Did the Pandemic Slow Mass Shootings? Depends on the Definition

After attacks in Atlanta and Boulder, a misleading refrain emerged: Mass shootings slowed during the pandemic, and now they’re back. But this overlooks spikes in homicides and shooting injuries in 2020.

On the afternoon of Feb. 17, 2021, gunmen opened fire near a crowded Philadelphia public transit hub, wounding eight people in minutes.

It garnered local coverage — how could it not — but was it a national conversation-starter? YouTube didn't put the incident front and center on its TV apps, President Biden didn't make a speech, the cable TV talking heads didn't spring into action.

Then came mass shootings in Atlanta, Georgia; Boulder, Colorado and Orange, California. In Atlanta, eight were killed and one person injured in a series of shootings at spas in the area. In Boulder, a gunman killed 10 people in a grocery store. And in California, four were killed in an office complex, including a 9-year-old boy.

Each deservedly got national attention. In the mourning period, however, a misleading refrain emerged: Mass shootings stopped during the pandemic, and now they’re back.

Even a former president echoed this statement.

"A once-in-a-century pandemic cannot be the only thing that slows mass shootings in this country. We shouldn't have to choose between one type of tragedy and another," Barack Obama wrote in a statement following the Atlanta shooting.

But this narrative ignores a steady stream of gun injuries and deaths that weren’t stopped by the pandemic. Whether those incidents are defined as mass shootings depends on whether you include shootings that led to injuries as well as deaths.

In 2020, the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive recorded a massive spike in shootings in which 4 or more people, not including the shooter, were injured or killed. GVA refers to these as mass shootings and, under that definition, mass shooting incidents were up 46% in 2020 from the prior year. GVA logged 21 mass murders — shooting incidents across the country in which 4 or more people, not including the shooter, were killed. That number is down from 31 in 2019.

The group also tallied 16,400 homicides, up 30% from 2019. In Philadelphia and many other American cities — Los Angeles, Chicago, New York — homicides increased in 2020 from the prior year.

The FBI defines a mass shooting as 4 victims killed, not including a shooter, emphasizing fatalities over injuries. 

But injuries matter, said GVA Executive Director Mark Bryant. 

“We just don’t believe in separating and saying this mass shooting, this group of 4 people, is more important than that group of 4 people,” Bryant said.

Philadelphia Councilmember Isaiah Thomas said the city has seen several “horrific stories” where injuries had a huge impact.

“The actual shooting itself put them in a position where their life was never, ever the same again, despite them actually surviving,” Thomas said. 

There were no widely covered mass shootings that occurred in public during the pandemic, then suddenly, mass-casualty incidents in Atlanta, GA and Boulder, CO this month. Shannon Watts of Moms Demand Action tells LX News she's worried about violence when more schools reopen.

For those victims, just knowing that someone had a gun and could have killed them creates emotional trauma as well.

Loren Lieb chairs the board of Women Against Gun Violence, a California-based organization. She has been involved in anti-gun-violence work for over 2 decades, ever since 1999, when a white supremacist opened fire at a Jewish community center in Los Angeles where her sons were at camp.

The shooting, which came just four months after the Columbine massacre, injured five children, including Lieb’s son Josh. The shooter fled and later killed a Filipino American USPS worker, Joseph Ileto, because of the color of his skin.

After Josh was shot, Lieb’s doorbell rang constantly. Packages were rolling in from all across the country and the world: she remembers a box arriving full of letters and cards. 

Even then, in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, she recognized the disparity in the attention her son’s injury received compared with the steady incidents of gun violence that don’t make the national news. 

“There’s all these people where their loved one maybe got killed today, and they’re sitting alone at their dining room table, mourning by themselves. They’re not getting cards from people saying ‘oh, I’m so sorry this happened to you.’”

In her activism, she said it hasn't been easy to point out that mass shootings are dwarfed in number by other forms of gun violence that the nation sees every day.

“You don’t want to minimize the seriousness and the importance of the devastation of a mass shooting, but to say, ‘OK, well that was 2% of the people that got killed today’… that’s a tricky line to walk,” Lieb said.

So why the attention gap? Why are some shootings widely known and not others?

The FBI and CDC have been criticized for incomplete accounting for the total victims of gun violence. Bryant said disproportionate media coverage also plays a role. In Philadelphia alone, there were hundreds of shootings that didn’t make it into media reports; records only existed at the police department.

“Part of that is just fatigue. You know, we always make the joke that [in] media, if it bleeds, it leads. But there’s only so much bleeding they can even take,” Bryant said.

Mass shootings that garnered national attention happened in public gathering places like theaters and grocery stores; violence there is shocking, and it’s true that some locations were closed during the pandemic and unavailable as targets. In that sense, mass shootings could “return” at places like schools when the nation more fully reopens.

But it’s not like the overlooked violence happened behind closed doors.

“We’ve had a number of incidents at parks and playgrounds. We had an incident that took place on a prison ground, a maximum security prison, with no arrests,” Thomas said.

Race is a factor. Thomas said he sees a lack of attention when a Black life is lost. Even public shootings with Black victims don’t always spark the widespread outcry they deserve.

“I wish that the killing of Black people did create the political appetite to do something about gun control and laws surrounding a gun, the ability to access a gun, ghost guns and all these different things that are plaguing urban areas across the country,” Thomas said, “But it just doesn’t.”

Philadelphia saw more homicides in 2020 than any year since 1990. Last month the city council held a day-long hearing on gun violence, where a local trauma surgeon called for a more public-health-focused response to gun violence — centered on prevention rather than law enforcement tactics.

“We should cover mass shootings, not based on the color of their skin or the location of the event, but on the intent of the shooter," Thomas said. "And we need to understand why people are doing these things, how they get access to the artillery that they use, and what can we do to prevent the next one from happening.”

Bryant wants to see the toll of gun violence laid out before the public every day in black and white until they pay attention. 

“Just give the same damn box scores that you put in for the Phillies,” said Bryant. “Explain to people that it’s like golf, not basketball, you want the numbers to be lower.”

Police are still searching for suspects in the 8-victim Philadelphia shooting. More information, including details about a reward, is available here.