FACT CHECK: Have Assault Weapons Been Used In ‘Hundreds’ Of School Shootings?

Brad Sylvester | Fact Check Editor

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein claimed on Sept. 5 that assault weapons have been used in “hundreds” of school shootings.

Verdict: False

Assault weapons are not typically used in school shootings. The exact number of incidents depends upon how school shootings are defined, but a review by The Daily Caller News Foundation shows that rifles were used in up to 32 school shootings in recent decades. The majority of incidents involve handguns.

Fact Check:

During the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Feinstein pressed the judge about his views on semi-automatic rifles. Kavanaugh argued that certain commonly-owned rifles were constitutionally protected.

Feinstein questioned how Kavanaugh could reconcile this belief with the “hundreds of school shootings using assault weapons that have taken place in recent history.”

It’s important to note that “assault weapon” is an ambiguous term. While gun advocates say that a firearm must be capable of firing multiple rounds in a single trigger pull to be considered an assault weapon, the term is often used by politicians to refer to semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15.

“From Aurora to Sandy Hook, San Bernardino to Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs to Parkland, one common thread that runs through mass shootings is the use of AR-15 military-style assault weapons,” Feinstein said after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead.

Feinstein sponsored the now-expired Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 that heavily restricted some rifles, but also handguns and shotguns with certain military features.

Firearm experts told us, however, that assault-style pistols and shotguns are rarely used in school shootings. William Vizzard, a professor of criminal justice at California State University- Sacramento, couldn’t recall many incidents involving them.

“There are a few oddball pistols that get included, but other than the 1993 shooting in San Francisco with a Tech 9, I am unaware of any being used in mass shootings. In general, the argument does center on military style rifles,” Vizzard told TheDCNF.

For this reason, our fact check focuses solely on the number of school shootings that have involved rifles.

While there is no definitive database on school shootings, a number of organizations, news outlets and advocacy groups have produced their own. These databases, while extensive, sometimes fail to list the exact type of weapon used in a shooting, making it difficult to tally which cases involved assault-style rifles. Therefore, we chose a slightly broader metric – incidents where the perpetrator was found with any sort of rifle.

One comprehensive study done by The Washington Post found that out of 221 school shootings since Columbine, 24 involved rifles. (The weapon field is missing for 34 entries in the database, so the actual number may be slightly higher.)

Data collected by Mother Jones that dates back to 1982 shows only 10 instances of rifles being used in a total of 18 school shootings.

An FBI report found that from 2000 to 2013 there were 39 cases of active shooter incidents at educational facilities (26 of which were at primary or secondary schools), and of these, eight involved any sort of rifle. FBI active shooter incident reports from 2014 through 2017 describe 13 active shooter incidents at schools, and five of these involved rifles.

A report by the Rockefeller Institute for Government, a New York-based think tank, shows that from 1966 to 2016 there were 94 school shootings and 32 involved a rifle.

A database from Stanford University shows that of 67 documented school shootings from 1966 to 2016, 24 involved some sort of rifle.

Much of the discrepancy between these datasets has to do with what constitutes a school shooting. “Part of the problem with trying to put a number on it, is that in this country we don’t have an agreed upon accepted definition of school shooting,” Jaclyn Schildkraut, a criminologist and co-author of the Rockefeller Institute report, told TheDCNF.

The gun control advocacy group Everytown defines a school shooting as any incident in which a firearm is discharged on school grounds. Since 2013, Mother Jones has only counted shootings with three or more fatalities excluding the shooter (prior to 2013, its threshold was four fatalities). The FBI prefers to study “active shooter” incidents, defined as situations in which a person is “actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.”

Yet despite the differences, every study available agrees that assault-style rifles have been used in relatively few school shootings. Statistics show that the majority of school shootings involve handguns.

Notable school shootings in which an assault-style weapon was used include the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 and the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in February.

When asked for clarification on her comment, a spokesperson for Feinstein told TheDCNF that she misspoke, “conflating school shootings with mass shootings.”

The Mother Jones database shows a total of 104 total mass shootings from 1982 to 2018, yet less than half involved a rifle. From 2000 to 2017 there were 250 active shooter incidents, according to FBI active shooter reports, of which 77 involved some type of rifle.

The Rockefeller Institute listed 340 mass shootings between 1966 and 2016 and 28.5 percent – or 97 – of them involved a rifle. Another study done by Texas State University found that of 84 active shooter events that occurred between 2000 and 2010, 27 percent involved rifles.

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Brad Sylvester

Fact Check Editor
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