered widespread media attention.”

It can be tricky stuff, reminding us of the old adage about lies, damned lies and statistics.

But the bottom line is that the ShootingTracker founder said he wanted to broaden the definition of mass shootings—and he obviously has an agenda. Too bad some in the media were initially taken in by that agenda. But at least they’re now grappling openly with these questions.