Statistics about the numbers of toddlers killed versus terrorism victims depend on the definitions of "toddlers" and "terrorism."
Dec 17, 2015
Claim: Toddlers killed more Americans than terrorists in 2015.
WHAT'S TRUE: Broad counts indicate that 21 toddlers shot and killed themselves or others in 2015; 19 Americans died at the hands of potential or suspected Islamic terrorists.
WHAT'S Undetermined: What constitutes a "toddler," a "foreign terrorist," and which criteria counted toward attaining those totals.
Example: [Collected via e-mail and Facebook, December 2015]
Toddlers kill more Americans than foreign terrorists" on Facebook at:
Origin:On 16 December 2015 the Facebook page "Go Left Forever" published the above-reproduced meme. It said that in 2015, toddlers were responsible for the deaths of more Americans than "foreign terrorists."
The claim appeared widely in various forms of media, and its primary source seemed to be a 14 October 2015 Washington Post "Wonkblog" piece titled "People are getting shot by toddlers on a weekly basis this year."
That analysis presented an immediate challenge in declaring the already fluid assertion definitively true: Washington Post culled their statistics from a manual search of news reports. We were unable to locate any formal record-keeping for what many have since dubbed "toddler-involved shootings," and the article asserted:
A little kid finds a gun, fires it, and hurts or kills himself or someone else. These cases rarely bubble up to the national level except when someone, like a parent, ends up dead ... But cases like this happen a lot more frequently than you might think. After spending a few hours sifting through news reports, I've found at least 43 instances this year of somebody being shot by a toddler 3 or younger. In 31 of those 43 cases, a toddler found a gun and shot himself or herself.
As noted on the graph, the paper manually located instances in which a toddler (defined by the author as "[three] or younger") killed someone, a task complicated by the lack of centralized records of shootings involving toddlers.
The author stated the victims (including toddlers themselves) were shot or killed, though that information was clearly broken down visually in the graph excerpted above. By that 14 October 2015 count, 15 people in total died at the hands of a toddler with a gun, and at least 28 more were injured, including toddlers.
Another difficult variable involved what constituted a toddler specifically; as with our earlier page on the claim that more preschoolers were shot and killed than police officers, the definition of the term "toddlers" was somewhat variable, although generally accepted as a child between the ages of one and three.
On 29 November 2015, the Huffington Post published a follow-up article titled "Toddlers Involved in More Shootings Than Terrorists in 2015." While it possibly introduced more information (an additional nine toddler-involved shootings occurred by their count, bringing the total from 43 to 52 on that date) Huffington Post introduced the contrast of terrorism to toddlers:
When that article was published on Oct 14th, there had only been 43 toddler shooting incidents. Since then, there have been 9 more, with an average of one toddler involved shooting a week. Yet, in this year's only shooting involving Islamic terrorists in Chattanooga, Tennessee, five people died, with two additional people being injured.
That complicated the data. Who had been counted by Washington Post, and who had been counted by Huffington Post? Would a similar manual search of records lead to double-counting? We searched news reports from 14 October 2015 forward, finding several "toddler-involved shootings" with a variety of outcomes. Young children in Acworth and Jackson, Georgia found guns and shot themselves after the publication of the Washington Post piece (neither survived); a boy in Rock Hill, South Carolina shot his grandmother but did not kill her; two-year-old Abigail Newman was shot in the neck and killed in North Carolina in late October; and a three-year-old was shot and killed by his six-year-old brother in Chicago.
Another data sorting complication showed up in the Huffington Post's presentation. Their piece emphasized xenophobia as a barometer of contrast, but went on to compare toddler-involved shootings with the Chattanooga shooting; the deceased suspect in that mass shooting was in fact an American citizen, born in Kuwait. Whether or not xenophobia was relevant to an individual who was by all accounts American might be splitting hairs, but it became relevant for later iterations of the claim.
Huffington Post described the Chattanooga shooting as "the only" incident involving "Islamic terrorists" in the United States in 2015. At the time, that was partly true. Suspect Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez was American but a Muslim, and was believed to be the sole shooter (not one of more "terrorists.") As our earlier article indicated, law enforcement agents considered the incident under investigation and incomplete as of mid-November 2015:
On 13 November 2015, the Associated Press reported that investigators remained circumspect about Abdulazeez's motive:
"We're still trying to make sure we understand Abdulazeez, his motivations and associations, in a really good way," FBI Director James Comey told reporters during a visit to Nashville's FBI field office on Friday.
Comey said he understands the public interest in the shooting, but he did not know whether there would ever be a public report on it.
"Sometimes the way we investigate requires us to keep information secret. That's a good thing. We don't want to smear people," he said.
Thus, by November the relative body counts of foreign terrorists to toddlers were by all accounts murky and dependent on individual definitions of several terms. On 2 December 2015, a mass shooting in San Bernardino left 14 civilians and two attackers dead. By the time the meme reproduced at the top of the page was published on 15 December 2015, the shooting was still considered an active investigation and details remained fluid.
Initially, investigators adamantly asserted the motives for the shooting were unclear. Federal law enforcement agents took over the investigation within a few days; at that point, "self-radicalization" and "ISIS sympathizing" officially entered media reports.
By 16 December 2015, some of those initial reports were walked back; The Blaze reported that there was no evidence the shooters were involved in a "terror cell." Wikipedia, which has served as a compendium of multiple reports, classified the incident as "terrorism, mass shooting, [and] workplace shooting."
What's more, on 16 December 2015 The Hill reported that initial claims one of the shooters publicly supported "jihad" on Facebook had been inaccurate:
The FBI said on Wednesday that suspected San Bernardino, Calif., shooters Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik did not express their support for jihad publicly on social media, potentially undercutting efforts to ramp up surveillance of foreign travelers’ online presences.
FBI Director James Comey told reporters that there was “no evidence of a posting on social media by either of them" to reflect that they had been radicalized.
The communications instead were “direct, private messages,” the FBI head said during a news conference in New York.
“I’ve seen some reporting on that and that’s a garble.”
The motive for the San Bernardino shooting remains under investigation.
Like Abdulazeez, Malik and Farook were Muslims. But also like Abdulazeez, Farook was American, born in Chicago. Malik was Pakistani and lived in Saudi Arabia before marrying Farook, but lived in the United States as a permanent resident. Of the three shooters contrasted as terrorists against toddlers, two were American citizens, one natural born.
Another confounding factor involved was that the number of San Bernardino victims shot by Farook versus Malik wasn't yet known; depending on whether country of birth was weighted as relevant, that might alter the interpretation of the overall assertion.
On 17 December 2015, we contacted Christopher Ingraham, the Washington Post journalist whose article inadvertently sparked all the comparison memes. Ingraham confirmed that he continued compiling information on toddler-involved shootings after publishing his October 2015 article, and provided us with updated data.
Noting that "in most cases, the toddlers are killing or injuring themselves," Ingraham counted 58 total toddler-involved shootings in 2015 as of 17 December of that year. In 19 instances a toddler shot and killed themselves, and in two others, the toddler shot and killed another individual. That brings the total of toddler-involved shooting deaths in the United States in 2015 to 21.
By contrast, if we count both the Chattanooga shootings and San Bernardino as strictly terrorism, 14 Americans were killed in San Bernardino and five in Chattanooga. As such, 19 Americans were killed in instances of suspected, reported, or potential Islamic terrorism in 2015. If you count an American victim of the Paris attacks, that number rose to 20.
Ultimately, even the broadest leeway led to the same mathematical conclusion. The meme was basically correct; more Americans were shot and killed by toddlers in 2015 than were killed by Islamic terrorists.