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Fact Check

AFP
August 20, 2019

Fact-check: Mass shootings around the world in 2019?

Fact Check

AFP
Tue, Aug 20, 2019

A viral tweet comparing mass shootings perpetrated in various countries since the beginning of 2019 continues to be shared across social media since the August 4 shooting in Dayton, Ohio. The original tweet pointed out that the United States experienced 249 mass shootings, while countries like Brazil only suffered one. This is misleading. The definition of a mass shooting for the US data includes gang related violence, which it does not for other countries, experts told AFP.

The comparison is daunting. A tweet claims to show the number of mass shootings between January 1 and August 3, 2019 for 24 countries with the United States far ahead at 249. Mexico, in second place, only experienced three, while 18 nations experienced none.

The visually telling tweet, complete with flag emojis for each nation, was shared 412,000 times on Twitter, and thousands more times as a screenshot on Facebook.

To be sure, mass shootings are recognized to be a more prevalent issue in the United States than in other countries, which is the broader point the tweet’s author attempts to convey. However, the numbers that the author uses are misleading.

The author of the tweet, a New York City council employee, does not provide any sources for the data, nor did he answer questions about them from AFP Fact Check. In the case of the United States, the source was likely the Gun Violence Archive, a recognized nonprofit that compiles data on mass shootings in the US from news sources. A saved version of the webpage shows that on the morning of August 3, 2019, the number of mass shootings in the United States stood at 248. A shooting in El Paso, Texas later that day brought the number up to 249.

The Gun Violence Archive defines a mass shooting as any event in which four or more people are shot or killed, not including the shooter, regardless of the motive. The archive is purely quantitative and does not “differentiate victims based upon the circumstances in which they were shot.” This definition means that 129 of the 249 mass shootings reported did not include any deaths, Politifact noted.

The Gun Violence Archive collects data from 6,500 sources daily, according to its website, which makes it a rather unique tool not available in other countries, experts told AFP.

“I would be surprised if those statistics are compiled by other countries in the same way so I highly doubt that there are reasonable comparisons across those countries,” Rosanna Smart, gun policy expert at the RAND Corporation, a research organization that focuses on public policy challenges.

“With respect to Brazil and Mexico, it makes me wonder where that data is coming from,” Jooyoung Lee, associate professor of sociology specializing in mass shootings at the University of Toronto, told AFP. The tweet refers to one mass shooting in Brazil in 2019, and three in Mexico, despite the lack of a known database compiling mass shootings in those countries following the Gun Violence Archive’s methodology.

Between January and July 2019, Mexico’s executive secretary of the public safety national agency reported 12,215 murders involving firearms, although this does not specify the number of casualties per shooting.

AFP staff in Mexico City pointed out that the term mass shooting is not usually used by authorities or by the press. The AFP fact-checker in Mexico City estimated that cases where four people die or are injured by firearms in Mexico occur at least twice a week. This frequency means that most cases do not make international headlines, but AFP reported on at least nine instances in 2019, including this attack in July, which resulted in 59 dead and 22 injured.

In Brazil, the Violence Monitor collects data on violent deaths, although it does not specify which ones were caused by firearms. AFP staff in Brazil said that shootouts occur daily in the country’s largest city, Rio de Janeiro, most of which are recorded in this database. Although not all of the shootouts result in four or more deaths, AFP’s fact-checkers in South America’s largest country pointed out that a quick internet search reveals at least two cases during the month of August.

If the definition of mass shooting excludes gang, drug and organized crime-related violence, as Stanford University’s Mass Shootings in America database defines it, then the tweet would be correct in reporting one mass shooting in Brazil in 2019. On March 14, two former pupils of Sao Paulo’s Raul Brasil public school shot dead eight people and injured 11. 

The tweet misleads by using an inconsistent definition of a mass shooting, particularly by choosing a broader definition for the United States.

“Without a definition, I do think it can be problematic because I think in general, the population when they hear mass shooting that conjures up an image like the type of public mass shootings like in Dayton or El Paso with a lone gunman indiscriminately shooting into a crowded area,” Smart told AFP.

Without consistent data for each country, a proper comparison on mass shooting numbers including all types of gun violence cannot be established. At the time of publication on August 19, the Gun Violence Archive number of mass shootings for 2019 had risen to 262.