Counting the Lives Lost to School Shootings Since Sandy Hook

WWith the trauma of Uvalde’s massacre, Texas still fresh in their minds, Senate negotiators proposed on Sunday night a bipartisan compromise for gun control legislation. It includes provisions to increase background checks and school security.

Despite the recent escalation in gun violence mobilizing lawmakers, Robb Elementary School’s May 24 tragedy that claimed 19 lives and left 2 others injured, is far from being the most fatal school shooting of recent years. There is not consensus on the exact number of victims to these shootings. These incidents are not covered by the federal government. Researchers, advocacy groups, as well as publications, can develop their own.

To examine why it is so difficult to agree on this grim tally, TIME reviewed the roster of nearly 1,000 incidents of gunfire at schools and colleges published by the gun-control advocacy non-profit Everytown for Gun Safety, spanning the nearly 10 years since the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Everytown’s figures are commonly cited—alongside a handful of organizations that comb and aggregate media accounts of gunfire on school grounds—and use a broad definition of “any time a firearm is discharged inside a school building or on a school campus or grounds.”

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Other organizations commonly filter such lists based on a handful of variables such as the number of casualties and the time of day, often focusing on “Newtown-like” events. Advocate groups such as Everytown argue that this lens overlooks many of the traumatic events or lost lives that happen in settings like schools sporting events.

To capture this tricky calculus, TIME took the 101 incidents on Everytown’s list of on-campus gun violence at preschools and K-12 schools that involve an assault and at least one fatality, and coded each by the variables that are commonly used to arrive at a measure of the impact of school shootings. To see the effect of any distinction made in school shootings, you can change this filter.

These incidents represent a small portion of Everytown’s universe. It also contains nearly 250 other events where at least one person was injured, often severely. The list also includes a number of episodes in which a person–usually a student–took their own life on campus, often during the school day, as well as a number of accidents, typically when a student brought a gun to school and discharged it in the course of showing it to another. While the visualization above does not negate the seriousness of such incidents it can be limited by how little information is available about the time and place they were held and the person involved.

One reason for a lot of gunfire at school is that there are often confrontations between adult and child, many times during the night or on weekends. However, it is difficult to distinguish between incidents that endanger students and those that occur during school hours. Of the 101 incidents on this list, 50 occurred outside school hours (“school hours” here includes school-sponsored sporting events), and of the 53 people killed in those incidents, 11 were under age 18.

For example, last Monday, October 21, a 21 year old set fire to a pizza joint across from Lincoln High School. This killed a 65-yearold man, who was dropping off his granddaughter’s dress. Such an incident will fall under some definitions of a school shooting and not others, though activists and gun control proponents argue that such incidents are less different than a “typical” school shooting than they may seem–even when a shooting occurs long after students have departed for the day.

“I would contend that children know what happened on the school grounds,” says Sarah Burd-Sharps, senior director of research at Everytown. “They’re each different, and children receive them differently.”

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What’s most apparent from this list is the urgent need to protect schools, even from violence in which students were never the intended targets.

“Most of the shooters who shoot in schools are students or former students at that school. It’s where they’ve spent time, it’s where they have their relationships, it’s sometimes where they’ve had failures,” says Burd-Sharps. Schools, further, are “a harder space to close off and protect” than many other venues.

Statistics show that school shootings still occur in a small number of cases. This makes it difficult to do traditional analysis. There are worse months than there is good. Even though the activist who compiles the lists may not like it, any attempt to reduce the number of qualified events requires a practical and tragic recognition by those responsible: It is unlikely that any attempt to count American school shootings will succeed without exclusion. It becomes impossible to count all of them.

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