” The FBI released a report today suggesting that “active shooter incidents” grew more common from 2000 to 2013. Reason readers may wonder how to square that conclusion with the statistics we’ve published suggesting that mass shootings are not on the rise. There are two answers to that. One involves some potential problems with the FBI’s numbers; we’ll get to those issues in a moment. The other answer is simpler: “Active shooter” and “mass shooting” do not mean the same thing.
You’re forgiven if you didn’t get that impression from the press coverage of the FBI report. The Wall Street Journal, for example, called its story on the study “Mass Shootings on the Rise, FBI Says.” The New York Times said “F.B.I. Confirms a Sharp Rise in Mass Shootings Since 2000.” The Huffington Post went with “FBI Study Finds Mass Shootings On The Rise, Often End Before Police Can Respond.” The Daily Beast didn’t just use the headline “FBI: Mass Shootings Are on The Rise“; every single sentence in its brief article includes the phrase “mass shooting” or “mass shootings.”
While there are competing definitions of mass shooting out there, they all cover crimes that wouldn’t fit in the FBI’s list of active-shooter incidents; the FBI’s count in turn includes events that no one would call a mass shooting. The standard government definition of an active shooter is “an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.” (It doesn’t mention firearms, but the word shooter obviously excludes other means of murder.) The authors of the FBI report tweaked this definition slightly, dropping the word “confined” because they didn’t want to leave out crimes committed outdoors. They also excluded killings connected to gang rivalries or the drug trade—a major difference between these numbers and the mass-shooting statistics assembled by criminologists like James Alan Fox, one of the country’s leading authorities on mass murder. (For Fox, a mass shooting is basically any homicide with a firearm that leaves at least four people dead.) Another major difference: Rather than basing its definition on how many people were killed, the FBI report focuses on homicidal intent. If the perp only wounds his victims, or if he doesn’t even manage to do that, he still gets counted. Fewer than half of the incidents in the FBI report qualify as mass shootings under Fox’s definition.”
So is it true that these incidents are becoming more common?
Fox isn’t convinced. “Unlike mass shooting data,” he says, “which come from routinely collected police reports, there is no official data source for active shooter events. Necessarily, these data derived from newspaper searches for the term ‘active shooter’ and similar words. Not only is the term ‘active shooter’ of relatively recent vintage (although created after the 1999 Columbine shooting, it wasn’t used much in news reports until the past two years)…”