Mark Follman

Mark Follman

Senior Editor

Mark Follman is a senior editor at Mother Jones. He is a former editor of Salon and a cofounder of the MediaBugs project. His reporting and commentary have also appeared in Rolling Stone, The Atlanticthe Boston Globe, USA Today, and on Fox News, MSNBC, and NPR's All Things Considered. Since 2012, his in-depth investigations into mass shootings, child gun deaths, and other issues of gun violence have won five national journalism awards.

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What Exactly Is a Mass Shooting?

| Fri Aug. 24, 2012 6:17 PM EDT

Update, December 16, 2012: In the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, a story from the Associated Press suggested that mass shootings have not increased in the United States in recent years. But the AP cited research that uses broader criteria than the criteria we used for our investigation, which found an increase. Here is our approach, explained:

What is a mass shooting?
Broadly speaking, the term refers to an incident involving multiple victims of gun violence. But there is no official set of criteria or definition for a mass shooting, according to criminology experts and FBI officials who have spoken with Mother Jones.

Generally, there are three terms you'll see to describe a perpetrator of this type of gun violence: mass murderer, spree killer, or serial killer. An FBI crime classification report from 2005 identifies an individual as a mass murderer if he kills four or more people in a single incident (not including himself), typically in a single location. (The baseline of four fatalities is key—more on that just below.)

The primary distinction between a mass murderer and a spree killer, according to the FBI, is that the latter strikes in multiple locations, though still in a relatively short time frame. The third type, a serial killer, is distinguished by striking over a longer time frame, in multiple locations, with opportunity for what the FBI report refers to as "cooling-off periods" in between attacks.

How often do mass shootings occur? 
Beginning in July, after the movie theater slaughter in Aurora, Colorado, we documented and analyzed 62 mass shootings from the last 30 years. As we delved into the research, we realized that robust data on this subject was hard to come by, in part due to the lack of clear criteria. We were focused on the question of how many times Aurora-like events had actually happened. We honed our criteria accordingly:

  • The attack must have occurred essentially in a single incident, in a public place;
  • We excluded crimes of armed robbery, gang violence, or domestic violence in a home, focusing on cases in which the motive appeared to be indiscriminate mass murder;
  • The killer, in accordance with the FBI criterion, had to have taken the lives of at least four people.

The traumatic events included in our guide to mass shootings are the kind that tend to grab national attention—school and workplace shootings, attacks in shopping malls or government buildings—but they represent only a sliver of America's gun violence, which results in approximately 30,000 deaths annually.

Since the 1980s, the baseline of four fatalities has generally been used for studying mass murder, according to Professor James Alan Fox of Northeastern University, who has written multiple books on the subject. But as Fox agreed when we spoke, while that number may seem to make some sense intuitively, there is nonetheless something coldly arbitrary about it. Was it not a "mass shooting" in 2008, for example, when a man walked into a church in Tennessee and opened fire with a shotgun, killing two and injuring seven? Dropping the number of fatalities by just one, or including motives of armed robbery, gang violence, or domestic violence, would add many, many more cases to the list.

According to a recent report in Time magazine (available only to subscribers, and whose criteria is unclear), there've been "nearly 20 mass shootings" every year on average during the last three and a half decades.

Why didn't you include the infamous DC Beltway sniper attacks on your mass shootings map?
We've been asked this question numerous times. The man who killed 10 and wounded 3 others a decade ago (along with a young accomplice) was a serial killer: He committed multiple attacks over several weeks, in different locations. It was a particularly tense time for people living in the DC metro area—the shooter "terrorized our neighborhood," as one person wrote to me in an email—but the case did not fit the criteria described above.

Is Mother Jones focusing on this stuff as part of a conspiracy to take away Americans' gun rights?
No. One of our lead reporters on this beat, Adam Weinstein, who covered the Trayvon Martin killing and investigated how the National Rifle Association helped spread "Stand Your Ground" laws nationwide, is a Navy veteran and third-generation gun owner. We're happy for him to hang onto his guns. Multiple other Mother Jones staffers are experienced with guns.

The debate over guns in the United States is extremely contentious and polarizing, and we think that the more reporting and clear data there is available about guns, the better. That mass shootings keep happening is an undeniable fact. Why they do, and how to stop them, is a matter for further investigation.

Update, January 8, 2013: Where can I learn more about MoJo's investigation?
See our recently published America Under the Gun: a Special Report on gun laws and the rise of mass shootings, which contains interactive maps, charts, and dozens of stories from over the last year.

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Does George Zimmerman's Story Add Up?

| Thu Jun. 21, 2012 6:59 PM EDT

Does George Zimmerman's account of what happened on the night he shot and killed Trayvon Martin add up? That question, and whether or not he acted legally in self-defense, will be adjudicated in a Florida court. Aside from Zimmerman landing back in jail for allegedly lying during his bond hearing, the story on the Martin killing has been relatively quiet in recent weeks. But now, on the court's orders, Zimmerman's legal team has been forced to release additional documentary evidence, including a written statement from Zimmerman and a police video (above) in which he reenacts the deadly altercation for investigators the day after it went down.

It isn't hard to see why Zimmerman's attorneys were reluctant to make the material public. It raises more questions and reveals apparent discrepancies in his story.

In a four-page written statement to police on February 26, the night of the shooting (see the document below), Zimmerman says Martin "circled his vehicle" and then disappeared into the darkness as Zimmerman spoke to a police dispatcher on his cell phone. When the dispatcher asked him for his location, Zimmerman wrote in the statement, "I could not remember the name of the street so I got out of my car to look for a street sign."

His stated reason for exiting his vehicle may not be implausible, but it's certainly odd: After all, Zimmerman had lived in the Retreat at Twin Lakes, a small gated community, for years. And he was a leader of its Neighborhood Watch program; prior to the night he killed Martin, he'd called the police no less than 46 times since 2004 to report alleged incidents in the neigborhood. This is a guy who now doesn't recognize which street he's on in his neighborhood?

Also eyebrow-raising is Zimmerman's recollection of the violence that took place after he exited his vehicle. In the written statement, Zimmerman describes reaching for his cell phone to dial 911 as Martin accosts him, comes at him, and punches him in the face. "I fell backwards onto my back," Zimmerman wrote. "The suspect got on top of me."

But in his reenactment at the scene, filmed the day after the shooting by police investigators, Zimmerman describes moving forward after Martin punches him in the face, not falling onto his back. "I think I stumbled," he tells investigators, gesturing forward with his right hand from the spot where he says Martin punched him. "I fell down, he pushed me down, somehow he got on top of me."

An investigator then asks, "On the grass or on the cement?" 

Zimmerman points and walks forward about six paces, the camera following him, as he responds: "It was more over towards here. I think I was trying to push him away from me, and then he got on top of me somewhere around here, and that's when I started screaming for help."

Zimmerman has a right to his day in court. It's important to keep that in mind. But as more information from the investigation emerges, it doesn't seem to be doing much for his case in the court of public opinion.

 

Selling Trayvon Martin for Target Practice

| Fri May 11, 2012 6:43 PM EDT

There's a new low in the highly charged Trayvon Martin case. According to a report from Florida TV news station WKMG, an unidentified entrepreneur aimed to profit by selling paper gun targets depicting the unarmed teenager slain in February. The targets, which were advertised for sale online until Friday, feature a hoodie with crosshairs over the chest—the place where George Zimmerman shot Martin at point-blank range. While there's plain black in lieu of Martin's face, tucked into the hoodie's arm are a bag of Skittles and can of iced tea like the kind Martin was carrying on that fateful night.

An advertisement for the targets had been posted on a popular firearms auction website, according to WKMG, in which the sellers stated that they "support Zimmerman and believe he is innocent and that he shot a thug." In an email exchange with WKMG reporter Mike DeForest, the seller acknowledged: "My main motivation was to make money off the controversy." The ad reportedly has since been removed, but the seller told the Flordia news station that the response was "overwhelming" and that the targets were "sold out in two days." Customers included two Florida gun dealers, he said.

Mark O'Mara, Zimmerman's attorney, offered condemnation in an interview with the TV station. "It's this type of hatred—that's what this is, it's hate-mongering—that's going to make it more difficult to try this case," O'Mara said.

A Huffington Post report linked to a cached version of a GunBroker.com web page (the link now appears to be broken) belonging to a seller named "hillerarmco" from Virginia Beach, Va., which showed the paper targets being sold in packs of 10 for $8. The product description read:

Everyone knows the story of Zimmerman and Martin. Obviously we support Zimmerman and believe he is innocent and that he shot a thug. Each target is printed on thick, high quality poster paper with a matte finish! The dimensions are 12"x18" ( The same as Darkotic Zombie Targets) This is a Ten Pack of Targets.

Meanwhile, Martin's mother, Sybrina Fulton, has appeared in a poignant new gun control video rolled out for Mother's Day in which she advocates against Stand Your Ground, the Florida self-defense law which allowed Zimmerman to walk free for six weeks before he was eventually charged with second-degree murder. We'll have much more on Stand Your Ground laws—now on the books in various forms across 25 states—in our forthcoming July/August issue of Mother Jones; in the meantime, catch up on essential background and developments in the case with our comprehensive Trayvon Martin explainer.

Here's WKMG's report:

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