Mark Twain on the statistics of indiscriminate mass shootings in 2015

As the debate over how public policy should respond to mass shootings whips into a heated fury of facts, figures, statistics and memes, I can’t help but remember Mark Twain’s insight on the media:

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”

Mark Twain on the statistics of mass shootings in 2015
by Daniel Burton

The last few days have seen a proliferation of examples of this. You’ve heard, repeated ad nauseam, that we’ve had more mass shootings this year than ever, more even than there are days in the year!

If your internal BS radar doesn’t go off, then you’ve probably been under a rock and have just now emerged and are wondering how you missed all of the news about mass shootings. I’ve wondered how I missed them all, as well, and since I don’t live under a rock, my BS radar has been blaring.

Now comes that “liberal rag,” the New York Times, with a conclusion-affirming review of the claim, as stated in the Washington Post and repeated in other iterations at Vox, by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, and the New York Times itself, “The San Bernardino shooting is the second mass shooting today and the 355th this year.”

The article, written by Mark Follman, an editor of Mother Jones (another “liberal rag,” if you will), says that by their count this is the fourth mass shooting this year, the 73rd since 1982. If you’re doing the math, four is less than 355. By a few.

Follman includes the database that he uses, explaining why the discrepancy:

“The answer is that there is no official definition for “mass shooting.” Almost all of the gun crimes behind the much larger statistic are less lethal and bear little relevance to the type of public mass murder we have just witnessed again. Including them in the same breath suggests that a 1 a.m. gang fight in a Sacramento restaurant, in which two were killed and two injured, is the same kind of event as a deranged man walking into a community college classroom and massacring nine and injuring nine others. Or that a late-night shooting on a street in Savannah, Ga., yesterday that injured three and killed one is in the same category as the madness that just played out in Southern California.”

Follman goes on to explain that the Mother Jones database “excluded mass murders that stemmed from robbery, gang violence or domestic abuse in private homes. Our goal with this relatively narrow set of parameters was to better understand the seemingly indiscriminate attacks that have increased in recent years, whether in movie theaters, elementary schools or office parks.”

This isn’t to say that gun violence is not happening. Quite the contrary. According to Follman, indiscriminate attacks have increased in recent years…just not to where we’re seeing 355 indiscriminate mass shootings in a single, bloody year.  These mass shootings need to be distinguished from other kinds of gun violence, because they are different, especially when addressing the cause. The causes, impact, and policy solutions are different for an indiscriminate mass shooting than for other types of violence (regardless of whether a gun, a knife, or a baseball bat was used).

It is noteworthy that when you look at gun violence in this context, it takes on a very different picture. The “statistics” tell a different story. Domestic, gang, and drug related violence is not going to respond to the same policy solutions that indiscriminate killing will respond to. The comparisons with other modern countries also takes a different cast. Instead of comparing all gun violence  to the mass shootings in other countries, we are comparing only the mass shootings to mass shootings, gun violence to gun violence. Or, if more appropriate, violence to violence.

The main point is not to dispute that mass shootings are happening–or that gun violence in America exists, or even that indiscriminate mass shootings are increasing–but to urge a second look at the statistics talking heads are throwing around before accepting them at face value. Either the media and opinion leaders aren’t looking very closely at the statistics themselves,  or there is a bias and an effort to persuade and to manipulate public opinion. Don’t be too quick to settle on a conclusion or on sources who benefit more from your fear and panic than from a slow, measured, and informed discussion.

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