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What Counts as a Mass Shooting? Why So Much of America’s Gun Violence Gets Overlooked

6 minute read

In the past two weeks, two horrific mass shootings have made national news across the United States.

On March 22, a gunman killed 10 people at a Boulder, Colo. grocery store, including a police officer responding to the scene. A 21-year-old man has since been charged with ten counts of murder, after surrendering to police at the scene.

Just six days earlier, on March 16, a mass shooting occurred at three spas and massage parlors in the Atlanta metropolitan area. A 21-year-old man has since been charged with eight counts of murder, having been arrested after a police chase. Of the eight people killed, six have been identified as Asian and Asian-American women; the incident has been widely viewed targeted attack against the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, at a time when violence and racism against the AAPI community in the country has been on a marked rise.

Read more: The Atlanta Shootings Fit Into a Long Legacy of Anti-Asian Violence in America

Both in this moment and moving forward, we must be more conscious of our country’s selective reaction to gun violence—and how coverage of gun crime is produced and viewed through a majority white-led media industry. It remains of the utmost importance to hear and to learn from AAPI communities, uplifting their voices and championing their calls to action to end anti-Asian violence and discrimination as it relates to gun violence, and any violence. Alongside this, it’s also crucial to define what exactly a mass shooting is—and to acknowledge the racialized blind spots we have in applying the term, which is actually not borne of a clear concrete or “literal” definition.

Because in the past two weeks, there have been not two but 24 mass shootings. This includes a shooting spree in Maryland on March 28, where a gunman killed his parents, two other people and then himself. On March 26, two people were killed and another eight were left injured after three separate shooting incidents in Virginia Beach. Just a couple of days before the shooting in Atlanta, 15 people were shot at a party on Chicago’s South Side, and two were killed. Beyond local media coverage, the shooting went virtually unnoticed.

Overall, more than 100 people have been shot in all the mass shooting incidents in the past two weeks—and over 30 have been killed. There were over 600 mass shootings in 2020.

Read more: 2020 Ends as One of America’s Most Violent Years in Decades

While citing mass shootings at Virginia Tech in 2006 and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 as just two examples of incidents which “really created a shift in public consciousness and public awareness” of gun violence, Robyn Thomas, Executive Director of the Giffords Law Center to Stop Gun Violence, says that the American public really started paying attention to large-scale gun crime in the late 1980s and early 90s, particularly after eight people were killed in a 1993 shooting in a San Francisco office building. (Recorded mass shootings, however, date as far back as the 1920s, and a number of the earliest incidents saw victims targeted for their race.)

The San Francisco shooting in part led to the 1994 federal assault weapons ban, which was part of an expansive crime bill passed under President Bill Clinton that year. It prohibited the manufacturing of certain semi-automatic weapons for civilian use, along with specific types of ammunition. While much of the crime bill’s impact is now debated, and criticized, Thomas argues that limiting access to assault weapons did have an effect on “high fatality mass shootings,” which were far less frequent during the 10 years the bill was in place, and before the ban expired in 2004.

The FBI doesn’t define “mass shooting” as its own term; it only defines a “mass murderer” as someone who kills four or more people in one location—and that doesn’t necessarily have to be with a firearm. The most accepted definition of a mass shooting, then, is as a single incident in which four or more people are shot or killed. A mass shooting typically occurs in a single place and time but can include multiple locations in close proximity to each other, as was the case in Atlanta. The Gun Violence Archive (GVA), a leading organization on the topic, uses this definition—as does the Giffords Law Center.

Thomas says the reason people resonate so much with the publicized mass shootings is because they have occurred in settings where they have been conditioned to feel safe—schools, malls, office buildings and places of worship, to list a few examples. That assumption however doesn’t acknowledge the spaces where most mass shootings happen; the implicit bias here translates to a belief that these places, and other communities, are unsafe. “We’ve become inured to the day-to-day gun violence you see happening in urban communities,” Thomas adds. “A lot of Americans are not necessarily thinking about it.” Mass shootings happen all the time in the United States—particularly within poor Black inner-city communities. The reality is that, though, shootings are not “supposed” to happen anywhere.

“Lots and lots of people were dying in car accidents fifty years ago, and we took a comprehensive national approach to addressing that problem—everything from drunk driving to speed limits to banked curves to collapsible steering columns to seat belts. I could go on and on,” Thomas continues. “We still drive a lot of cars. There’s even more cars on the road than ever. And yet we reduced car death by 80% because we looked at this as a public health issue and we took a wide range of steps available to us. And that’s the same kind of approach we need to take with gun violence. We need to look at all the ways we can prevent it.”

The more taxing work is to call out every single incident of gun violence, regardless of how large or small it is. Gun violence plaguing inner-city Black communities is a large part of a massive problem hampering this country. Solutions are plentiful; there’s no shortage of action that can be taken at this very moment to address the gun violence problem in the country but if the outrage remains selective, even if by omission, then the most vulnerable citizens in the country will never be heard—and we will fail to address this plague.

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Write to Josiah Bates at josiah.bates@time.com