October 7, 2014
New York Times Fails in Reading Comprehension
Recently, the New York Times published an article, “FBI Confirms a Sharp Rise in Mass Shootings Since 2000.” If this were actually the case, it may have been newsworthy. Unfortunately for Times readers, even the headline was wrong.
The FBI did publish a study. That much is true. But it was not related to “mass shootings,” but rather to “active shootings.” In fact the study itself cautions that, “This is not a study of mass killings or mass shootings, but rather a study of a specific type of shooting situation law enforcement and the public may face.” The authors also note that only a minority of the shootings studied would have qualified as “mass killings.”
In four of the incidents studied no individuals were shot, even non-fatally, while others involved a single person non-fatally injured. The news coverage also ignored the fact that the study included shootings which resulted in zero individuals being shot.
While the New York Times should be held responsible for publishing outright errors, part of the confusion was due to flaws in the study as well. The vague definition of what an active shooter situation looks like is the primary problem as it could include or exclude just about any shooting that occurred in any year. The closest to an actual definition presented in the study is:
“A situation in progress and an aspect of the crime may affect the protocols used in responding to and reacting at the scene of the incident. Unlike a defined crime, such as a murder or mass killing, the active aspect inherently implies that both law enforcement personnel and citizens have the potential to affect the outcome of the event based on their responses.”
Forget about the fact that all shootings are obviously “in progress” while they are occurring, every crime involves a victim, and the vast majority of victims take self-protective actions intended to “affect the outcome” of the crime – they are intended to allow the victim to avoid being harmed.
It’s no surprise that with such a vague definition, the trends described are questionable at best. That didn’t stop the paper’s editorial page from using their erroneous interpretation of the fuzzy findings to call for a ban on so-called “military rifles and pistols” and to call for more government funding of studies such as this one.
In contrast to the slippery concept of ASIs, other types of crime, such as homicide, or homicides committed with firearms, are well-defined. It is probably more useful to look at trends in those well-defined and fairly well-measured types of violence. The table below displays the changes from 2000 to 2013, the years covered by the FBI report, in those kinds of violence, along with what the FBI reports for so-called “active shooter incidents.”
|% Change in Rates
|Gun Homicide b
|ASIs (FBI report)
- Because final 2013 data have not been released yet, 2012 data were used for total homicides and gun homicides. Preliminary figures indicate that homicide declined even further in 2013.
- Rates are per 100,000 population.
- Shootings with more than six victims shot, fatally or nonfatally. Rates are per 10 million. Source: Kleck (2014).
These data, and other analyses, indicate that fatal violence, in general, did not increase over the period studied by the FBI, nor did fatal gun violence. Quite the contrary, both declined substantially. The risk to Americans from gun violence dropped substantially.
Now there’s news worth reporting.