Mass Shootings: The Elephant in the Room

America desperately needs to have a conversation, and it’s very different than the one we have been having when reflecting on mass murders.  Despite the hysteria that these events cause, there is no significant upwards trend. These crimes have been a part of the public sphere in the U.S. since the country’s inception.  While most studies reflect the better-recorded data in the latter half of the 20th century, mass killings were just as prevalent in the 1920s and 30s, although the use of a firearm was less common.

Sometime in the last few decades, Americans have lost to ability to think rationally about mass killings.  We are collectively trying to blame some other factor besides the individuals themselves.  However, access to guns has never been cited as a reason for a mass shooting and mass killings share no correlation in ideology.  No one political party, no one race or ethnicity, no one religion, etc. is a constant factor, but there are specific commonalities between mass shooters that are never widely discussed over the calls for gun control and party reform.

There are five stages that culminate in a perfect storm that leads to individuals committing these massacres (also known as the Levin & Madfis model).  This is gravely important for our society to know, as identifying these factors can lead to prevention of these atrocities.

Stage one: Chronic strain – the individual has a range of negative experiences over time.  There is no one specific factor except that there is a history of adverse exposure.  It could be a history of mental illness, although the vast majority of mass shooters have never been diagnosed, and further those with mental illnesses are actually less likely to commit any crimes compared to those who do not.  However, there must be some trouble that reoccurs or is generally unmanaged whether it is a history of sexual abuse, family violence, torment at school, drug abuse, financial problems, etc.

Stage two: Uncontrolled strain -- person has negative experiences coupled with the lack of appropriate coping strategies and pro-social relationships.  The individual will often be thought of as an introvert or “loner” and their personal time is not spent on appropriate or healthy outlets.  

Stage three: Acute strain – a single and serious event happens, and the person perceives it as worse than it really is, often catastrophic.  This could happen directly to the individual, but it may just be an event that happens to others (like an act of terrorism or election loss), yet they feel they are personally invested -- especially if it coincides with beliefs they already have.  This is the culmination and breaking point.

Stage four: Planning -- each mass shooter spends time preparing.  Massacres are not done in moments of passionate rage.  Red flags are most observable to others at this point.  90% of all mass shooters were surrounded by people who noticed warning signs like personality changes in the individual that tend to seem more positive than their usual mood.  Some made comments that indicated upcoming action such as “they’ll be sorry,” “watch out on Tuesday” or “soon, this won’t be a problem anymore”.  They can be similar to the signs of an upcoming suicide, like withdrawing from personal relationships or giving belongings away, especially when the shooter plans on killing himself afterwards. If you notice a pattern of these behaviors in someone you know, you should report it to your local police.

Stage five: The attack -- Mass shooters choose a location that is familiar and also where they believe people they are disgruntled with personally or disagree with generally will gather, whether the disagreement is political, religious or any other ideological beliefs.

The Aftermath

Most research suggests that the media’s role in glorifying the aftermath of a mass shooting is dysfunctional. Early reporting is often inaccurate, and is overall plain harmful.  News agencies see spikes in their ratings or readership when these crimes occur and will over-explain the situation down to needless details to exploit the monetary benefits of the larger audience.  This Journal of Crime and Justice study asserts that the most salient predictors of how much media coverage a mass shooting receives depends on the race or ethnicity of the shooter as well as the victim count.  Mainstream media essentially becomes a broker for tragedy porn and even though it is awful, they are meeting the demand put on them with a justifiable public outcry for more information.  

Schools and facilities that implement safety measures are focused on protocols around the response to a future attack and these procedures ignore the factors that lead to the crime in the first place.  Furthermore, these policies tend to be “shortsighted and damaging” since mass shootings are still very rare events (accounting for only 0.13% of all gun deaths between 1989 and 2014). Because of the fourth planning stage and the familiarity that the shooter has with the targeted location, most measures can be adapted to and overcome.  For example, the recent Gilroy Garlic Festival shooter entered the event through a creek and wooded area to avoid the metal detectors that were placed at the gate.

You may have noticed how politicians jump at opportunities to discuss recent attacks whether on conventional media or social media.  This is because contributions to politicians’ spike after these tragedies and they take advantage.  Gun policies are constantly in debate and deadlocked in state legislatures and politicians tend to “use salient events to create opportunities for [policy] changes that have been sought all along.” [Harvard Business School study – PDF file]

States that have experienced one mass shooting will see at least an 16% increase in gun policy legislation introduced within the following year.  Democrat-controlled areas will seek to restrict firearm purchases while Republican-controlled areas will seek to loosen existing gun regulations.  Researchers have a strong consensus that while either policy step regarding firearms may impact “ordinary” gun crimes, they will have zero effect on future mass shootings.

Of all the scholar research done regarding mass shootings, the greatest agreement is that there has not been enough research to develop effective prevention policies and legislation, yet.

Taylor Day has been extensively researching mass shootings in the U.S. as part of an upcoming book.  You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.