After a student gunman killed 10 people in Santa Fe, Texas, a claim circulated widely on social media that compared the number of deaths in the military with the number of deaths in school shootings.
One of the politicians who shared it on social media was Gwen Graham, a former Democratic member of the U.S. House who is now running for governor of Florida.
In a May 18 Facebook post, Graham wrote, "So far this year, more students have been killed in schools than soldiers in combat zones. We are WAY past the point of talking. We need action now."
Graham’s post linked to an article by Philip Bump of the Washington Post titled "2018 has been deadlier for schoolchildren than service members." The article found that "more people have been killed at schools this year than have been killed while serving in the military."
We wanted to look at the data ourselves. Graham’s formulation was a bit narrower than the newspaper’s: Her post said "students" rather than individuals "at schools," and "in combat zones" rather than "while serving in the military."
Either of the definitions is plausible; as it happens, Graham’s parameters make an even stronger case than the Post article does.
We found five shooting incidents that resulted in student fatalities in 2018. The figures below do not include adults slain in these incidents, because they are outside the scope of Graham’s statement.
Benton, Ky., Jan. 23, 2018: 2 students killed
Parkland, Fla., Feb. 14, 2018: 14 students killed
Birmingham, Ala., March 7, 2018: 1 student killed
Great Mills, Md., March 20, 2018: 1 student killed
Santa Fe, Texas, May 18, 2018: 8 students killed
Total: 26 students killed in school shootings through May 18, 2018. (Including the adults killed would raise the count to 31 total fatalities.)
There are two active combat operations for the U.S. military: Operation Inherent Resolve, which includes anti-ISIS efforts in Iraq and Syria, and Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, which includes military activities in Afghanistan.
In 2018, there have been five deadly incidents in Operation Inherent Resolve, on Jan. 8, Feb. 19, March 7, March 15, and March 30. Each of these incidents resulted in one American service member’s death, except for the one on March 15, in which seven airmen died in the crash of an HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter in western Iraq.
So the total number of deaths in 2018 for Operation Inherent Resolve is 11.
Total: 13 service members were killed in combat zones in 2018. That's half the number of student deaths in school shootings this year.
The first caveat to consider is that today’s snapshot in time is unusual in recent history. Specifically, the number of school-shooting deaths is unusually high in 2018, according to the Post’s database of school shootings.
Through May 18 of 2017, there were two deaths in school shootings. Through May 18 of 2016, it was one; for 2015 it was zero; and for 2014 it was one. Looking at full-year totals, the Post article found that the number of military deaths in 2017 exceeded 30, compared to five school-shooting deaths.
The second caveat to know involves the death rate — that is, deaths divided by the total population at risk of death. The death rate remains significantly higher for members of the military in combat zones.
There are currently an estimated 50.8 million students enrolled in K-12 classes. That’s vastly larger than the combination of personnel serving in the two military operations cited above, which is less than 20,000 people, according to publicly disclosed data.
The Post article that Graham linked to made this point. "The figures for 2018 do not suggest schools are more dangerous than combat zones," the article said. "So far in 2018, a member of the military has been about 40 times as likely to be killed as someone is to die in a school shooting."
Graham wrote, "So far this year, more students have been killed in schools than soldiers in combat zones."
On the numbers, she is right. This year at least, within Graham’s stated parameters, exactly twice as many students have died in school shootings than military personnel have died in combat zones.
It is important to know, however, the likelihood of being killed in a combat zone is still vastly higher than it is in a school.
The statement is accurate but needs additional information. That meets our definition of Mostly True.
Gwen Graham, Facebook post, May 18, 2018
Washington Post, "2018 has been deadlier for schoolchildren than service members," May 18, 2018
Washington Post, database of school shootings, accessed May 21, 2018
Defense Department, news release archive for casualties, accessed May 21, 2018
Military casualty news releases and school shooting news coverage: linked in article
Icasualties.org, accessed May 21, 2018
National Center for Education Statistics, "Table 203.10. Enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools, by level and grade: Selected years, fall 1980 through fall 2026," accessed May 21, 2018
Globalsecurity.org, "Freedom's Sentinel," accessed May 21, 2018
Globalsecurity.org, "Operation Inherent Resolve," accessed May 21, 2018
Email interview with Jared Keller, senior editor at Task and Purpose, May 21, 2018
Interview with Matt Harringer, spokesman for Gwen Graham, May 21, 2018
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