It seems as though we’ve reached the point where the news media is so eaten up with its own biases that it doesn’t even bother to check the provenance of the sources it uses. We all remember how the addled Dan Rather was so consumed with hatred of George Bush that he accepted as legitimate documents that survive public scrutiny for about two hours. Now the media is moving into cheerleader mode for more gun control legislation. To do so they have to build a case for pervasive mass shootings.
You’ve probably all seen the data. Here Vox.com produces it in handy flip card form so you can take it to family gatherings and fight with your relations over progressive talking points:
The Washington Post runs with the same data and graphic to proclaim The San Bernardino shooting is the second mass shooting today and the 355th this year.
What is the source of this? Well, if you thought the FBI or some part of Department of Justice or a research university you would be sadly mistaken:
The statistics now being highlighted in the news come primarily from shootingtracker.com, a website built by members of a Reddit forum supporting gun control called GunsAreCool. That site aggregates news stories about shooting incidents — of any kind — in which four or more people are reported to have been either injured or killed.
Or, as the Washington Post says:
The San Bernardino shooting is the 355th mass shooting this year, according to a mass shooting tracker maintained by the Guns Are Cool subreddit. The Reddit tracker defines mass shootings as incidents in which four or more people, including the gunman, are killed or injured by gunfire.
The Mass Shooting Tracker is different from other shooting databases in that it uses a broader definition of mass shooting — the old FBI definition focused on four or more people killed as part of a single shooting.
It would be also be the second mass shooting just today — in the early morning hours, one person was killed and three were injured in an incident in Savannah, Georgia.
So we are supposed to take seriously a “open source” database that comes from Reddit? Jesus freakin’ wept. Why, you might ask, in the name of heaven would actual grown ups in the news media use Reddit as a source rather than, say, the FBI? The New York Times helpfully provides an answer:
It’s not clear why the Redditors use this much broader criteria. The founder of the “shooting tracker” project, who currently goes by the handle “Billy Speed,” told me it was his choice: “Three years ago I decided, all by myself, to change the United States’ definition of mass shooting.” It’s also not clear how many of those stories — many of them from local outlets, including scant detail — are accurate.
Doesn’t any “real journalist” have enough curiosity to ask questions like “who the f*** is “Billy Speed” and why is he qualified to do this?” or “why is changing the definition important?” or what are your quality control procedures for ensuring your “crowdsourcing” isn’t fabricated?”
Or how about doing a bit of due diligence? It isn’t like the guy who owns shootingtracker and Guns Are Cool is low key. (I’m embedding an image in case the text disappears.)
Does this seem like a guy you would trust with providing data for a national debate?
What would be a better number?
At Mother Jones, where I work as an editor, we have compiled an in-depth, open-source database covering more than three decades of public mass shootings. By our measure, there have been four “mass shootings” this year, including the one in San Bernardino, and at least 73 such attacks since 1982.
What explains the vastly different count? 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.
While all the victims are important, conflating those many other crimes with indiscriminate slaughter in public venues obscures our understanding of this complicated and growing problem. Everyone is desperate to know why these attacks happen and how we might stop them — and we can’t know, unless we collect and focus on useful data that filter out the noise.
For at least the past decade, the F.B.I. regarded a mass shooting as a single attack in which four or more victims were killed. (In 2013, a mandate from President Obama for further study of the problem lowered that threshold to three victims killed. [italics mine]) When we began compiling our database in 2012, we used that criteria of four or more killed in public attacks, but 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.
Also note the italics. Anyone have any idea why Obama took time out from overseeing the expansion of ISIS to tell FBI statisticians what numbers to use?
So the reason the Reddit number is used becomes obvious. It is designed to be agitprop for gun control and the founder of the site says so. It so changes the definition of “mass shooting” that actually San Bernardino had two of them this week. The first was when the Islamists shot up the holiday luncheon. The second was when the police killed them. In short, the numbers are actually meaningless.
The media has actually reached the point where, if the data fits its agenda, “if it is on the internet it has to be true” is the standard. This is a sad day when I have to hold Mother freakin Jones up as an example of objective journalism.