Before voting last June in favor of a bill to spell out what constitutes a mass shooting under state law, New York Assemblymember Monique Chandler-Waterman delivered an impassioned speech about how the lack of a definition had resulted in survivors being routinely overlooked.

“Mass shootings happen a lot in districts like mine,” said Chandler-Waterman, who represents the predominantly Black and brown East Flatbush and Canarsie neighborhoods in Brooklyn. She noted a recent shooting around the corner from her home had left a 39-year-old father of five dead and three other people wounded. “These incidents are never called a mass shooting, and resources are rarely provided,” she said.

The bill, which the freshman lawmaker had shepherded to the Assembly floor, initially defined mass shooting as an incident in which four or more people — excluding the perpetrator — were injured or killed. But by the time it passed the Legislature and was signed by Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul in December, the definition had narrowed to encompass only incidents in which at least four people were killed. Injured victims were excluded. 

The change threatens to shut out communities from emergency funding and other services in the wake of what would have been considered a mass shooting under the bill’s original definition. The law took effect in February. 

According to data compiled by the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that defines a mass shooting as four or more people shot regardless of whether they were injured or killed, New York’s law excludes 99 percent of mass shootings that have occurred in the state over the last decade. Only three shootings would fit the state’s new threshold of at least four people killed, while 218 other shootings would fall short because the body count isn’t high enough.

Many of the shootings that wouldn’t qualify as a mass shooting occurred in predominantly Black and brown communities. Those incidents include the 2022 Brooklyn subway shooting that left 10 people wounded; a 2019 shooting in Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood that left one person dead and 11 others wounded; and a shooting on a Bronx subway platform on February 12 of this year that killed one person and wounded five others. 

Although the definition is not what advocates originally hoped for, the bill is an important step forward, said Rebecca Fischer, executive director of the advocacy group New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. No other state has defined mass shooting specifically for victim compensation and services. (Texas has adopted a definition in a section of its penal code pertaining to aggravated assault.)

“New York is always trying to be cutting edge about taking that first step, and then that usually is influential to other states across the country,” Fischer said. She pointed out that some of the state’s other gun-related laws were augmented years after their initial passage. “Our hope is to set a foundation, and as other states start to do the same thing, New York will have a lot more leverage to take it a step further.”

Lawmakers haven’t said why they altered the definition. In a statement after the bill’s signing, Chandler-Waterman said that the law was “a significant step forward in responding to the horrific epidemic of gun violence in our state,” and that she looked “forward to building upon this legislation in the future.” Meanwhile, Hochul’s office said that the wording was “based on an agreement with the legislature” and consistent with the definition used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Chandler-Waterman’s and Hochul’s offices did not respond to inquiries from The Trace.

This isn’t the first time New York pioneered a gun reform policy that fell short. In 2022, a teenage gunman wearing body armor killed 10 people at a Buffalo supermarket, prompting the state to pass what lawmakers and Hochul touted as a ban on the sale of body armor to civilians. After The Trace reported that the ban excluded the kind of body armor worn by the Buffalo shooter, the Legislature amended the law. 

How mass shootings are defined can shape the scope of the debate over gun violence. Gun rights advocates have argued that a definition that includes both killed and injured makes mass shootings seem like a bigger problem than they actually are, while proponents of the broader definition say that advances in trauma care have saved lives that might previously have been lost to gunshot wounds, so injuries shouldn’t be discounted. Gun Violence Archive counted 656 mass shootings in the United States in 2023, which made for staggering end-of-year headlines. Under the FBI’s narrower definition, there were 41 mass shootings. 

These incidents are never called a mass shooting, and resources are rarely provided

Monique Chandler-Waterman, New York assemblymember

With New York’s new law, the definition of mass shooting isn’t just philosophical or ideological anymore — it can affect people’s lives. The bill added mass shootings to a list of circumstances under which the New York Office of Victim Services can seek emergency federal assistance. That assistance is intended for state victim compensation programs, public agencies in jurisdictions that experience mass violence, and nongovernmental organizations that service survivors. The definition change restricts that funding to a narrow subset of survivors.

There is language elsewhere in the law that appears to extend state-funded assistance programs to shootings that leave four or more people injured, but that provision merely “codifies what victim assistance programs already do, which is help any victim or family member of a crime,” said Janine Kava, a spokesperson for the New York Office of Victim Services. 

The bill’s sponsor in the state Senate, Zellnor Myrie, told The Trace through a spokesperson, “When a horrific mass shooting incident occurs, New Yorkers should know their government will provide the resources needed to support the impacted individuals and communities,” adding that the “new law underscores our commitment to supporting victims of violence.” 

Myrie’s spokesperson did not respond to follow-up questions about why the definition of mass shooting was changed.