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No, there haven’t been 18 school shootings in 2018. That number is flat wrong.

February 15, 2018 at 3:06 PM

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Eleven schools since Columbine High School in 1999 have had mass shootings. Accounts by witnesses and survivors are eerily similar. (Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

The stunning number swept across the Internet within minutes of the news Wednesday that, yet again, another young man with another semiautomatic rifle had rampaged through a school, this time at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in South Florida.

The figure originated with Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit group, co-founded by Michael Bloomberg, that works to prevent gun violence and is most famous for its running tally of school shootings.

“This,” the organization tweeted at 4:22 p.m. Wednesday, “is the 18th school shooting in the U.S. in 2018.”

A tweet by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) including the claim had been liked more than 45,000 times by Thursday evening, and one from political analyst Jeff Greenfield had cracked 126,000. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted it, too, as did performers Cher and Alexander William and actors Misha Collins and Albert Brooks. News organizations — including MSNBC, ABC News, NBC News, CBS News, Time, MSN, the BBC, the New York Daily News and HuffPost — also used the number in their coverage. By Wednesday night, the top suggested search after typing “18” into Google was “18 school shootings in 2018.”

It is a horrifying statistic. And it is wrong.

Everytown has long inflated its total by including incidents of gunfire that are not really school shootings. Take, for example, what it counted as the year’s first: On the afternoon of Jan. 3, a 31-year-old man who had parked outside a Michigan elementary school called police to say he was armed and suicidal. Several hours later, he killed himself. The school, however, had been closed for seven months. There were no teachers. There were no students.

Also listed on the organization’s site is an incident from Jan. 20, when at 1 a.m. a man was shot at a sorority event on the campus of Wake Forest University. A week later, as a basketball game was being played at a Michigan high school, someone fired several rounds from a gun in the parking lot. No one was injured, and it was past 8 p.m., well after classes had ended for the day, but Everytown still labeled it a school shooting.

Everytown explains on its website that it defines a school shooting as “any time a firearm discharges a live round inside a school building or on a school campus or grounds.”

Sarah Tofte, Everytown’s research director, calls the definition “crystal clear,” noting that “every time a gun is discharged on school grounds it shatters the sense of safety” for students, parents and the community.

She said she and her colleagues work to reiterate those parameters in their public messaging. But the organization’s tweets and Facebook posts seldom include that nuance. Just once in 2018, on Feb. 2, has the organization clearly explained its definition on Twitter. And Everytown rarely pushes its jarring totals on social media immediately after the more questionable shootings, as it does with those that are high-profile and undeniable, such as the Florida massacre or one from last month in Kentucky that left two students dead and at least 18 people injured.

After The Washington Post published this report, Everytown removed the Jan. 3 suicide outside the closed Michigan school.

The figures matter because gun-control activists use them as evidence in their fight for bans on assault weapons, stricter background checks and other legislation. Gun rights groups seize on the faults in the data to undermine those arguments and, similarly, present skewed figures of their own.

Related: [In tiny Townville, S.C., first-graders are haunted by what they survived — and lost — on a school playground]

Flowers are placed at a makeshift memorial outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Students and their family members join hands outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Denyse Christian embraces her son, Adin Christian, 16, near a memorial outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Roses were placed on a fence near a memorial outside outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Student, Shana Rosenthal kneels along a fence outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Hadley Sorensen, 16, is embraced by her mother, Stacy Sorensen, as people gather near a memorial outside the school in Parkland, Fla. Seventeen people were killed in a shooting at the school on Feb. 14.
People carry crosses to the memorial.
Angel Monge, left, and Stacey Sindon wipe away tears as they sit in front of the memorial.
People gather at the Fort Lauderdale Marriott Coral Springs Hotel for the funeral of student Alex Schachter, 14.
Media and police are seen at dusk near the school.
Kalob Carmona, 18, of Asheville, N.C., displays a recent tattoo that he got of the school athletics logo. Carmona used to live in the area and knew people who were affected by the shooting.
Congregation members embrace during a service at the First United Methodist Church of Coral Springs, Fla. The service was dedicated to the victims of the mass shooting.
Resident Steve Zipper visits a makeshift memorial in Pine Trails Park in Parkland.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is seen behind a makeshift memorial of flowers on fencing.
People bring flowers to a temporary memorial at Pine Trails Park.
Protesters hold up signs during a rally in Fort Lauderdale calling for more gun control.
Joe Zevuloni wipes a tear while visiting a makeshift memorial for the shooting victims at Pine Trails Park.
Katiusca Dulski cries as she visits the memorial in Pine Trails Park.
People arrive for the funeral for shooting victim, Meadow Pollack, 18, at Congregation Kol Tikvah in Parkland.
Two mourners embrace as they arrive for the funeral of Meadow Pollack.
Family and friends gather for Meadow Pollack’s funeral.
Mourners leave the funeral for Meadow Pollack.
A memorial for Meadow Pollack at a park in Parkland.
President Trump accompanied by first lady Melania Trump and Igor Nichiporenko, a doctor, waves to reporters while visiting with medical staff at Broward Health North in Pompano Beach, Fla.
People visit a makeshift memorial in Pine Trails Park.
Kristi Gilroy, right, hugs a young woman at a police check point near the school.
Students grieve outside Pines Trail Center, where counselors were present.
Parents of students and others attend a community prayer vigil at Parkridge Church in Coral Springs.
People offer prayers during a community vigil at Parkridge Church.
Tonya Kramer, center, embraces her daughter Alyssa Kramer, 16, during the community prayer vigil at Parkridge Church.
City, county and state officials release balloons in honor of the victims during a prayer vigil at Parkridge Church.
People arrive for a candlelight vigil in honor of the victims of the school shooting in Parkland.
People hold candles during a vigil in honor of the victims.
Marianna Guttierez, 14, center right, and other students from the high school attend the vigil.
A person holds up a candle during the vigil.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), right, Broward County Superintendent of Schools Robert W. Runcie, center, and Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel speak to the media about the shooting.
This video image shows shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz at Broward County Jail in Fort Lauderdale.
A video monitor shows suspect Nikolas Cruz making an appearance before a judge in Broward County Court in Fort Lauderdale.
In this frame grab from video provided by WPLG-TV, students from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., evacuate the school following a shooting, Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. (WPLG-TV via AP)
Emergency personnel transporting an injured person from the high school.
Students hold up their hands as they are evacuated from the school building.
People walk in a line while being evacuated.
A law enforcement officer rushes toward the school.
Police cars and a helicopter are seen in nearby Coral Springs after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in this image obtained from social media.
Students walk through an intersection while being evacuated from the school.
Students are released after a lockdown at the school.
Parents and family members gather at Coral Springs Drive and the Sawgrass Expressway.
Parents wait for news after reports of the shooting.
A parent talks on a cellphone while waiting for news about the shooting.
A student shows a law enforcement officer a photo or video from his phone.
A man in handcuffs is led away by police near the school following the shooting.
A man who was placed in handcuffs by police is loaded into a paramedic vehicle after the shooting.
Medical personnel assist a victim.
Rescue workers prepare to transport a victim in an ambulance.
A man in handcuffs is wheeled on a stretcher into a hospital.
People wait for loved ones as they are brought out of the school.
Two people embrace as family members wait for news on students.
Students leave the high school in Parkland.
Parents confer with security officers.
Family members embrace after a student walked out from the high school after the shooting.
Doctors Igor Nichiporenko, left, and Evan Boyer speak about treating victims and the suspect during a news conference outside Broward Health North hospital in Deerfield Beach, Fla.
People embrace while leaving the Fort Lauderdale Marriott Coral Springs Hotel.
Photo Gallery: Gunfire broke out at the South Florida school shortly before students were dismissed.

Gun violence is a crisis in the United States, especially for children, and a huge number — one that needs no exaggeration — have been affected by school shootings. An ongoing Washington Post analysis has found that more than 150,000 students attending at least 170 primary or secondary schools have experienced a shooting on campus since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. That figure, which comes from a review of online archives, state and federal enrollment figures and news stories, is a conservative calculation and does not include dozens of suicides, accidents and after-school assaults that have also exposed youths to gunfire.

Just five of Everytown’s 18 school shootings listed for 2018 happened during school hours and resulted in any physical injury. Three others appeared to be intentional shootings but did not hurt anyone. Two more involved guns — one carried by a school police officer and the other by a licensed peace officer who ran a college club — that were unintentionally fired and, again, led to no injuries. At least seven of Everytown’s 18 shootings took place outside normal school hours.

Shootings of any kind, of course, can be traumatic, regardless of whether they cause physical harm.

A month ago, for example, a group of college students were at a meeting of a criminal-justice club in Texas when a student accidentally fired a real gun, rather than a training weapon. The bullet went through a wall, then a window. Though no one was hurt, it left the student distraught.

Is that a school shooting, though? Yes, Everytown says.

“Since 2013,” the organization says on its website, “there have been nearly 300 school shootings in America — an average of about one a week.”

But since Everytown began its tracking, it has included these dubious examples — in August 2013, a man shot on a Tennessee high school’s property at 2 a.m.; in December 2014, a man shot in his car late one night and discovered the next day in a Pennsylvania elementary school’s parking lot; in August 2015, a man who climbed atop the roof of an empty Texas school on a Sunday morning and fired sporadically; in January 2016, a man in an Indiana high school parking lot whose gun accidentally went off in his glove box, before any students had arrived on campus; in December 2017, two teens in Washington state who shot up a high school just before midnight on New Year’s Eve, when the building was otherwise empty.

In 2015, The Post’s Fact Checker awarded the group’s figures — invoked by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) — four Pinocchios for misleading methodology.

Another database, the Gun Violence Archive, defines school shootings in much narrower terms, considering only those that take place during school hours or extracurricular activities.

Yet many journalists rely on Everytown’s data. Post media critic Erik Wemple included the 18 figure in a column Wednesday night, and Michael Barbaro, host of the New York Times’ podcast “The Daily,” used the number to punctuate the end of his Thursday show.

Related: [The terrible numbers that grow with each mass shooting]

Much like trying to define a mass shooting, deciding what is and is not a school shooting can be difficult. Some obviously fit the common-sense definition: Last month, a teen in Texas opened fire in a school cafeteria, injuring a 15-year-old girl.

Others that Everytown includes on its list, though, are trickier to categorize.

About 6 p.m. Jan. 10, a bullet probably fired from off campus hit the window of a building at a college in Southern California. No one was hurt, but students could still have been frightened. Classes were canceled, rooms were locked down and police searched campus for the gunman, who was never found.

On Feb. 5, a police officer was sitting on a bench in a Minnesota school gym when a third-grader accidentally pulled the trigger of his holstered pistol, firing a round into the floor. None of the four students in the gym were injured, but, again, the incident was probably scary.

What is not in dispute is gun violence’s pervasiveness and its devastating impact on children. A recent study of World Health Organization data published in the American Journal of Medicine that found that, among high-income nations, 91 percent of children younger than 15 who were killed by bullets lived in the United States.

And the trends are only growing more dire.

On average, two dozen children are shot every day in the United States, and in 2016 more youths were killed by gunfire — 1,637 — than during any previous year this millennium.

Read more:

‘Please keep kids safe from guns’: How Trump replied to a 7-year-old’s anguished letter

In the nation’s capital, a second-grader grows up surrounded by gunfire.

Almost two dozen kids are shot every day in the U.S. This 4-year-old was one of them.

For six teens at a Las Vegas high school, homecoming week started with a country music concert

At 15, Ruben Urbina couldn’t bear his depression and anxiety anymore. So he called police with a chilling threat.


John Woodrow Cox is an enterprise reporter at The Washington Post. He previously worked at the Tampa Bay Times and at the Valley News in New Hampshire.

Steven Rich is the database editor for investigations at The Washington Post. While at The Post, he has worked on investigations involving the National Security Agency, police shootings, tax liens and civil forfeiture. He was a reporter on two teams to win Pulitzer Prizes, for public service in 2014 and national reporting in 2016.

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