PolitiFact Rhode Island acknowledged that both halves of a two-part claim about the incidence of mass shootings in the United States were “true,” but bizarrely concluded that the overall claim was only “half true.”
In a November 1 article, PolitiFact Rhode Island purported to fact check a claim by Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), who said that “There have been more than 300 mass shootings in the United States this year -- more than any other country in the world.”
There is strong evidence for both the claim that more than one mass shooting happens each day in the United States and that mass gun violence occurs in the U.S. in a way that is not seen in other countries, as PolitiFact acknowledged.
PolitiFact, however, rated the overall claim “half true,” arguing, “while both parts are basically correct, Cicilline was off base when he put them together. ... The first half of his sentence is true and the second half is true. But two trues, in this case, don't make the whole truth.”
This conclusion is as convoluted as the reasoning used to reach it.
PolitiFact first acknowledged that it is “true” that there have been more than 300 mass shootings in the United States this year. PolitiFact cited the same data source as Cicilline, the Mass Shooting Tracker, which counts any shooting in the United States where four or more people are shot, regardless of whether anyone was killed, or whether the incident occurs in public or in private residences.
PolitiFact asserted, however, that “The second half of the congressman's claim” -- which dealt with mass shootings in other countries -- “is more problematic because it has little in common with the first half of the claim.”
To determine the incidence of mass shootings in other countries, PolitiFact cited a study of public mass shootings in foreign countries by University of Alabama professor Adam Lankford.
The difference between the definition of a “mass shooting” and a “public mass shooting” is that mass shootings encompass all incidents where large numbers of people are shot (even in private homes), while “public” mass shootings are a subset, only including shootings at shopping centers, movie theaters, churches, and schools, and other places where victims are typically shot indiscriminately in a public or semi-public space.
The other distinction is that the Lankford study only included public mass shootings where at least four people were killed, while the Mass Shooting Tracker counts incidents where four individuals were shot regardless of whether the victims were injured or killed.
Lankford's study concluded that public mass shootings are more common in the United States than other countries, and significantly, Lankford told PolitiFact “Any politician who says that is correct.”
But in its summation, PolitiFact argued, “The problem with [Cicilline's claim] is that he mixes disparate facts to draw a single conclusion. The 'mass shootings' of the first part are not the same as the 'public mass shootings' of the second part”:
And so while both parts are basically correct, Cicilline was off base when he put them together. The Mass Shooting Tracker does not tally foreign shootings. And the social scientist from the University of Alabama looked at different events from a different period of time.
The first half of his sentence is true and the second half is true. But two trues, in this case, don't make the whole truth.
The problem with this logic is that the disparities in the data could actually strengthen Cicilline's point. Lankford's study identified 90 individual public mass shooters -- who killed at least four victims -- in the U.S. between 1966 to 2012. That was five times more mass shooters than the next highest foreign country, according to his study. Even if the Mass Shooting Tracker captures more private shootings than Lankford would have counted, it still identified 65 shootings just this year where 4 or more people died; and the chances of another country increasing their incidents of public mass shootings enough to gallop past the U.S. just since 2012 seems deeply unlikely.
Overall, the evidence is on Cicilline's side concerning the grotesque incidence of mass shootings in the United States, and PolitiFact's criticism of his claim seems to rest more on grammar than on the data.