Deconstructing an Epidemic: Determining the Frequency of Mass Gun Violence

Deconstructing an Epidemic: Determining the Frequency of Mass Gun Violence

Jason R. Silva (John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY), USA) and Emily A. Greene-Colozzi (John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY), USA)
Copyright: © 2019 |Pages: 29
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-5670-1.ch003


The excessive media coverage of mass gun violence has contributed to the public perception of an epidemic. These senstionalized media accounts highlight statistics suggesting a dramatic rise of the phenomenon. This chapter provides an in-depth analysis and comparison of open-source datasets to identify methodological weaknesses and clarify the prevalence of the problem. Findings illustrate the definitional, temporal, and data collection issues impacting the accuracy of assessment. This deconstruction of research counters the perception of a substantial rise in mass gun violence and suggests rates will vary depending on the typological phenomenon being investigated. A discussion of findings illustrates the importance of continuing the examination of mass gun violence and provides comprehensive guidelines for future research assessing the frequency of the phenomenon.
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The cultural trauma (Alexander, Eyerman, Giesen, Smelser, & Sztompka, 2004) produced by the recent Aurora, Sandy Hook, and Orlando shootings has driven public perception of a mass gun violence epidemic. Media accounts highlight these especially violent and sensational shootings (Schildkraut, Elsass, & Meredith, 2017), and contextualize them with data illustrating the worst-case scenario (Fox & DeLateur, 2014). Recently, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) published a report finding that since the turn of the century, active shooter incidents have increased at an annual rate of 16 percent (Blair & Schweit, 2014). News outlets including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN, Business Insider, and BBC seized upon this statistic and issued major headlines propagating the FBI’s conclusion (Lott, 2015). The media provides the main source of information about mass gun violence and this coverage contributes to shaping public knowledge of the phenomenon (Schildkraut & Elsass, 2016).

The issue with media coverage of mass gun violence is that it distorts the nature and pervasiveness of the problem (Schildkraut, Elsass, & Meredith, 2017; Silva & Capellan, 2018). For example, research finds that mass gun violence receives disproportionate amounts of coverage in relation to other forms of crime and homicide, despite being far less common (Duwe, 2000; Lawrence & Mueller, 2003; Maguire, Weatherby, & Mathers, 2002). The media driven assertion that mass gun violence is rising to epidemic proportions influences public opinion about safety and security (Burns & Crawford, 1999, Fox & DeLateur, 2014; Muschert 2007), as well as political discourse and subsequent policies surrounding the phenomenon (Borum, Cornell, Modzeleski, & Jimerson, 2010; Kleck, 2009; McGinty, Webster, & Barry, 2013). The considerable consequences related to these mediated public perceptions of mass gun violence stress the importance of research assessing the prevalence of the problem.

In the aftermath of the highly publicized FBI report, critics were quick to point out methodological weaknesses that severely compromised the validity of its determination that mass gun violence is on the rise (Lott, 2015). The relatively rare nature of mass gun violence means each research decision has the potential to limit confidence in findings and skew the reality of the phenomenon (Elsass, Schildkraut, & Stafford, 2016). The decision-making process that scholars, media outlets, and government agencies use when researching the phenomenon has resulted in an increasingly contentious debate regarding the true prevalence of the problem.

The purpose of this chapter is to provide context for the divergent views regarding mass gun violence in an attempt to clarify the frequency of the phenomenon. Specifically, this chapter will first review the assertion that mass gun violence is increasing yearly at an alarming rate. This is followed by an in-depth examination of the methodological considerations impacting conflicting reports of the problem. This analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of datasets provides guidance for a set of best practices for student, scholarly, and practitioner assessment of mass gun violence. The implications of this exploration into mass gun violence research provide a balanced understanding of the hyper-mediated problem and offer comprehensive guidelines for future research of the phenomenon.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Cool-Off Period: A resting period during a mass gun violence incident.

Victim-Specific Motivation: A perpetrator motivated by revenge against one or several victims that ends up targeting unknown individuals after beginning the attack.

Time Period Effect: An issue with data collection when working with media accounts. Older incidents receive less media coverage making them difficult to identify in open-source news databases. This can skew findings by suggesting an increase over time.

Publicity Effect: An issue with data collection when working with media accounts. The less publicity an incident receives, the more difficult it is to identify the case or information surrounding it.

Victim Criteria: The number of fatalities and injuries needed to be included in a mass gun violence database.

Ideological Motivation: A perpetrator motivated by extremist views including religious, political, racist, and single-issue ideologies.

Autogenic Motivation: A perpetrator motivated to kill as many people as possible. The victims may be chosen either symbolically or at random.

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