Welcome to NC Talks, a new feature from Wmforo! We are passing the mic to North Carolinians who would like to shine a light on critical issues. NC Talks will appear both in an upcoming new newsletter product we're working on and in a featured spot on our website. We’re interested in hearing from people who are from diverse backgrounds, who live in any and all corners of the state and who have a fresh perspective to share. We invite you to submit columns that reflect your point of view, that can be fact checked and that are in your own voice. NC Talks will also include essays from CPP staff, such as today's essay from Lindsey Wilson.

By Lindsey Wilson

This week, in light of the school shooting in Nashville, I started to notice some discrepancies in how mass shootings were reported on by different news outlets. It seemed that everyone had their own criteria for what constitutes a mass shooting, and I found that different news outlets pointed to different databases tracking these events. I wanted to know more about how each database tracks mass shootings and why there is no apparent consensus on how mass shootings are defined.

A mass shooting is defined as taking place when four or more people are shot and killed or injured, according to the Gun Violence Archive. By that definition there have been a total of 130 mass shootings between Jan. 1 and March 29, 2023. On the other hand, The Violence Project defines mass shootings as the gun-related murder of four or more people, other than the shooter, and does not include gang or crime-related shootings (such as robberies gone bad). This data set begins in 1966 and counts 188 shootings in the past 5 1/2 decades. The Mass Shooting Tracker defines a mass shooting as “a single outburst of violence in which four or more people are shot” and calculates 151 shootings in 2023, as of March 29.

A graphic depicting the criteria for mass shootings used by each of the six databases mentioned in the article. Included is the total number of mass shootings as defined by each database for January 1- March 29, 2023. Graphic: Lindsey Wilson / Wmforo

Things get even more opaque when looking at shootings that take place in schools. The K-12 School Shooting Database defines a school shooting as anytime a “gun is fired, brandished (pointed at a person with intent), or bullet hits school property, regardless of the number of victims, time, day, or reason.” By their count, there have been 89 school shootings between Jan. 1 and March 29, 2023.

Everytown for Gun Safety tracks every time a firearm is discharged on school grounds and has reported 38 incidents of gunfire in schools so far this year, with 11 deaths and 30 injuries (the group uses data from the K-12 School Shooting Database and the press). NBC News also tracks school shootings, and according to its data, there have been three school shootings in 2023 as of March 29, with nine killed and six injured. This is the most conservative data set that I found on school shootings and requires there to be one or more active shooters, acting during school hours or when students and staff are present, with the intent to harm others, and resulting in the death of at least one person other than the shooter.

If you’re left feeling as if you don’t know who or what to believe, you’re not alone. The deeper I researched mass shootings, the murkier things became. I uncovered a tangled web of databases, some citing each other, each drawing their own conclusions about the number of mass shootings that take place each year. The Violence Project lists the criteria for mass shootings as defined by seven databases on its methodology page. Some databases count all shootings and some only count those that happen in public. Some databases exclude gang-related shootings or killings of individuals related to the shooter. This chart is helpful for making clear the differences in the data sets around mass shootings, but what it does not do is explain why such choices are made in the first place.

The discrepancies in reporting the number of mass shootings are not meant to be deliberately confusing. However, if we are to have a public conversation about gun violence, it would be helpful to have a general framework of understanding, a common language, including a more widely accepted definition of mass shootings, and a shared data set to use. I’m not the only one asking for this common language around mass murders. Time magazine also advocated for a more unified definition of mass shootings in a 2021 article titled “What Constitutes a Mass Shooting?” In the article, Josiah Bates writes that the phenomenon of mass shootings “is actually not borne of a clear concrete or ‘literal' definition.”

So which numbers are correct? As far as I can tell, all of them. The truth is, there is no singular data set on this particular topic, no one-stop shop that reliably tracks gun violence and issues criteria on what constitutes a mass shooting. Each set of data has its own logic, its own methodology and its own value system. I am still uncertain as to what set of data most accurately reflects the issue of gun violence in America.

What I do know is that raw data tells a story – a story that relies on interpretation. Right now, there are too many interpretations, too many data sets and too many definitions for mass shootings. How we use the available data is absolutely crucial to advancing our understanding of any issue, especially a complex and politically sensitive topic such as this. Before we can begin to solve a problem, we must first define it, and with so many definitions of mass shootings currently in use, it is hard to even begin the conversation about what can be done about the problem of gun violence in our country.

Have a question about this story? Do you see something we missed? Send an email to [email protected].

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  1. It’s not uncommon for raw data to be visualized with different filters for different use cases.

    To me, the raw data showing sheer count of gun deaths, gun injuries, and a cut by age would be the best way to show the nation the war that we are actually in. Why is a murder of 2 less reportable than a murder of 4?