Police guard Excel Industries in Hesston, Kan., on Thursday, where a gunman killed three people and injured many more. (Fernando Salazar/The Wichita Eagle via AP)

On Thursday, a gunman shot and killed three people and injured 14 more in Hesston, Kan,. before he was killed by police.

It was the 49th mass shooting of 2016.

No scratch that, it was the 33rd mass shooting.

Actually, wait: It was only the second mass shooting this year, and it barely made the cut.

It's said that the Inuit people have 50 words for snow. Sometimes it seems like Americans have nearly as many definitions for "mass shooting." Which definition is correct? They all are -- it just depends on what you want to measure.

Let's start with the most restrictive one, from the shooting tracker maintained by Mother Jones magazine. According to these criteria, a shooting becomes a mass shooting if the gunman kills four or more people (excluding himself); if he acts alone; and if the shootings take place in public, including workplaces, schools, churches and the like.


Limiting mass shootings in this way is useful because it tends to filter out all but the big, headline-grabbing incidents that most people think of when they think "mass shooting": Kalamazoo, Charleston, Umpqua.

But the definition omits a number of shootings that many reasonable people would consider a mass shooting. The man who shot up a theater in Lafayette, La., last summer killed only two people and wounded nine others -- not a mass shooting, per Mother Jones' definition. The killing of three people and shooting of 16 others at Fort Hood in 2014 isn't included because not enough people died. Ditto the rampage at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic last year.

Mother Jones' Mark Follman, who works on their database, said in an email that he "long acknowledged the potential limitations of our approach to tallying mass shootings, which is rooted in long-standing criteria used by the FBI and criminologists." He added, "There will never be a perfect definition or dataset."

For shooting victims, the difference between life and death can literally be as short as a few millimeters or the distance to a hospital. For that reason, other organizations base their mass shooting criteria on the number of people injured, not killed.

The nonprofit Gun Violence Archive, which tracks shootings in the United States, defines "mass shooting" as "FOUR or more shot and/or killed in a single event [incident], at the same general time and location, not including the shooter." By their tally, 33 such shootings have happened this year.


Another big difference between the GVA and Mother Jones definition is that GVA doesn't care if the shooting happened in a public place or not. If a man kills four members of his family at home, that's a mass shooting per GVA, but not Mother Jones. If three young adults get killed and five others shot at a private house party, that's a mass shooting per GVA but not Mother Jones.

There are some good reasons for keeping these latter types of shootings separate from our definition of mass shooting. "Gang shootings at nightclubs or house parties are a problem," Mother Jones' Follman wrote last year. "Ditto abusive men gunning down their families in their own homes." But, he added, while these are important categories of crime, they are "distinct issues that require different analysis and solutions."

A man who kills his family in private is likely driven by different motivations than one who kills a bunch of strangers in public. Gang members shooting each other in turf fights are a distinctly different problem than mentally ill people who shoot up an elementary school.

But others argue that you can't fully understand the toll of gun violence -- and the way that firearms make it easy to kill or wound multiple people in a short period of time -- unless you broaden your definition of "mass shooting." A life lost is a life lost, whether that happens in the South Side of Chicago, a private residence or a workplace.

So a group of pro-gun control Redditors began tracking mass shootings in 2013 using criteria of 4+ people injured, including the gunman in that tally. "Just because someone commits suicide by cop doesn’t mean that the bystanders weren’t subjected to an act of violence,” one of the Reddit tracker's creators told The Trace last year, “or that the cop who pulled the trigger to end the incident won’t have to deal with the psychological ramifications of killing another human being.”

By these criteria the Hesston rampage was the 49th mass shooting of 2016, the 32nd in February, and the 8th this week alone.


This approach makes sense to some observers. “If we're trying to capture true gun violence in our country, a broader definition [of mass shooting] is probably more useful than a narrow one,” Jim Bueerman, president of the Police Foundation, said in an interview last year.

"The ongoing debate about how to track and study mass shootings is healthy and valuable," Mother Jones' Follman wrote last year. And given that, by whatever metric you prefer, mass shootings are becoming more common, we will have to develop a more complicated vocabulary to talk about them.

"I think it would be better to use a different term when including all the other types of cases aggregated by Reddit and GVA: 'multiple-victim shootings,'" Follman said in an email. "I think this would be a good start toward signaling the broader categorical differences, which are important in terms of motive, venue, etc."

"I think headlines blaring that these are all 'mass shootings' does a disservice to public understanding of the issue, and to thinking about complex policy solutions," he added.

This story has been updated with quotes from Mark Follman of Mother Jones magazine.