As defined by the federal government, an active shooter "is an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area, typically through the use of firearms." Even though they may wish to kill large numbers of victims, these assailants typically fall short of their objective.
Among the 110 active shooter cases identified since 2000, nearly three-quarters resulted in fewer than four fatalities, which is the usual threshold for mass murder, wrote James Alan Fox, the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University, in the USA Today.
Moreover, nearly one-quarter of the active shooter cases were resolved without any victims losing their lives. While all of these episodes were undoubtedly frightening to those impacted directly or indirectly, the majority should not be equated with the few catastrophic slayings that have grabbed the headlines and alarmed the nation.
Besides the confusion surrounding terminology, evidence suggesting an increase in active shooters is suspect, at best. The data used by the FBI and others focusing on active shooter incidents derive in large part from newspaper sources. That the term "active shooter" is of recent vintage tends to bias any attempt to examine trends based on searching news coverage.
In sharp contrast to the "active shooter panic" is that mass shootings, instances in which four or more are killed by gunfire, are not on the rise. Over the past three-plus decades, according to official homicide data reported annually by law enforcement agencies nationwide, there have been on average about 20 mass shootings a year, with neither an upward or downward trajectory. The only increase has been in publicity and dread.
Fox concludes, "The reason why the rampant misimpression about a raging epidemic in active shooters matters so greatly is in how it drives public opinion and public policy on guns, mental health and security. Excessive alarm, fueled by misleading news reports, leads to knee-jerk responses that are not necessarily for the best."