Last Thursday, as President Obama bemoaned yet another American community traumatized by gun violence, he recounted telling a reporter this summer that the United States is the only advanced nation that does not have “sufficient, common-sense gun-safety laws.”
“And later that day, there was a mass shooting at a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana,” Obama said. “That day!”
Two people were fatally shot and nine were wounded in that attack. But according to the government’s own criteria, it did not actually qualify as a mass shooting, because the Federal Bureau of Investigation defines “mass murder” as an event in which four or more people are killed in one area at one time, excluding the perpetrator. The FBI’s metric has long been used by the media and academics, and according to that definition, last week’s Oregon college shooting is the 32nd mass shooting in the U.S. in 2015. That’s a relatively small number, especially as a subset of the 108,000 people killed or injured by intentional or accidental gunfire each year. But since it’s mass shootings that attract the most public interest, the reigning measure of such incidents could have the effect of underplaying the true extent of the gun violence the country experiences.
Leading the push for an updated criteria is the Mass Shooting Tracker, a crowdsourced website that grew out of the cheeky gun news subreddit /r/GunsAreCool. It defines a mass shooting as one with four or more people hit by bullets in one event, arguing that a shooting “means ‘people shot.’” To the Mass Shooting Tracker, an incident in which four people are wounded, but no one is killed, is still a mass shooting. According to its database, the Umpqua Community College shooting was the 295th mass shooting of the year.
The Tracker started in 2013. An earlier shooting in Oregon put it on the mainstream media’s radar: After 15-year-old Jared Padgett carried an AR-15 rifle into his high school in a guitar case and used it to kill a 14-year-old student and then himself in Troutdale on June 10, 2014, Chris Matthews cited the Tracker on Hardball. But it wasn’t until this summer’s spate of high-profile attacks that its definition really caught on. “We’re now averaging more than one mass shooting per day in 2015,” read a post published by the Washington Post’s Wonkblog in the wake of the live-broadcast shooting of two Virginia journalists in August. The item dutifully noted the broader criteria used by the Mass Shooting Tracker, and was accompanied by an evocative calendar showing the daily breakdown. The following day Vox circulated a map of every mass shooting since Newtown, made by a Stanford team using Tracker data. It shows 986 blood red dots spanning the country. The Tracker’s numbers have now been cited by AP, Reuters, CNN, PBS, NPR, CBS, The Boston Globe, Slate, Salon, VICE, The Economist, The Guardian, and the BBC, as well as “every [Rupert] Murdoch paper in Australia,” says Brock Weller, 29, one of two Redditors who produce the Tracker.
“The goal is to stop minimizing these acts of violence,” Weller explains. The site’s authors point to a 2012 shooting in which one person was killed and 18 people were wounded at a nightclub. Because only one person died, it was not considered a mass shooting. This June, 10 people were shot at a block party on a basketball court in Detroit; the next day, 11 were wounded when two people opened fire with a shotgun at a block party in West Philadelphia. Neither were widely referred to as mass shootings.
“Arguing that 18 people shot during one event is not a mass shooting is absurd,” the Tracker’s founders write. Medical advancements have helped save lives that would have otherwise been lost, a fact Weller believes the gun lobby benefits from. “Those gunshot victims are still just as shot and will never be the same,” he says.
Weller, a bar cook living in Portland, Oregon, was drawn to this topic by personal experience, he tells The Trace. In 2008, Weller was working the closing shift at a restaurant in Oakland when someone came in, pulled a sawed-off shotgun from the leg of his pants, stuck it in Weller’s face and demanded money. “Wasn’t a very pleasant experience to say the least, and I started to look for ways to get involved,” he says. “Being a technical person, I decided more data was what was needed. I looked at the gun debate, and there’s such an absolute scarcity of data,” he says, pointing to a 19-year freeze on federally funded firearms research. “If you’re so scared of a potential result that you ban looking into it, you’re reaching medieval-church-imprisoning-Galileo levels.”
To counter this lack of data, Weller turned to the Tracker, which was created by another Reddit user, “Billy Speed,” who also launched GunsAreCool. Weller now runs the Tracker from a Linux workstation, splitting duties with a Redditor named GhostOfAlyeska, who declined to speak to The Trace or reveal his or her identity for fear of reprisal. “We aren’t radicalized here, we simply want the same things that a majority of Americans want across the country,” Weller says. The Tracker’s numbers are culled exclusively from news reports, and are not matched against the law enforcement data used by the FBI. (Until recently, two pellet gun shootings had also made it into the site’s counts. Weller, who blames a software glitch, removed them when the error was seized on by gun rights commentators.)
The Tracker’s origins are paradoxical considering the strong gun culture found on Reddit, the centerpiece of which is the popular /r/guns subreddit. The site, which calls itself “the front page of the Internet,” has taken heat for hosting illegal gun sales, and a Mother Jones investigation revealed that the company licensed its alien logo on assault rifles in 2011, while it was owned by the publishing giant Condé Nast. GunsAreCool tacks in a decidedly different direction. Its posts read like an Onion article, but are tragically real: “Two children, ages 3 and 6, get an early education on the 2nd Amendment by watching two grown ups get shot in the face in their apartment,” a user named Encripture wrote Monday morning, linking to a news story with the more sober headline, “Police ID woman shot in face in Phoenix; man also shot still in hospital.” For several months following GunsAreCool’s debut, pro-gun agitators flooded its threads with negative comments. After ten months of operating the Tracker from GunsAreCool, Weller bought a separate domain and made it a freestanding site.
The Tracker’s definition is the same as that used by the Gun Violence Archive (GVA), a foundation-supported effort that records incidents of gun injury and death across the country. Unlike the FBI, both the Tracker and GVA include domestic homicides, gang-related shootings, and drive-bys in their tallies when those incidents meet the relevant victim thresholds. “When you exclude any subcategory, you diminish the meaning of the definition,” Mark Bryant, GVA’s executive director, tells The Trace. “That is why any shooting counts.”
Where the Tracker’s methodology diverges from all other major mass shooting definitions — both GVA’s and the FBI’s — is in including the gunman if the rampage ends in his death. Weller argues that the shooter’s death, whether by police or suicide, can also inflict trauma on witnesses and survivors. “Just because someone commits suicide by cop doesn’t mean that the bystanders weren’t subjected to an act of violence,” he says, “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 the Tracker’s broader standards, the Umpqua shooting wasn’t the only mass shooting on October 1. Several hours after the carnage in Roseburg, 57-year-old Walter Tyson fatally shot his estranged wife and a bystander who tried to intervene, and critically wounded the woman’s boyfriend before killing himself in a home in Inglis, Florida. Only Newsweek called it a mass shooting. The next day in northwest Baltimore, five people were shot, one fatally, outside a shopping center. Yahoo! News called it an “incident.”
The fact that the Tracker’s definition is being enlisted by more and more outlets “helps lessen the senseless death and tragedy by spurring action,” Weller says. “That’s my hope at least. Otherwise we’re just compiling a very sad memorial wall.”