Hard to measure school shootings

It is difficult to decide on how to measure school shootings and gun violence:

What constitutes a school shooting?

That five-word question has no simple answer, a fact underscored by the backlash to an advocacy group’s recent list of school shootings. The list, maintained by Everytown, a group that backs policies to limit gun violence, was updated last week to reflect what it identified as the 74 school shootings since the massacre in Newtown, Conn., a massacre that sparked a national debate over gun control.

Multiple news outlets, including this one, reported on Everytown’s data, prompting a backlash over the broad methodology used. As we wrote in our original post, the group considered any instance of a firearm discharging on school property as a shooting — thus casting a broad net that includes homicides, suicides, accidental discharges and, in a handful of cases, shootings that had no relation to the schools themselves and occurred with no students apparently present.

None of the incidents rise to the level of the massacre that left 27 victims, mostly children, dead in suburban Connecticut roughly 18 months ago, but multiple reviews of the list show how difficult quantifying gun violence can be. Researcher Charles C. Johnson posted a flurry of tweets taking issue with incidents on Everytown’s list. A Hartford Courant review found 52 incidents involving at least one student on a school campus. (We found the same, when considering students or staff.) CNN identified 15 shootings that were similar to the violence in Newtown — in which a minor or adult was actively shooting inside or near a school — while Politifact identified 10.

Clearly, there’s no clean-cut way to quantify gun violence in the nation’s schools, but in the interest of transparency, we’re throwing open our review of the list, based on multiple news reports per incident. For each, we’ve summarized the incident and included casualty data where available.

This is a good example of the problems of conceptualization and operationalization. The idea of a “school shooting” seems obvious until you start looking at a variety of incidents and have to decide whether they hang together as one definable phenomenon. It is interesting here that the Washington Post then goes on to provide more information about each case but doesn’t come down on any side.

So how might this problem be solved? In the academic or scientific world, scholars would debate this through publications, conferences, and public discussions until some consensus (or at least some agreement about the contours of the argument) emerges. This takes time, a lot of thinking, and data analysis. This runs counter to more media or political-driven approaches that want quick, sound bite answers to complex social problems.

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