Fact Checker | Analysis
June 29, 2015 at 3:00 AM
“Since Sandy Hook there has been a school shooting, on average, every week. How on earth can we live with ourselves if we do nothing?”
— Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), speech on Senate floor, June 24, 2015
The shooting rampage that killed nine churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., has again sparked debate over gun control and mass gun violence. Lawmakers pushing for stronger gun control measures are expressing outrage at the prevalence of mass shootings — often evoking the deaths of 20 children and six staff members during the December 2012 shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Murphy’s speech on gun violence focused on Sandy Hook, mass shootings and the need to talk about anti-gun violence policy. He shared an eye-popping statistic: Since the shooting at Sandy Hook, there has been one school shooting on average per week. Is that really the case — that there have been somewhere around 128 school shootings since December 2014?
A version of this claim circulated after the June 2014 incident in Oregon in which a high school freshman armed with an assault rifle shot and killed a student and injured a teacher. President Obama and other gun-control advocates had said then that there had been at least 74 school shootings between Sandy Hook and the Oregon shooting.
The source for the claim then, and for Murphy’s recent statement, is a report by Everytown for Gun Safety, which describes itself as “a movement of Americans working together to end gun violence and build safer communities.”
The group keeps a tally of school shootings since Sandy Hook, counting at least 126 as of June 8, 2015. The group uses a broad definition of school shooting: when a firearm is discharged on school or campus grounds at K-12 schools and colleges. This is how the group explains its methodology:
Incidents were classified as school shootings when a firearm was discharged inside a school building or on school or campus grounds, as documented by the press or confirmed through further inquiries with law enforcement. Incidents in which guns were brought into schools but not fired, or were fired off school grounds after having been possessed in schools, were not included.
Over the course of two years, we identified a total of three incidents in which a private citizen discharged a firearm at a school that was ultimately determined to be self-defense — February 4, 2013 at Martin Luther King, Jr., High School in Detroit, MI, January 30, 2014 at Eastern Florida State College, and April 7, 2014 at Eastern New Mexico University. These three incidents were not included in the analysis.
This list comprises a variety of shootings at or near a school, including: attempted and committed suicides, accidental discharges, armed robberies, gang fights, shootings resulting from altercations, and shootings similar to the rampages at Sandy Hook or in Charleston, where a person intends to kill multiple people.
When Everytown first released its tally in 2014, media organizations gave it a lot of publicity — but then had second thoughts once it became clear it was such a broad list. CNN, for instance, initially reported the “74” figure but then determined that only 15 cases were similar to Newtown.
The Fact Checker analyzed each case included in the updated list. Of the 126 cases, 25 were attempted or committed suicides. The majority of the shootings on this list were targeted attacks against individuals stemming from altercations or ongoing conflicts. Below is a sample of non-suicide incidents included in the list that shows a range of the type of events:
There were at least 10 incidents that were similar to shooting in Newtown, with one shooter opening fire with the intent to kill or injure multiple victims. A separate incident in June 2015 involved a couple that shot and killed a cat on a school campus, but had told law enforcement officials they would have shot students if it were “God’s will.” We did not include that in the list of 10 incidents.
There is not a standard way to count what constitutes a “school shooting.” PolitiFact Oregon, for instance, narrowed Everytown’s list down to 35 school shootings, counting incidents in which a shooter was on campus during school hours.
A review of government studies on gun violence at schools showed narrower methods. For example, the National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice Statistics’ 2013 report on school crime and safety specifically looks at the percentage of students who have access to a loaded gun without adult permission, at or away from school, during the school year.
In the period between 2000 and 2013, the FBI identified 160 active shooter incidents, where one or more shooters “actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.” It used this definition to describe instances like Sandy Hook or the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007. This study did not include gang or drug violence or other shootings that did not generally put other people in peril (e.g., accidental discharge of a firearm in a school building or a person committing suicide in a parking lot).
The FBI found that education environments were the second-largest location grouping for active shooters, totaling 39 incidents at K-12 and institutes of higher education from 2000 to 2013.
Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, said he has not seen an authoritative data source or universal definition on “school shootings.” Trump noted the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ annual “Indicators of School Crime and Safety” report, which defines School Associated Violent Deaths as “a homicide, suicide, or legal intervention (involving a law enforcement officer), in which the fatal injury occurred on the campus of a functioning elementary or secondary school in the United States.”
“Federal and state statistics tend to grossly underestimate the extent of school crime and violence. Public perception tends to overstate it. Reality exists somewhere in between these two, but in terms of actual real numbers, nobody honestly knows exactly where this ‘somewhere’ is,” Trump said.
Chris Harris, Murphy’s spokesman, said it all comes down to how one defines “school shooting,” and that Murphy defines it as “gunfire on school property.”
“Senator Murphy believes that schools are no place for deadly weapons. Any and all gunfire in or around the classroom is unacceptable and must be stopped. Others can quibble over what amount of gunfire in a school they want to call a ‘shooting,’ but Sen. Murphy remains focused on stopping such events altogether,” Harris said.
There are many ways to define school shooting. But applying the “reasonable person” standard, as is the standard at The Fact Checker, it is difficult to see how many of the incidents included in Everytown’s list — such as suicide in a car parked on a campus or a student accidentally shooting himself when emptying his gun and putting it away in his car before school — would be considered a “school shooting” in the context of Sandy Hook.
Lawmakers have a responsibility to check out the facts in the reports they use, especially ones that come from advocacy groups. If they are aware there are definitions that are disputed, or that are defined in other ways depending on who uses them, it is incumbent on lawmakers to clarify exactly what they are talking about and not mislead the public. In particular, lawmakers should rely more on official government statistics, such as from the FBI, rather than misleading metrics cobbled together by interest groups.
We wavered between Three and Four Pinocchios. But this is a definition of “school shooting” that was widely disputed a year ago, and lawmakers need to present information — especially for such a controversial topic as gun control — in a clear, responsible and accurate way. Murphy’s failure to do so tipped the rating to Four.
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