Disambiguating Mass Shootings

paris cafe attack

The site of a cafe shooting in Paris

I think the term “mass shooting” has become overloaded to the point of uselessness.

A recent article by CNN says, “At least 20 mass shootings have taken place since the metro Atlanta spa attacks left 8 dead.” I don’t follow everyday news that closely, but 20 seemed high, so I read the piece and find the following:

  • Office building, 4 people killed

  • Apartment complex, after a dispute, five people shot

  • Cleavland night club, 7 people shot, all between 20 and 30 years old

  • 4 people in an SUV shot in Chicago

  • A man kills his parents, shoots three people at a grocery store, then kills himself

  • 4 people shot near a sidewalk in Chicago’s South Austin neighborhood

  • 7 people shot at a nightclub

  • A shooting on a party bus injures 3

  • Three shootings in Virginia Beach injured 8 and killed 2, ending in suicide

  • A gathering in Chicago turned into a mass shooting where two gunmen opened fire wounding 7 and killing one

  • Five people shot in Memphis, shooter kills himself

  • Two people shoot 7 people outside a golf and social club

  • Two people were shot and two killed in an Alabama home

  • 10 people killed in a Boulder supermarket

  • 1 person killed and another injured at an illegal party in Philadelphia

  • 8 people shot with one fatality in Dallas

  • 5 people shot at a disturbance inside a Houston club

  • 4 victims shot in Gresham, Oregon

  • 5 people shot in a drive-by in Stockton, CA

Without knowing much about most of these, I see an important distinction between them: In one subset, the violence is relatively common and expected, and in the other it is not.

There are exceptions of course.

Whenever I hear that there was a drive-by shooting, or a domestic dispute, or a nightclub or party shooting, I don’t think “mass shooting”.

Mixing young people, alcohol, and guns has predictable consequences.

Same goes for a motorcycle rally, or a big car show in a bad neighborhood.

For example, if I find out that 13 people were shot at an Alabama event called, “Bubba’s Truck Rally and Wet T-Shirt Contest, Sponsored by Bud Light and the NRA”, I don’t think mass shooting. What I think is that it’s generally a bad idea to combine young men, women, alcohol, and guns all in the same location for more than a few hours.

If someone in a household, or extended family, shoots and/or kills multiple people in that household—yes, that’s technically a mass shooting because the number of victims was plural—but it’s not what people think about when they hear of a mass shooting.

Mass shootings—like terrorism—are insidious because they’re unexpected based on time and setting.

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  • Office buildings

  • Schools

  • Daycare centers

  • Libraries

  • Grocery stores

  • Shopping malls

  • Streetside cafes

  • Parades

  • Restaurants

These are places where the use of “mass shooting” seems appropriate. They’re public places where the expectation of peace is built into the setting as a core component of a functioning society.

“Ok”, some might say. Why do we care? It’s all violence, right? And therefore all undesirable.

Sure, but the problem is that terms have meanings have meanings and connotations. And if something means everything it means nothing.

Most deaths from guns in the US are from suicide, but there’s a reason we don’t think of them the same as others.

Few people know, for example, that roughly 6 in 10 gun deaths in the US are from suicide. If we listed those all as “shootings” and talked about every one of them on the news the public would think we were being attacked by ISIS.

Of course we still care about shootings in the context of domestic violence and suicide. Those are real problems that need to be talked about and addressed.

But they’re not nearly as important as people feeling unsafe about going to the grocery store, or sending their kids to public school.

That’s the fear of actual mass shootings, and what happens at the truck show or the nightclub should not be conflated just to have higher numbers for a headline or a narrative.