The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

Active Shooters vs. Mass Shootings

USA Today reports “active shooters hit a record number in 2017 with 30 incidents and 138 killed.” However, it is important to know this category has only been kept since 2000, so there are only 17 points in the entire data base. The other thing is “active shooter” is a term used to describe what most people think are “mass shootings,” a term that is widely misused. The FBI says, “U.S. federal government agencies define an active shooter as ‘an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.’ The FBI expands this definition to include more than one individual in an incident and omits the word confined as the term excludes incidents that occurred outside buildings.”

For instance, while the FBI lists 30 “active shooting” cases in 2017 the activist site “Mass Shooter Tracker” claims 427 such incidents. They ignore official definitions and use their own, which helps inflate numbers and make the case they are attempting to make. Most the public assumes the term is used to describe incidents where a shooter is randomly killing anyone within range, while anti-gun groups use it to describe gang shootings over drug turf, family disputes and other incidents where no members of the public was ever at risk.

The FBI didn’t show these numbers in terms of population, so even as the population grows, the number of shooting can increase as the rate of shootings actually decrease. Adjusting for population is the norm, though it was not done in this case.

Another problem is the total number of “active shootings” are very low and thus fluctuation can appear far more dramatic than it really is. If 10 incidents took place last year and 15 took place this year that is a 50% increase. A 50% increase from a base or 5,000 is far more meaningful. Some U.S. cities saw dramatic rises in the percentage of homicides, but in actuality it meant a handful of incidents because the base was so low to start with.

One former FBI official is quoted by the paper as saying we need more time to see if this is a “statistical anomaly” or whether it has actual meaning. It’s too early to know.

It is important to put all this into some perspective.

First, the total number of victims of “active shootings” make up well under one percent of the total number of U.S. homicide victims. In other words, 99%+ of all homicides happened in other kinds of incidents. As awful as these incidents are, even if each of them were prevented, the number of homicides in the country would barely change. The real problem with homicides are not the “active shooter” incidents for the most part.

Second, there were 138 victims in 2017. The population of the country was 325.7 million people. The chance of any one person being killed in an “active shooting” is 1 out of 2,360,144. In comparison the London Telegraph says “there is a 1 in 2,330,636 chance of getting five numbers plus the bonus ball” in the British lottery.

Third, given how few incidents fit this category in any one year, the majority of states had zero incidents. In 2016 and 2017 together, 29 states had zero “active shooting” incidents in both years, while another six states had one incident over the two-year period. (Data is taken from the FBI report Active Shooter Incidents in the United States in 2016 and 2017.)

Fourth, the 138 fatalities in 2017 are particularly high due mainly to one incident; the horrible shooting in Las Vegas that accounted for 58 of the deaths. Without that incident the fatalities in 2017 would have been well below the record high set in 2012 of 90 (again remember this is over 17 years only). In their conclusion the FBI warned: “Casualty numbers were dramatically higher due to three incidents: the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas, Nevada; the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida; and the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.”

We also should not forget the horrific attack on the gay club Pulse killed 49 people. One reason the casualty rate was so high was due to police inactivity. The shooter entered the club around 2 am. Police received their first calls at 2:02 am. The first police officers arrive at 2:04 am but did NOT enter the club, in spite of active shooting going on. Intermittingly police entered areas of the club where they knew the shooter was NOT present and reported he was contained at the back of the building, where he continued to shoot people.

The killer, meanwhile was left to his own devices, even taking time to search the internet for mentions of his attack. Meanwhile people inside the club were messaging loved ones begging for the police to do something. Police waited. Only after the shooter had 3 hours to kill victims did police actually confront him with force.

In 10 or the 50 incidents citizens, who were usually armed, engaged the shooter before police arrived on the scene. I will quote what the FBI says about this incidents:

“In 10 incidents, citizens confronted the shooter. In eight of those incidents, one or more citizens safely and successfully acted to end the shooting.

In four incidents, unarmed citizens confronted or persuaded the shooter to end the shooting. In two incidents, school staff confronted and restrained the shooter. In one incident,the citizen used his car to thwart the shooter. In one incident,the citizen persuaded the shooter to surrender via telephone during a police chase; she ran up to the shooter’s car as he came to a stop and pulled him out of his seat, bringing the chase to an end.

In four incidents, citizens possessing valid firearms permits successfully stopped the shooter. In two incidents, citizens exchanged gunfire with the shooter. In two incidents, the citizens held the shooter at gunpoint until law enforcement arrived.

In one incident, a citizen possessing a valid firearms permit exchanged gunfire with the shooter, causing the shooter to flee to another scene and continue shooting.

In one incident, a citizen possessing a valid firearms permit was wounded before he could fire at the shooter.”

In one incident, the shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, a nearby resident heard the shots and armed himself to confront the killer. The perpetrator exchanged shots with the neighbor and fled the scene, although he was wounded. The neighbor, along with another local resident, followed and the perpetrator lost control of his car and crashed. He then killed himself with a shot to the head. While the FBI says there were other incidents where individuals with guns stopped the shooters, news reports of the incidents seem devoid of any mention that those who stopped the shooting were armed.

For instance, the FBI mention two cases where citizens with firearms permits “held the shooter at gunpoint until law enforcement arrived.” One of those incidents was a shooting at Townville Elementary School but CBS only reported a civilian “subdued” the shooter, and no mention is made he was armed. A report published by CNN makes no mention of the civilian stopping the shooter at all. A brief local report about an incident in Rockledge, FL can’t avoid mentioning the civilian because he shot the perpetrator — making it very hard to ignore. WFTV reported, “An armed bystander shot and injured the accused gunman, said Donna Seyferth, with the Rockledge Police Department.” At an incident at the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ a gunman entered the church and opened fire. He accidentally shot himself during a struggle with a member, the church member retrieved a firearm from his own car and used it to hold the gunman captive until police arrived.

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James Peron

James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.