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What Makes a Shooting a Mass Shooting?

When four or more people get shot, even if no one dies, that's a mass shooting—and we should call it one.

For many Americans, the avalanche of headlines last year claiming the United States played host to at least one mass shooting a day must have been shocking. After all, only a handful of those violent tragedies generated sustained national attention, and incidents on the scale of Columbine or Sandy Hook are not exactly routine, even if they are far too common. And because neither the government nor wider society has historically been able to agree on a solid definition of what makes a shooting a "mass shooting," some attacks have tended to evade classification entirely, encouraging the public to turn a blind eye to the full extent and impact of large-scale gun violence in America.

In the past year or so, however, several media outlets have converged on a broad consensus that a shooting with four or more victims—whether dead or injured—constitutes a mass shooting. VICE accepted that metric when deciding to track reports of mass shootings in 2016 as a means of drawing sustained attention to an ongoing national nightmare. Those accustomed to thinking of a "mass shooting" as a truly catastrophic attack like the Orlando nightclub shooting that killed 49 and injured 53 more might deem four-or-more shot a bizarrely low threshold. But the new metric emerged after measured considerations and considerable debate—including tough calls like what qualifies as a single shooting incident and whether victims hit by shrapnel are necessarily shooting victims.

After several months of coverage, we feel confident that this definition of a mass shooting effectively and reliably captures this enduring American problem and should serve to encourage public action against it in the future.

In previous decades, a mass shooting was often naturally understood as an episode of gun violence in a public place in which a shooter fired at random targets, usually killing a significant but unspecified number of individuals. Some point to ex-marine Charles Whitman's 1966 sniper-rifle attack from a watchtower at the University of Texas in Austin that killed 13 and injured over two-dozen more as the first modern mass shooting—certainly it was the first such incident to take place on a modern college campus. Key to the traditional understanding of these tragedies is that they occurred outside of the context of episodes of robbery or domestic or gang violence targeted at specific individuals—indiscrimination was thought to be a primary criterion. If we leave those more personal incidents aside and employ the bodycount threshold leaned on in years past by magazines like Mother Jones (four or more people killed), the number of American mass shootings in any given year is often in the single digits. That hardly seems like an epidemic.

But for many observers, that definition has proved far too narrow, failing to capture and convey the full scope of large-scale gun violence in the United States. In particular, it neglects to draw measured attention to the prevalence of this kind of violence in marginalized communities and the disproportionate pain and trauma it can bring them. Mother Jones based its definition in part on the guidance of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which long considered any incident in which four or more people are killed (not including the attacker or attackers) in close proximity a "mass killing" and a person who killed four or more people a "mass murderer." (The feds revised their metric for mass killings down to three or more fatalities in 2013, even if the older definition still has traction.) That the FBI set the concept of "mass" at a border of four begs the argument that mass shootings ought to encompass incidents in which four or more people are shot, whether they are killed or not. After all, gunshot injuries often have lifelong repercussions for victims and the communities around them.

Critics say this more liberal definition of four injured stems from a lowly Reddit sub in 2013 and was simply latched onto by uncritical reporters who wanted to gin up sensational headlines. But no matter where it came from, the metric seems to better honor the scale of mass gun violence in America, illuminate where its sting is felt worst, and acknowledge the lasting damage shooting injuries can cause survivors. There's also no evidence as of yet that a full-blown national panic about mass shootings has ensued and no realistic danger that the public will grow too worried anytime soon. Meanwhile, nonprofits like the Gun Violence Archive and outlets like FiveThirtyEight have taken up the wider four-or-more-injured metric. Even President Barack Obama seemed to implicitly endorse the emerging definition by referring to an attack in Lafayette, Louisiana, in 2015 that killed two and injured nine as a mass shooting.

The main concern about this liberalized definition is that it could theoretically make it more difficult for casual observers to discern whether truly enormous public rampages are actually on the rise. It also aggregates types of violence from party and gang shootings to domestic violence, which probably warrant different solutions. The metric could also be said to distract focus from the much larger total scale of gun harm in the nation—more than 33,000 deaths and 80,000 injuries in 2012 alone.

If nothing else, even some critics of the four-or-more-injured threshold concede it's worthwhile to debate these metrics and definitions. The process fosters awareness of large-scale gun violence and brings neglected attacks into focus. For the purposes of VICE's Mass Shooting Tracker, it's especially useful in making comparisons to the extremely rare incidence of similar attacks in Europe.

"I don't think anyone should ignore mass casualty events, even if fewer than four die. It's certainly a serious crime," says James Alan Fox, an expert on mass shootings at Northeastern University who remains a bit dubious about referring to these events as "mass shootings" rather than something like "large-scale shootings" to avoid confusion with the old, narrower definition.

"We also keep statistics on shootings," Fox adds. "We keep statistics on rapes. Obviously the more information we have on gun crime in the US, the more useful. We just don't want to confuse people or scare people into thinking that mass killings are more frequent."

Little differences between emerging definitions remain, of course. The crowd-sourced Mass Shooting Tracker, for instance, includes dead or injured attacker(s) in their numbers. It also groups together all the death and injury from shooting "sprees" (like all the bloodshed of former Uber driver James Dalton's February 2016 drive-bys in and around Kalamazoo, Michigan) as part of one mass shooting, despite the fact that the FBI defines sprees as comprising discrete acts of violence dispersed geographically and temporally. That tracker also includes incidents in which some or most victims were hit by shrapnel created when a bullet hit, say, a windshield, like the recent shooting spree in Joplin, Mississippi, in which the shooter only struck three people but two more caught shrapnel. That increases the number of mass shootings reported, but arguably lessens the legitimacy of that snapshot of large-scale gun violence.

To focus on the sheer carnage one individual or a small group can inflict on others with a gun to hand, VICE and some other trackers exclude attackers from our counts—as well as deaths at the hands of law enforcement, which are often gravely concerning, but differ significantly in motive and nature from civilian gun violence. VICE also only counts individual mass shootings within wider sprees (using the Michigan example again, that means just the shooting outside of the Ohstemo Cracker Barrel that killed four and injured one out of Dalton's various Kalamazoo area attacks) and excludes collateral wounds like shrapnel.

How America defines a mass shooting is a work in progress, but the very act of talking about it has value. Hashing out new metrics that suggest a large number of attacks is not meant to scare people—it's meant to open eyes to a broad, ongoing tragedy, one that is rarely seen in aggregate, but nonetheless continually ravages the nation. It's part of a sea change in what Americans consider banal, invisible, or even tolerable violence. And hopefully it will crystalize not just the public conception of mass shootings, but the national resolve to act against and control them in all their forms.

Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.