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Opinion: How Mass Shootings Are Defined Directly Affects How We Respond

We are one month into 2024 and, depending on who you ask, we’ve had 32 mass shootings, five mass shootings, or, according to some, no mass shootings at all, Chip Brownlee from The Trace writes. There are so many different numbers because there’s no single agreed-upon meaning of “mass shooting.” Researchers, nonprofit trackers, and the media use different definitions. The government, for its part, has no official definition. How we think about what is and isn’t a “mass shooting” influences how we and our lawmakers respond to these events. Prevention programs, new legislation, and policies may not be effective if the problem they’re trying to address isn’t clearly defined. Different uses of the term affect public perception of the severity of the problem, too. Narrower definitions can ignore victims who have historically been harmed by mass-casualty violence — just not the kind that makes national news.

Many “mass shooting” definitions exclude shootings that result from the commission of another crime, like robbery or burglary, and those that are precipitated by alleged street gang conflict (setting aside the issues with the way we view gang conflict). These types of shootings may call for increased investments in gang interdiction or community-based violence prevention programs, and may not be prevented by Emergency Risk Protection Orders or an assault weapons ban. The same could apply to other crisis interventions, domestic violence prevention programs, and mental health supports. They may work on one mass shooting, but not another, and an understanding devoid of the nuances can obscure that reality. With that in mind, Brownlee writes that it may be best not to have a single definition of “mass shooting,” and instead create space to explore the motivations and precipitating factors, recognizing that there are different types of mass shootings and no one-size-fits-all solution.

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