Media Muddles Discussion of Public Mass Shootings

The Gun Violence Archive’s map of gun violence in America for 2022.

The media isn’t helping when it comes to informing the public about mass shootings in the United States; instead, they are confusing the issue.

Something you almost always see in the post-coverage of a school shooting is an article with framing like this Washington Post sub-headline, “Since the Uvalde, Tex., elementary school tragedy, there have been at least 15 other shootings that had at least four victims.”

Or this NBC News article, “9 killed, more than 60 injured in Memorial Day weekend mass shootings.” These are just the two I’ve seen come across my feed; I’m sure if I looked, I could find more examples of this type of framing.

Both news organizations are relying on The Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit research organization, for those tallies. Compare the GVA definition to the one I’ve previously shared from Mother Jones magazine, which also keeps a database:

GVA: “While they are generally grouped together as one type of incident they are several with the foundation definition being that they have a minimum of four victims shot, either injured or killed, not including any shooter who may also have been killed or injured in the incident.”

MJ: “Our research focused on indiscriminate rampages in public places resulting in four or more victims killed by the attacker.”

See the difference? As MJ explains, yes, those datasets are useful for studying the broader problem of gun violence, but they are interested in providing an “in-depth look at a distinct phenomenon.” That is, public mass shootings.

By conflating public mass shootings like in Uvalde with other forms of gun violence like the GVA does, and then which is reported by The Post, NBC News, and others, I think it gives the misleading impression to the public that events like Uvalde are happening on a regular basis when that simply isn’t true. There has not been 15 Uvaldes since the Uvalde shooting last week, but I wonder how many people think there have been because of such reporting?

Worse still, by conflating public mass shootings with other kinds of gun violence (like armed robbery, gang violence, and domestic violence), the media (and advocates) are muddling the efforts to provide specific solutions to the distinct phenomenon of public mass shootings. As I’ve previously mentioned, perhaps it is the case that a broad policy to address overall gun violence may have the welcome benefit of trickling down to addressing public mass shootings, but wouldn’t you rather take a specific, targeted approach to that distinct phenomenon?

I know this feels worse than pedantic; it feels grotesque to try to parse out different forms of gun violence, but we need to do that in order to address them properly. It’s the same reason why we parse out violence in other ways, with terroristic acts (and subsets therein, foreign versus domestic/homegrown), for example. You wouldn’t, and shouldn’t, conflate a domestic terrorist like Timothy McVeigh, who perpetrated the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, with perpetrators of different kinds of violence, right? All the violence is bad, but they necessarily require different policy and cultural responses.

Solving what births gang violence — which can lead to the GVA definition of a mass shooting — and what births a public mass shooter like in Uvalde are going to necessarily require different policy and cultural responses, too. More simply put, I don’t think you’re going to solve the latter by solving the former. Even if you enacted all of your preferred gun safety policies to tackle the overall sweep of “mass shootings” as defined by GVA, I don’t think you’re going to solve the latter. That’s why it’s important to parse, as grotesque as it may seem. That’s why definitions and terms matter, as I’ve previously written.

To put an even finer point on it: There is a reason the Uvalde shooting galvanizes the nation (and even the world) more than gang violence, armed robbery violence, or domestic violence — not because the latter categories of gun violence don’t matter, but because of how public that act of specific violence is, and that it often invades our sense of normalcy because of it (because it is happening at a school, or a grocery store, or a movie theater). It goes back to why terrorism is in a different category because it is public and trying to evoke fear from the public in that way. Often, the public mass shooter is trying to do that as well, like to start a race war.

I wish the media and public policy advocates would get better about this, so we can have more informed discussions about what to do about the specific phenomenon of public mass shootings and more informed discussions about what to do about other types of mass shootings in America. And that’s before I even address the media’s role, I think, in the contagion/copycat phenomenon; perhaps I’ll write more on that later.

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