Shootings Since Sandy Hook: The Fight to Define What ‘Counts’

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

When do school shootings count as shootings? When is a school shooting considered “fake?” More importantly, why are we only concerned with gun violence in very narrow definitions? A recent analysis of school shootings that have taken place since the tragedy at Sandy Hook ignited the need for such questions.

The report, published by Moms Demand Action and Mayors Against Illegal Guns, is an effort by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the pocketbook behind the groups’ combined efforts in Every Town for Gun Safety, referred to by some as Everytown, the self-proclaimed antithesis to the National Rifle Association. This makes the information likely to be as biased as information coming from the NRA. Consider the source of your data and from there, decide how objective the gathering was likely to be. In this sense, critics are understandably aggressive in picking apart Everytown’s facts and statistics, and I generally applaud criticism of any data set; there’s usually something worth criticizing in how information was gathered, presented, or explained, even in scientific communities — much less from politically motivated sources. I’m particularly glad, though, that people are taking the time to criticize this particular report, because it brings up important questions about where our gun concerns lie, and what definitions people on both sides of the issue find most important.

First, let’s look at what the report says post-update. It examines the period between December 15, 2012, the day after the shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school, up to February 10, 2014, reporting that during that time “there has been at least 44 school shootings including fatal and non-fatal assaults, suicides, and unintentional shootings — an average of more than three a month.” The full report goes on to specify what shootings were fatal, which were caused by a “schoolyard argument,” which were suicides, and which were non-fatal. The report notes that three of the four shootings dealt with a gun obtained from the home, and “this includes three cases where a minor used a gun to attempt or complete suicide in his school.”

The oft-quoted basics that were posted on the website — and are where most take issue – simply state that since the December 2012 shooting in Newtown, there have been 74 school shootings, going on to criticize the political failure to change gun policy.

Now, critics take issue with a few things within the report, but also largely from the overall phrasing or titling of the information; Everytown could have saved everyone a lot of time if they’d titled their page “Shootings in American Schools Since Sandy Hook,” or even “Gun Use In American Schools Since Sandy Hook.” But they didn’t, and they very likely recognized that their phrasing would be somewhat politically charged, which is their prerogative, just as the NRA-ILA is free to title its articles “Common Sense Prevails in West Virginia.”

First, lets look at some of the disputed facts that held enough merit to result in the full report listing only discussing 44 shootings, compared to the initial 74. Some of the shootings proved to be off campus, such as the one in Atlanta, Georgia, which proved to be drug related and took place in a car off of the Morehouse College campus. This, and others, were removed from the full report list, and do present questionable additions to the set of information given. Looking at such recent data means pulling from ongoing cases where all information is not fully understood — there were bound to be some mistakes, and it’s understandable to want clarification on that number as political opponent.

Yet some of the criticism is very specific to the language of “school shootings” and what would qualify as a “legitimate” school shooting, which is a rather hilarious and dark qualification to insist on making. Credit is perhaps due to Charles C. Johnson of The Daily Caller for pointing out (on Twitter) that those shootings were not even on school campuses — this is an error worth noting — but certainly no credit is due for careful use of language or politically correct phrasing. Why is Sandy Hook a tragedy, but when a “gang banger shoots another student in the face,” it’s considered “another fake school shooting?” Beginning each tweet with “Another fake school shooting listed by everytown” or even “Another fake shooting,” Johnson goes on to list those he doesn’t find fits the expected definition.

Johnson explained his efforts, tweeting that, “It’s not a school shooting when someone goes and shoots a specific person on campus. It’s a shooting that happens to take place at school.”

So where is the definitional line? That to be a school shooting it must be random? It must be directed only at others, so seeing a classmate or teacher shoot themselves isn’t disturbing and life-altering? Is the qualifying factor that the underlying social issue be one specific to bullying or mental illness or that it isn’t related to gangs or suicide? That distinction gets blurry awfully quick, by the way.If a student is committing suicide in front of classmates with a gun as a result of bullying, it’s a quick leap to turning the gun on classmates before the suicide. Is it the type of student targeted, the degree of innocence they are perceived as having? A student suspected of gang activity — though unconfirmed — or who got in the way when another was targeted for gang activity is no longer as worthy of note or as politically charged?

There are always going to be outside social issues that can be called in when any shooting takes place on school grounds or off: domestic violence, gang activity, mental illness and instability, depression, drug trade, drug addiction, etc. Schools in particular are a charged location because of the youth of those attending; these are people’s children — individuals, it’s assumed, that are less able or prepared to protect themselves. But ultimately, this distinction between what is a “fake” school shooting and a “legitimate” one not resulting from a disagreement between students or gang targeting is both useless and subjective as it applies to the gun arguments — and Charles C. Johnson is not the only one making it.

In the end, there are two basic arguments. There are social issues that guns are exacerbating, and guns are finding their way into hands that shouldn’t have them under current availability, laws, and regulation; or one should attack the social root of the problem rather than blaming the gun, which is just a tool that may be illegally obtained, making legal sales not the issue. However, when a 14-year-old is shot by a 16-year-old for gang-related reasons, or a bystander is shot when gang violence pours over into public places and guns are put to use, it should not be dismissed as less important. Just because gangs are the social issue rather than bullying or mental illness does not make death and injury any less important or salient to the gun debate. Detroit or Portland, a gun in a school with students is a problem.

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