False School Shooting Statistics Harm Conversations on Gun Regulation

We live in an era of fake news. Breaking reports travel faster than ever thanks to the digital environment most people plug themselves into at some point in their day, spreading necessary information worldwide in a matter of minutes. However, when false information is caught in these news streams, the positives of educating people are marred by those same people’s blissful ignorance that they have been misled.

The shooting in Parkland, Florida on Feb. 14 displayed this to the fullest extent. Students under siege in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School updated their loved ones with posts to social media as the event unfolded. In addition to the countless articles covering the incident, news of the 17 killed spread to almost anyone connected to the internet that day.

While there is power in informing people of these shootings, there also comes a responsibility from media agencies to not propagate statistics that, while not necessarily false, are less than true. USA Today’s David Mastio broke down the much-publicized statistic that there have been 18 school shootings in 2018 alone, revealing that Everytown, an advocate for gun regulation and the originator of the claim, classifies school shootings as guns being fired at or onto a school, not the murderous rampages most assume they are.

A quick look at Everytown’s website shows that eight of the shootings were simply a gun discharging at or near a school with no injuries or deaths resulting from the incident. Seven were discharges with the intent to harm, and only four of those were of the same vein as the shootings we are (sadly) accustomed to seeing in the news. Some of the accidental shootings were as trivial as a student thinking a gun was fake and firing it into the wall of a school building.

The original statistic has since been reduced to 17 by Everytown (although it should be even lower) after the article was published, although several large news companies have already used it in articles concerning the incident and spread its factual leniency to countless people around the world.

Everytown’s website has a plethora of well-researched articles and graphics to inform the curious about the current state of gun violence in America, and their promotion of gun safety is noble. However, one would be hard-pressed to find a justification for their ridiculously low standard of classifying a school shooting.

One of the cases on their 2018 shooting chart was caused by a third-grader sneaking behind an armed officer and pulling the trigger on his holstered weapon, causing it to discharge with no injuries. Sure, this was literally the shooting of a gun at a school, but not the intentional shooting of a school’s inhabitants that most people will associate with the phrase “school shooting.”

Everytown’s game of semantics with their statistics needs to change. Claiming that 18 shootings have occurred in less than two months of the new year is a cheap way to gain traction for gun safety advocacy, and also pulls people into conversations with statistics that cannot support their arguments.

Scaring people into thinking 18 shootings like Parkland have happened without any coverage on them is fear-mongering, plain and simple, pushing concerned citizens to take a step back and cower to the side of Everytown’s political agenda. Furthermore, it depicts news agencies as not serving their purpose to society, insinuating that 17 major shootings happened before Parkland without any coverage. While the intentional shootings that happened during this time period did receive media coverage, they were not on the scale or social media-driven publicity that Parkland was.

Everytown’s unfortunate classification system and the lack of fact-checking from journalists (save for Mastio) have led to the statistic diffusing through literally every social media platform I’ve touched since the shooting. While it is empowering to see people rally behind a cause and advocate for what they believe in, it feels twisted that so many politicians, citizens, and newscasters alike have already accepted the statistic as truth. It wouldn’t be hard to inform people of its inaccuracies, but whenever these people use it in conversation or in debate, their reliability is diminished to whoever knows the truth behind it.

Most of the articles featuring Everytown’s data have updated their stories to include the caveats behind the statement, but these changes feel too little and too late to change the fact that people have digested its original form as the truth. If this incident teaches us anything about facts from politically leaning organizations (or any online entity, for that matter), it’s that they should be met with high skepticism. Informing oneself can be tedious, but the reward of not being uninformed is priceless.

Isaac Espinosa is a third-year electrical engineering major. He can be reached at imespino@uci.edu.