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How do you define ‘mass shooting’? One statistic is only a start

Astartling statistic ricocheted through the headlines last week after the killing of 14 people and the wounding of 21 more in San Bernardino: 353 mass shootings across the country in 336 days.

Even more startling: Two of those 353 shootings happened in Buffalo.

Don’t remember them? That may be because they were two of dozens of shootings in the city this year that many tune out as simply the sad fallout of urban violence linked to gangs.

Raekwon Jabbar, 18, was shot to death on Roosevelt Avenue on an early May evening in what police described as a “gang-related” shooting that wounded three other teens. Another 18-year-old man, Alonzo Scott, died on a Saturday night in June when he and two other people were shot on Warren Avenue.

The Buffalo deaths made, a website that compiles a list of mass shootings across the country and was the source for the startling statistic of 353 mass shootings. The site’s count of those – reported earlier in the week by news outlets as 355 but listed at 353 as of Friday – includes any shooting that killed or wounded at least four people, regardless of the intent. The site included the gunfire that killed Scott, despite the fact that police reported three people shot, not four. It cites early news reports that listed five victims.

The list sparked a debate over how you define “mass shooting.” Certainly, the website’s list includes many more tragic scenes than the high-profile rampages that have scarred our public psyche in recent years. There’s real value in quantifying those terrifying mass killings to try to make sense of what has happened this year in places such as Charleston, Chattanooga and San Bernardino. Lumping together all types of quadruple or more shootings doesn’t help answer important questions raised by the chilling mass violence that America has suffered.

But there is also value in recognizing there’s a steady drumbeat of deaths – including in Buffalo – that take young lives and erode neighborhoods.

“We have to start talking about that. If we’re going to make America safe, America needs to be safe for everybody,” said Arlee Daniels, of Stop the Violence Coalition. “Because when you talk about gun violence and you’re talking about violent behavior, you’re talking about something that affects everybody.”

Daniels and others have dedicated more than a decade to working to curb violence in Buffalo, reaching out to young teens, holding vigils and trying to change the lives of gang members.

The ray of hope is that homicides in Buffalo are down from a peak of 92 in 1994 and have steadily bounced around an annual average of about 51 since, according to FBI data. But the tendency for many to see urban violence as simply an intractable problem is devastating for a city working to rebuild itself. There is no violence we can afford to ignore. Daniels sees more that could be done – from better tracking of illegal guns to providing more role models for youth. But it will take everyone – not just police and activists – to work toward change.

The seeming randomness of mass killings – whether caused by terrorism, mental illness or something else – will always draw enormous reactions and fear. That’s the very intent of the shooters. But gun deaths across America are a much more deeply nuanced problem than that one startling statistic revealed.