On Wednesday, businessman and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang released his plan to combat gun violence in the United States. At the top of the document, the following statement is made:

Gun violence is a scourge in this country. … After the tragedies in El Paso and Dayton, there have been 255 mass shootings in 2019 – more than days have passed in the year. Our children are twice as likely to die from gun violence than cancer.

Despite his assertion that there have been 255 mass shootings in 2019, Yang never mentions the source from which he gathered his information. However, if one follows the numbers, it appears that Yang used the Gun Violence Archive (GVA) as his authority.

The Gun Violence Archive website explains its methodology regarding mass shooting data as such:

GVA uses a purely statistical threshold to define mass shooting based ONLY on the numeric value of 4 or more shot or killed, not including the shooter. GVA does not parse the definition to remove any subcategory of shooting. To that end we don’t exclude, set apart, caveat, or differentiate victims based upon the circumstances in which they were shot. GVA believes that equal importance is given to the counting of those injured as well as killed in a mass shooting incident.

While the Gun Violence Archive uses one set of criteria to define a mass shooting, other organizations use different criteria that can substantially alter perceptions regarding how common mass shootings are.

For example, Mother Jones, which has one of the most comprehensive data sets pertaining to mass shootings, defines the act as “an incident where four or more people are shot in a single shooting spree. This may include the gunman himself, or police shootings of civilians around the gunman.” Using this definition, there have been seven mass shootings in 2019.

In a 2015 report on mass shootings published by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), William J. Krouse and Daniel J. Richardson use the FBI definition for “mass murder” as a template for “mass shooting.”

According to the FBI, the term “mass murder” has been defined generally as a multiple homicide incident in which four or more victims are murdered, within one event, and in one or more locations in close geographical proximity. Based on this definition, for the purposes of this report, “mass shooting” is defined as a multiple homicide incident in which four or more victims are murdered with firearms, within one event, and in one or more locations in close proximity.

Similarly, a “mass public shooting” is defined to mean a multiple homicide incident in which four or more victims are murdered with firearms, within one event, in at least one or more public locations, such as, a workplace, school, restaurant, house of worship, neighborhood, or other public setting.

There is no formal definition of “mass shooting.” However, in the minds of many Americans, a “mass shooting” is an incident in which one or more active shooters open fire in a school, church, or public space with the express and singular intent of killing as many innocent people as possible.

This unconsciously understood “definition,” which lines up closely with the Mother Jones data set, as well as mainstream media coverage, often conjures images of shootings with high fatality rates such as Sandy Hook, Aurora, Parkland, Orlando, or El Paso (to name just a few), which can lead to confusion when someone uses a different definition without offering clarification.

Andrew Yang might not even realize that this confusion exists, and may simply be using the data from GVA because it appears comprehensive. However, the connotations of his statement regarding the alleged “255 mass shootings in 2019” might frighten people unnecessarily, and lead to their being misinformed on a critical issue facing the United States.

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