Justice Department researchers said Monday that before the country can get a handle on mass shootings, it needs to come up with uniform definitions and a better set of data.
Scientists at the National Institute of Justice reviewed decades of studies of mass shootings, often with conflicting results, and said they found too many inconsistencies in the assumptions, and what some researchers include and others exclude, to draw big conclusions from the information that’s out there right now.
They called mass shootings “as elusive as they are disruptive.”
Some studies looking at mass shootings consider any incident with more than one person slain by a firearm. Others require at least five victims. The most frequent definition in the 44 studies the institute reviewed used a definition of four persons killed by shooting in a public place.
Then there’s the source of data. Some use official government information, while others rely heavily on news accounts or other “open source data.”
“These inconsistencies may lead to mixed — or even contradictory — findings, suggesting a need to align data and definitions in a more unified, coherent approach,” wrote Basia E. Lopez, Danielle M. Crimmins, and Paul A. Haskins, who authored the paper for the institute.
Several high-profile mass shootings last year pushed the gun debate back to the forefront of American politics — and sparked a new round of questions about whether the U.S. is, in fact, seeing more such shootings now than it did in decades past.
The institute said there’s no one accepted source of data, and the 44 studies they reviewed relied on 122 distinct data sources.
While official sources such as the FBI’s uniform crime reports are authoritative, they are aimed more at investigations and don’t have the richness of information, such as preparations for an attack or history of mental health, that researchers often seek.
Press accounts do often have that information, but they are less reliable, according to people from law enforcement, who spoke to the institute.
The Justice Department scientists also spoke with academics, and said they and law enforcement personnel — whom they dubbed “practitioners” — agreed that strict definitions don’t really get to the heart of mass shootings.
For one thing, the number of people killed may be a factor of luck — more people in a room means more targets, though the shooter’s intention is just the same. For the same reason, including non-fatal injuries is also important.
Instead, mass shootings should be judged by “premeditated intent to shoot to kill,” they said.
But where the practitioners tended to trust official data, the academic researchers were more willing to look at press reports.
The institute said moving forward, law enforcement should have a bigger role in studying mass shootings, and academics should get better access to official records such as prisoner interviews.
Looking into averted attacks is also important, the institute said.
The Washington Times reached out to researchers on both sides of the gun debate Monday but didn’t get responses.