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Experts weigh in on what defines acts of mass violence in America

The places may change names, but the pain remains the same: mass violence inflicted on people going about their lives.
What happened in Virginia and at the LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado several days prior, both are called a “mass shooting” because they fit a specific definition. What exactly does that entail, though?
According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have now been 606 mass shootings in America so far in 2022. Those are defined as when four or more people injured or killed, not including the shooter.
Posted at 2:58 PM, Nov 23, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-23 14:58:07-05

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The places may change names, but the pain remains the same—mass violence inflicted on people going about their lives.

“That's all that we knew. That he had been shot,” said Deborah Hayslett, whose brother was being treated at a hospital after he was shot during a mass shooting at a Walmart in Chesapeake, Virginia on Tuesday night.

What happened in Virginia and at the LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado several days prior, both are called a “mass shooting” because they fit a specific definition. What exactly does that entail, though?

“That's a really interesting question because it's very much debated in the academic literature,” said Jaclyn Schildkraut, an associate professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York at Oswego and co-editor of the Journal of Mass Violence Research. “Regardless of the definition that you use, all of our different data sources are showing the same thing, and that is an upward trend.”

According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have now been 606 mass shootings in America so far in 2022. Those are defined as when four or more people are injured or killed, not including the shooter.

There have also been 36 mass murders, defined as when more than four people were killed, not including the perpetrator.

“But it doesn't really take into account any sort of the contextual factors,” Schildkraut said. “So, as a result, you have things like gang violence and then familicides, or family shootings, kind of lumped in with what happened in Walmart last night, even though they're very different types of events.”

Daniel Webster studies gun violence and mass shootings as co-director of the Center for Gun Violence Solutions at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“We tend to really compartmentalize the problem of gun violence,” he said, “and, the truth is, there's a lot of similarities across the different forms of gun violence.”

Webster said when it comes to mass shootings, in particular, there are commonalities when it comes to how they unfold.

“Some of the basics are remarkably consistent,” Webster said. “It's generally a male phenomenon. Again, it's easy access to firearms and acting on some sense of grievance.”

Experts say that makes the sheer number of mass shootings in the country, a distinctly American phenomenon.

“We have not seen historic rises in gun violence or mass shootings in other countries,” Webster said. “We are unique, in not a good way.”

Schildkraut, who is also the interim executive director of the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium at the Rockefeller Institute, said there are things that can be done to minimize the number of mass shootings.

“There is a lot of planning, a lot of premeditation that goes into them, and so, these are not individuals who wake up and snap. These are individuals who invest a lot of time into preparing for what they're intending to do,” she said. “We have to work to be more proactive to prevent gun violence and less reactive. And so, I think kind of keeping those things in mind is really important, as we sort of struggle with, ‘How do we go to places like Walmart to pick up our Thanksgiving dinner and feel unsafe?’”

It is a question that the country is grappling with on this most American of holidays.