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​What We Know About Mass Shootings in America in 2015

From Charleston to Chattanooga to Lafayette, senseless killings by deranged gunmen have dominated the news—but how many mass shootings have occurred in 2015? And how do you define "mass shooting," anyway?

John Surico

John Surico

Photo via Flickr user Rob Bixby

It seems to happen almost every week now. A guy—and it seems to almost always be a guy—who shouldn't have a gun has one anyway, and uses it to shoot up a mall, a movie theater, a school, a church, a military camp—a generally public place that we would assume to be free from the threat of deadly violence.

And that's just the ones we hear about: As Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker writes, we tend to overlook the "mini-massacres," or, as he describes them, "a gun killing that is horrific in its shock and numerous in its casualties but not sufficiently large enough in the number of dead to really register as a major event in the way that Newtown and Charleston, and, oh yes, Fort Hood, and, right, Aurora and Virginia Tech all did."

Like the eight people dead in a Missouri spree back in February. Or the ten people killed in separate shootings over Fourth of July weekend in Chicago. And the countless others across this country that you can find by just googling a number and the word "dead." Seriously.

Last Friday, Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post reported that, for every day—204 of them—up to that point in the year 2015, there had been a mass shooting. "This year there were 18 mass shootings in April, 39 in May, 41 in June, and 34 so far in July—and the month isn't over yet," he writes. "The theater shooting was Louisiana's 8th this year. There have been 10 in Ohio, 14 in California and 16 in New York." (Here's a map of mass shootings, if you need one.)

From the looks of it, this year is already poised to be one of the bloodiest on record, with a palpable bump in the summer months that we're witnessing right now. But how does this year compare to 2012, the year in which we were introduced to James Holmes and Adam Lanza? Or any other year in recent memory that left us with yet another mass shooting? Is 2015 different, or are we just now surrounded by perpetual violence?

Ingraham at the Post uses the definition put forth by the Mass Shooting Tracker, a Redditor-controlled database that lists every shooting since 2013 involving four or more people shot, but not necessarily killed. This differs from the FBI definition of a mass shooting, which technically requires four or more people killed in one instance, and this also differs from the FBI's definition of an "active shooter," which can be anyone planning to shoot multiple people in a "confined or populated area."

Most of those mass shootings, as Business Insider's Matthew Speiser notes, we haven't even heard of. (Do you know how many school shootings there have been since Newtown? A lot.) But if the four-or-more-people-shot mertric is applied, 204 incidents is, unfortunately, almost unsurprising given our daily death toll from guns.

"Certainly the media attention rises when there is a cluster of high-profile shootings," Ted Alcorn, a researcher for Everytown for Gun Safety, an organization dedicated to gun control laws, told me. "But it's worth remembering that on average, 88 Americans die by gunfire every day, outstripping any mass shooting in our nation's history."

Alcorn and his team have recently finished a major analysis of mass shootings between July 2009 and July 2015, which will be released to the general public next week (An advanced copy was made available to VICE.) The researchers combed through FBI databases, newspaper reports, and online searches to track down every mass shooting that has occurred on American soil, using the original FBI definition of four or more dead. One of the most astounding results of the report is just how normal the past few years have been, 2015 being no exception. Mass shootings are not on the rise—in fact, they've plateaued.

According to the analysis, there have been 134 incidents (or about two per month) in 39 states since 2009. Even with Aurora and Newtown, 2012—the year most critics tend to say was the worst—was actually pretty standard for America, with 112 people killed in mass shootings. Meanwhile, there were 114 people killed in mass shootings in 2011, 116 killed in 2013, and 130 in 2009. (2015 has seen 66 deaths from 13 mass shootings thus far.)

From the data, Alcorn and his team argue that there are no seasonal trends to mass shootings—a bad July can be offset by an even worse January—and America hasn't gone four months without one since before Obama was president.

The idea that mass shootings aren't actually rising has been regurgitated by the National Rifle Association as a sign that gun control laws have no real impact on these incidents—which at this point, are almost normal in America. But the report's implication, for me, doesn't match up with the gun lobby sound bites: Instead, it shows how routine it all is, how desensitized we've all become, and how headline-making massacres are just one small part of the daily dose of gun-related tragedies in America.

James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University who has been studying mass shooting data for decades, has gained notoriety in the national conversation for arguing that mass shootings have held steady—if outrageously high for a civilized nation—since the 1980s. Fox, too, dismissed the idea that summer months were worse, or that 2015 should be seen as an outlier. The logic is as follows: Every year is an outlier—and therefore, there are no outliers—when it comes to gun violence.

"There have been other times when spikes have occurred. They were aberrations, as subsequent months revealed," he wrote in an email, referring to the number of mass shootings. "2012 was an especially bad year but then 2013 and 2014 were not as bad. If 2015 turns out to be an especially bad year, then 2016 should be better. It is foolish to make conclusions about a short-term flurry of cases."

Over the phone later, Fox told me that it's a "matter of definition," depending on how you view the data at hand. "Take Aurora, for example," he argued. "If James Holmes took someone's wallet after shooting all of those people, it'd technically be classified as a robbery, and [be] excluded from our data. In the case of the FBI's active shooter data, it can be someone who plots but doesn't do it, and that's about a quarter of active shooters." (Horrific as it was, the Chicago shooting spree in early July also wouldn't count as a mass shooting, since it involved separate incidents.)

Then, there's the summer issue. Conventional wisdom is that there might be a tangible correlation between violence and heat. A 2011 Wired piece was titled "The Hazy Science of Hot Weather and Violence," and the New York Times has called summertime "the prime time for murder." I myself have covered two separate shootings in New York City in less than 24 hours. But does that mean there are more instances of mass shootings?

When I emailed the Reddit community of Guns Are Cool, the users behind the Mass Shooting Tracker, to find out, I heard back from two contributors almost instantly. One user, Brock Weller, pointed me to data work done by the community that demonstrates a summer bump. Another, Sean Beatty, told me, "In 2014 and 2015 there has been a highly significant increase in mass shootings in the summer months as determined by the analysis of variance."

Still, the more newsworthy tragedies—nation-rattling events like the South Carolina church shooting or 2007's Virginia Tech massacre—are not tied to the seasons. They can happen anytime, anywhere.

Needless to say, Americans are bad at agreeing on a total or even a definition for of what constitutes mass shootings, which, I guess, is a symptom of the weird psychosis the nation is in. We're unable to come to terms with just how many are happening, because so many are happening—a point that the Mass Shooting Tracker founder, a Reddit user named Billy Speed, said can contribute to reporters confusing statistics that describe different things.

But the issue is deciphering the blur. As Fox, the criminologist, pointed out, there is mass confusion over mass shootings, and I don't think that's merely coincidental. When our natural reaction to news of a horrific shooting is to add it to a long, long list, it's no surprise that the list itself is blurry and undefined. That's what happens when, "Uh, which one?" has become the attitude we're forced to adopt about mass shootings. "How many mass shootings have there been in 2015?" can lead to a complicated answer.

Or a simple one: too many.

Follow John Surico on Twitter.

Correction 7/29: An earlier version of this post referenced an incident in Oklahoma in a way that implied it was a shooting when in fact it was a stabbing that killed five family members.

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