Mass Shootings: Terminology Matters

Dear reader,

First and foremost, let me make this point clear. This article has nothing to do with gun rights arguments, even though I am a strong proponent of the 2nd Amendment. (Astute readers will be looking to see if there’s a “but…” somewhere shortly afterwards. There’s not.) While I’ll primarily be attacking “gun control” arguments, I can promise you it’s not to suggest any sort of solution in its place. Rather, it is a call (perhaps a plea) for better discussions.

Secondly, this article is not attacking you. If you think gun control is the solution to America’s current problems, that’s wonderful. I disagree, so let’s sit down and talk about it over lunch. But before we do, I’d like to address some concerns I have over terminology.

I’m sure by now you’ve read the concerning statistic that America has experienced 18 school shootings since the start of this year. Eighteen already? But it’s only February! A school shooting would make national headlines, why haven’t I heard of them? Perhaps you’ve read the response which reveals that one of the claimed “school shootings” was actually a suicide on school grounds that had been closed for several months. Well… that number seems a little inflated, now.

This isn’t the only misleading statistic getting thrown around. Perhaps you’ve heard that annually, there are 30,000 deaths attributed to “gun violence”. If you read into that statistic though, you’ll find it includes suicides (65%), law enforcement intervention, gang violence, and mass shootings. Suicide seems to be a separate problem from violence though, why include it? Ten thousand deaths still seems awfully high, and would serve as a fine point for discussion. Why risk weakening your argument with bad statistics?

As an engineer, the most important thing to me is understanding what the numbers mean before making design decisions based on them. If I discovered that a manufacturer was fudging their numbers to earn a sale, I wouldn’t be able to trust a word they said — even if they did have a viable product by some chance.

Our culture is obsessed with “fact checking” statements made by politicians, and hunting down “fake news”, yet for some reason gun control arguments gets a pass. Everytown makes no effort to hide, or even apologize for presenting what can only be described as a misleading statistic. Did they honestly think people would hear “18 school shootings in 45 days” and not raise an eyebrow? Though they have removed the aforementioned suicide, they continue include “suicides with no intent to harm others” on their list of school shootings.

I am loathe to start out this article with pointing fingers, but I can see no other way. Gun control proponents like Everytown clamor for an “honest discussion” about gun violence, but refuse to be honest themselves. While they are technically correct that any discharge of a firearm on school property is a “school shooting”, it quickly makes the statistic meaningless.

Women’s rifle team, Central High School, Washington D.C., November 1922 (source)

Some high schools have rifle teams. If they held a match on school property, does that make it a “school shooting”? Everytown may be missing some valuable data that could greatly inflate their numbers! Surely that would present a much more concerning statistic, and drive more action.

However, even Everytown isn’t foolish enough to try and use a rifle match to fudge their statistics — they know intention to harm must be a factor. But there is a distinction between wanting to harm yourself, and wanting to harm others. Why conflate the two terms, but to drive an emotional and uninformed response? The ends justify the means. Policy for the sake of policy, and not for the sake of informed decisions. I find this to be grossly irresponsible, and morally reprehensible given the gravity of the situation at hand.

The example above is not an isolated incident. Gun control proponents historically have had a shockingly poor understanding of firearms terminology, conflating terms like semi-automatic and fully automatic. (You’ll have to forgive the charged words in title on this video, it was the least offensive one I could find.)

Don’t waste too much time on this video, you’ll lose brain cells.

Don Lemon is correct that civilians can purchase rifles which shoot quickly. To be charitable, I understand what he’s saying. It doesn’t matter whether a magazine is shot in 3 seconds or 30. Indeed, the AR-15 is a powerful tool for civilians to own, and I would entertain a discussion with him over why it’s reasonable for civilians to own.

What leaves me flabbergasted is that when Lemon is presented with the correct terminology, it is of zero concern. In fact, he refuses to use the correct terms, and accuses his debate partner of squandering time on pointless semantics! Towards the end, he even gaslights his opponent by claiming no one is debating semantics!

Amusingly, these “pointless semantics” have allowed gun owners to circumvent legislation intended to banish the firearms Lemon is failing to describe. Isn’t it in a gun control advocate’s best interests to understand the things they want to regulate?

Lemon doesn’t actually believe that words are meaningless. Quite the opposite. He ridicules Trump for not understanding words. But why is Lemon so disinterested with correct terminology when it comes to gun violence? I have my suspicions, but I’ve already pointed enough fingers for one article.

If we want to have an honest discussion about gun violence, we must first have a clear, agreed upon set of terms on which to hold a discussion. Until then, our arguments will be a fruitless mash of vague and meaningless words. So without further ado, allow me to present a term for your consideration.

What is a mass shooting? Though we all “know what it means” when it floats by in our news feeds, it evades definition when you start to actually discuss it. How many victims are needed for it to be considered a mass shooting? I think ten people getting shot would make a mass shooting. “That’s rather heartless,” you respond. “Losing even four lives is significant.” Should two be enough?

I’ve decided to help Everytown increase their list of mass shootings by using their “technically correct” methodology. The following items would all be considered mass shootings (or even more vaguely, gun violence):

  • Any war since the invention of firearms
  • The Bataclan Terrorist Attack
  • Two rival street gangs having a shoot out
  • The homicide rate in Chicago — one big monthly mass shooting
  • A disgruntled employee shooting up an office

A more effective discussion should use concrete, objective terms that have well defined meaning. I would suggest that “shooting spree” is a far more specific term than mass shooting. In a shooting spree, one (or more) people shoot (or attempt to shoot) as large a populace of people as possible before being stopped. Motives, victim choice, and body count don’t define a spree shooting, only the intent. However, it is troubling that spree shooters often choose any large target they can find, and leave behind scant information as to why.

spree — n. a spell or sustained period of unrestrained activity of a particular kind

Right off the bat, this helps us better understand what we’re talking about. A war cannot be a mass shooting because it involves nations, not individuals. Eleven people murdered in Chicago over one weekend does not qualify as a mass shooting, as there were multiple perpetrators with distinct intentions. But these are soft ball questions. How does this apply to more difficult cases?

The Beltway Sniper Attacks happened over several days. The perpetrator’s motives weren’t very well defined. The prosecution initially argued the plan was to murder his wife, blending her death in with others. Is it more fitting to label them “serial killers”? After all, their goal wasn’t to kill “as many” — only enough to blend in one more. One of the killer’s diaries mentioned jihad. At one point, instigating racial revolts was on the table as a potential motive. Regardless of motive, it is reasonable to say they would have continued their spree until stopped.

How about the Bataclan terrorist attack? This was a coordinated attack on Paris, involving bombings and shootings. Unlike Columbine and Virginia Tech, there was something left over once the shooter died. Terrorist groups claimed responsibility, and listed motives for the attack. Although motives don’t define a spree shooting, does terrorism deserve it’s own category? While some people have tried to argue that spree shootings are equivalent to terrorism, it is easier to understand it separately as a tactic used by terrorists.

Could a shooting spree have zero victims? Looking at the Congressional baseball shooting, several people were wounded, but the shooter didn’t manage to kill anyone. Not to suggest that the wounded aren’t victims. I say this only to emphasize the point that only intent defines a shooting spree. While the motives were political, the intention was to shoot as many people as possible before being stopped. This clearly fits the definition.

It may seem cold and mechanical to quantify, classify, and file away human suffering, but in no way is it pedantic and frivolous. In order to propose a solution, we must first clearly identify the problem. These distinctions are critical to understanding the broader topic of gun violence, but they are just one part of having better conversations and searching for a solution.

If you read my previous article, I tried to explain how grieving is crucial to a search for a solution, but we are disenfranchising ourselves by blaming others and looking for a solution too quickly. (Ironically, I may be setting a poor example. You’ll have to forgive me for not practicing what I preach — but thank you for your patience so far.)

In this article, I showed how our deliberate disregard for proper terminology not only harms our discussions, but clouds the search for a proper solution. Hopefully, I’ve been able to identify better terminology, and justify its use. I strongly believe that the only way we can move forwards is with these two points as a foundation for understanding.

I’m not sure how to conclude this article, but I’ve written enough for one day. There are still two more points I’d like to make, so stay tuned if you like what you’re reading.

Tim builds circuit boards in Virginia Beach, and enjoys writing about current events, history, theology, and philosophy.

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