“Serious Errors” in FBI Reports of Shooting Incidents

Dr. John Lott, Jr. of the Crime Prevention Research Center (CPRC) recently released a paper written while he was a Senior Advisor for Research and Statistics at the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Policy.

His paper, Corrections to the FBI’s Reports on Active Shooting Incidents (May 31, 2021), examines the FBI’s previously released reports on “active shooter incidents” (ASI). The FBI defines an “active shooter” as one or more individuals attempting to kill or killing other people in a populated area. “Implicit in this definition is the shooter’s use of one or more firearms. The ‘active’ aspect of the definition inherently implies the ongoing nature of the incidents, and thus the potential for the response to affect the outcome.”

The FBI published its initial report in 2014, titled A Study of Active Shooter Incidents Between 2000-2013, using information from “104 police department records, after action reports, shooting commission reports, open sources, and FBI resources.” Since then, the agency has published additional annual or bi-annual reports. As stated in the initial report, the goal of these studies is “to provide federal, state and local law enforcement with data so they can better understand how to prevent, prepare for, respond to, and recover from these incidents.”

According to Dr. Lott, “all five reports so far issued were found to have serious errors.” These distort the trend of attacks over time and the evidence on factors that may be important in curtailing attacks in the future.

The premise of the FBI’s initial report was that a drastic increase in ASIs occurred between 2000 and 2013, escalating from one incident in 2000 to 17 in 2013. However, Dr. Lott’s paper indicates that the FBI failed to include twenty incidents in that time span, and that these “missing cases were three times more likely to have occurred from 2000-2006 than from 2007-2013, thus exaggerating the increase that was widely reported on.” Once these cases are included and placed in the context of pre-2000 data, it becomes evident that there “has only been a slight, statistically insignificant upward trend over the 38 years from 1977 through 2014,” and even this slight uptick is due to high numbers in a single year (2012).

Subsequent FBI reports (2015-2019) carried forward the error of missing cases. These are of particular interest as the FBI “repeatedly excludes” cases where an armed citizen had intervened. In at least six missing cases in 2018-19 identified by Dr. Lott, a concealed handgun permit holder stopped the attacker, including an incident in Tumwater, Washington in which three concealed carry permittees confronted and killed an attacker. Another case in 2018 had been counted by the FBI but without indicating that a private individual with a concealed handgun permit stopped the attack. (Details of all of the missing cases are provided in the paper.)

These amendments to the FBI statistics give a considerably different view of interventions by individuals with carry permits. The FBI had previously reported that between 2014 and 2019, civilians with permitted concealed handguns stopped an attack in nine out of 145 cases (6.2%); as corrected, the figure more than doubles to over 15 percent. The paper notes that future enhancements to these figures are possible: “[a]dditional concealed carry cases missed by the FBI prior to 2014 are likely, but a search has not yet been conducted for them.”

Another factor that skews the information in the reports is the FBI’s inconsistent approach and selective inclusion of cases. When errors in the initial report were pointed out in 2015, the FBI apparently acknowledged that the data was “imperfect” but, essentially, some data was better than none. Regarding later reports, the agency maintained that several of the missing cases did not meet its criteria, even though the cases meet its definition of an ASI and the FBI had included similar cases in its dataset. The FBI’s response included a statement that for “some cases, a level of interpretation is required with which all may not agree.”

Obviously, the ability of persons lawfully carrying firearms to stop attacks depends on whether any particular location is a “gun free zone.” Conversely, active shooters may choose a location based on the reduced likelihood of others present being armed and able to resist. The FBI researchers, though, avoid examining the rate at which ASIs occur in “gun free zones.” While it is not always possible to determine whether a location is a “gun free zone,” whether individuals may legally carry in the place remains a relevant consideration in assessing ASIs and presumably, reacting to and potentially preventing such crimes. The paper points out that between 2014 and 2019, the vast majority of mass public shootings happened in places where carrying by ordinary citizens was prohibited – 73% of mass public shootings where four or more people were murdered, and 64% of the active shooting attacks in public places, occurred in “gun free zones.”

Dr. Lott’s paper concludes by emphasizing the importance of accurate, comprehensive data, free of any bias against incidents in which bystanders lawfully carrying firearms intervene to prevent additional bloodshed. Otherwise, publicly funded government research runs the risk of crossing the line between fact and fiction, distorting results to yield a preferred narrative at the expense of trust and credibility. This, as Dr. Lott notes, defeats the very purpose for which the data is collected and studied. “Without accurate data, we can’t adequately analyze the life-and-death consequences of different policies. We will miss the right solutions. Letting people control the data lets them control the political debate.”


John R. Lott