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Fight over school shooting list underscores difficulty in quantifying gun violence

What constitutes a school shooting?

That five-word question has no simple answer, a fact underscored by the backlash to an advocacy group’s recent list of school shootings. The list, maintained by Everytown, a group that backs policies to limit gun violence, was updated last week to reflect what it identified as the 74 school shootings since the massacre in Newtown, Conn., a massacre that sparked a national debate over gun control.

Multiple news outlets, including this one, reported on Everytown’s data, prompting a backlash over the broad methodology used. As we wrote in our original post, the group considered any instance of a firearm discharging on school property as a shooting — thus casting a broad net that includes homicides, suicides, accidental discharges and, in a handful of cases, shootings that had no relation to the schools themselves and occurred with no students apparently present.

None of the incidents rise to the level of the massacre that left 27 victims, mostly children, dead in suburban Connecticut roughly 18 months ago, but multiple reviews of the list show how difficult quantifying gun violence can be. Researcher Charles C. Johnson posted a flurry of tweets taking issue with incidents on Everytown’s list. A Hartford Courant review found 52 incidents involving at least one student on a school campus. (We found the same, when considering students or staff.) CNN identified 15 shootings that were similar to the violence in Newtown — in which a minor or adult was actively shooting inside or near a school — while Politifact identified 10.

Clearly, there’s no clean-cut way to quantify gun violence in the nation’s schools, but in the interest of transparency, we’re throwing open our review of the list, based on multiple news reports per incident. For each, we’ve summarized the incident and included casualty data where available.

The reports are messy, conflicting and sometimes inaccurate, so we should note upfront that we plan to update and maintain the information and map below. But, for now, here’s a summary of what we found in our review:

  • Casualties: At least one victim was harmed in some way in 53 of the incidents, while at least one was killed in 20.
  • Type of school: 35 shootings took place at a college or university; 39 shootings took place at a school that teaches grades K-12.
  • Location: We counted 19 shootings that took place in parking lots, 30 in buildings and 23 elsewhere on campuses.
  • Student victim casualties: 36 injured, 10 killed
  • Staff victim casualties: 6 hurt, 3 killed
  • Other casualties: 5 hurt, 12 killed
  • Shooter casualties: 10 suicides (7 of them with no injuries to others) and 5 self-inflicted injuries or attempted suicides.
  • Time of day: 49 took place at times when many people were around (either during school hours, during the daytime on a weekday or at a school event). Some 25 of the incidents took place at night or on a weekend.

Some context on the incidents listed:

  • Not all involved casualties, but some were simply accidental discharges while others were closer calls. Last August, a 5-year-old in Memphis, Tenn., brought a loaded gun to school, which, according to reports, discharged accidentally. But just a few days earlier, a Georgia man walked into an elementary school, held at least some employees there captive briefly and exchanged fire with the police before surrendering. Neither resulted in any injuries, but each represents a very different kind of incident.
  • Roughly a third appeared premeditated in nature — that is, the shooter entered the school grounds with plans to do harm — while another third appeared to be shootings that occurred in the heat of the moment. A handful appeared to be accidents or clearly gang or drug related.
  • At least four incidents involved an attempted robbery.

In an effort at full transparency, we’re embedding the map below, which reflects the data mentioned above and includes short summaries and sources for each incident:

View Shootings at schools since Newtown in a full screen map

Niraj Chokshi is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post.

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