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PolitiFact: Disturbing, sure, but commonplace?

The statement

"Saturday's shootings reflect a disturbing trend. Mass shootings have become commonplace since the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007. There have been dozens of incidents where three or more people have been fatally wounded. Hundreds have died."

Pierre Thomas, Jan. 9, 2011, on ABC News' This Week with Christiane Amanpour

The ruling

On Jan 9, 2011, ABC News' This Week with Christiane Amanpour aired a special edition from Tucson, Ariz., site of a bloody attack that killed six and left Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and 13 others wounded. ABC News senior justice correspondent Pierre Thomas tried to put the attack into context. "Saturday's shootings reflect a disturbing trend," Thomas said. "Mass shootings have become commonplace since the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007," in which a single gunman killed 32 and wounded many more. "There have been dozens of incidents where three or more people have been fatally wounded. Hundreds have died."

James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston, who has examined raw FBI statistics had the numbers to put the claim to the test. Here are the number of incidents in the United States in which four or more died in shooting incidents, according to Fox's calculations. (Criminologists' cutoff in these type of studies is four victims.)

• 2007: 23

• 2008: 29

• 2009: 27

So, with a three-year total of 79 such incidents, it's clear that describing it as "dozens of incidents" is accurate. And the number of incidents with at least three victims would be even higher, perhaps as many as five times as high, according to records with the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

What about the suggestion that "hundreds" of people die in such incidents? That, too, appears to be accurate. Using just the baseline of four dead per incident, the numbers killed in mass shootings in 2007-09, would be 316, according to Fox. If the threshold is raised to shootings involving three victims, the death toll could be roughly 1,600.

Fox's data goes back to 1976, and it, too, shows rates rising and falling, with no clear direction. And Thomas used the word "commonplace." The Bureau of Justice Statistics numbers showed that in 2005, 0.60 percent of all homicide incidents involved 3 victims, and 0.12 percent, one of every 1,000 homicides, involved four victims.

Its a stretch to say such killings are now "commonplace," and it's not clear that there's been a trend upward. We rate his statement Half True.

PolitiFact: Disturbing, sure, but commonplace? 01/11/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 11, 2011 10:21pm]
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