Well-Being Mental Health

Mass shootings are contagious. How can they be stopped?

Photo of glass with bullet hole, gun shootings, mass shootings, in America
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Story At A Glance

  • Recent studies show mass shootings often inspire copycat violence.
  • Research on mass shootings is hampered by political restrictions.
  • A new movement to deemphasize coverage of perpetrators in the media is gaining traction, along with other solutions.

“I think in many ways people view mass shootings as a part of American society in the way baseball, apple pie and the Fourth of July are,” says Jaclyn Schildkraut, associate professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York at Oswego and an expert on mass shootings. “It’s just something that’s expected as ‘who we are as a country.’”

Schildkraut was raised in Parkland, Fla., the site of the 2018 shooting that left 17 people dead. She spent 14 years of her adult life in Orlando, site of what is now the second worst mass shooting in the U.S. — 49 people gunned down. She had just graduated high school at the time of the Columbine High School shootings in which 13 people died in what Schildkraut calls “a defining moment for my generation.”  

It’s been 20 years since Columbine and the number and severity of these crimes has only escalated. Research has shown a contagion effect with one crime being a catalyst for the next. So how does that knowledge help experts prevent the next tragedies?

Spreading like the flu

Sherry Towers is a faculty research associate at Arizona State University who has done a great deal of work figuring out how bad things happen to people, including numerous studies on how infectious diseases spread through populations and even how the fear of infectious disease, specifically Ebola, is exacerbated by media coverage.

In 2015, Towers and her colleagues turned their attention to whether mass shootings spread like a contagion, which was already known to be the case for suicide

Using data from USA Today and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the team found that mass shootings and school shootings both show evidence of spreading like a contagion, like flu going around an office. The vector isn’t a sneeze or a handshake, but, in part, media reports on previous mass shootings that embolden would-be shooters to act. 

Twenty percent of school shootings and 30 percent of other high-profile shootings, events in which four or more people were killed, are sparked by a previous high-profile shooting, the team found. The likelihood of one event igniting another lasts an average of 13 days for both types of shootings. There’s a mass shooting on average every 12.5 days and a school shooting an average of just over once a month.

It’s not just the media, though. Access to guns plays a heavy role, too. States that had a lower prevalence of gun ownership were also found to have a lower rate of mass shootings, so the availability of guns is also part of the equation. 

But not everyone in the office gets the flu. Not everyone who watches the news or owns a lot of guns is infected with the idea of opening fire in a public place. So who is susceptible to this contagion, and can these events be prevented?

Shooter profiles

The FBI has reported some common traits among mass shooters. They often haven’t been diagnosed with a mental illness, they will typically announce their criminal intentions, often on social media, and they long for infamy and attention they think a crime like this will bring them. 

The Violence Project, a nonpartisan think tank, has also found commonalities that include early childhood violence leading to issues like depression and suicidality. The perpetrators had also often come to a crisis point, like a job or relationship loss, leading to behavioral changes and threats of suicide or violence. They also study other shooters and use those events to validate their plans. 

Finally, they had the means and opportunity. Jillian Peterson and James Densley, who run the Violence Project, wrote in the Los Angeles Times that 80 percent of mass shooters got their guns from family members.

How can shootings be prevented?

Here are some other emerging solutions that may help break the cycle of violence and avert yet more thoughts and prayers. 

One technique increasingly being adopted is to try to starve shooters of the attention they crave. 

“They are telling us they want to be a household name, so we are effectively rewarding them for killing people,” by giving them airtime and publishing their manifestos, says Schildkraut.

The National Center for Health Research reports that inflated media coverage, particularly about the shooter and their agenda, is just what they’re craving. The Columbine shooting, the report says, “got more attention from CNN than the death of Princess Diana,” and 400 copycat incidents took place across the country.

Schildkraut supports the message of No Notoriety, a movement started by Caren and Tom Teves after the death of their son Alex Teves in Aurora, Colo. The goal is to take the attention off the perpetrator and give it instead to the victims and first responders. It’s not censorship but a call to tell the public what it needs to know without making celebrities out of murderers.

“I think it says something about our culture when you get Zac Efron to play Ted Bundy,” Schildkraut says, referring to a recent film available on Netflix.

On that note, the Parkland shooter, who killed 17 people, has gotten stacks of fan mail, some from smitten teenage girls.

Yet there are signs the media is being more circumspect about how it covers perpetrators, reports the Poynter Institute. Some law enforcement officers and even CNN’s Anderson Cooper are adhering to this new standard.

When Cooper was reporting on the Aurora shooting Jordan Ghawhi, brother of Jessica Ghawi, one of the victims, told Cooper not to say the name of the shooter and that the victims should be the ones remembered. His words resonated with Cooper.

If attention is the motive, guns are the means. 

Towers says her research team looked at state per capita rates for firearm ownership and mental illness, and while the latter was not predictive for a violent event “firearm ownership was, so it’s pretty clear that easy access to firearms is playing some kind of role.” But how is a subject for further study.

Schildkraut says the gun debate often degenerates into extremes, with no one willing to meet in the middle, except perhaps on some subjects like universal background checks, which both Republicans and Democrats support.

Research challenges

A major thorn in the side of researchers is the Dickey Amendment, a provision attached to federal appropriations bills each year that prevents federal funds from being used for research “to advocate or promote gun control.”

Given a research wish or two, Towers said that since most mass shooters are not previously diagnosed with mental illness, she would like to study “the behavioral manifestations that mass shooters tend to exhibit in the weeks, month or years before they actually perpetrate it.” 

Knowing what behaviors to look for would help people close to a would-be shooter see danger signs. 

Schildkraut would like one official definition of what a mass shooting even is.

That’s because working with different parameters can muddy the social and statistical waters. The Gun Violence Archive, for example, collects tons of data but uses a broader definition of mass shooting that could include things like gang violence and familicide — killing multiple family members. 

Those are very differently motivated crimes from opening fire on a group of strangers in a public place, Schildkraut says. They necessitate different responses from law enforcement and society.

“If we try to solve a problem and we’re not trying to solve it in context, any solution we propose is doomed to fail from the get-go,” she says.

Most mass shooters are also suicidal, Peterson of the Violence Project told NBC News — they were suicidal before the event and don’t intend to live through the violence they act out. What changes perpetrators from suicidal to homicidal, from self-harm to taking innumerable people to the grave with you, is also something Schildkraut would like to see studied.

“I think if we had the answer to that we would be further ahead in combating this violence than we are now,” she said.

There is no one fix that will prevent all mass shootings, experts say, but research like the studies discussed above at least enables people to watch for signs and take them seriously. Google “mass shooting thwarted,” and you’ll get 13,000 hits, many about people reporting it when they saw signs of trouble. 

The more we know about the signs to look for, the better. 

To learn more check out the Violence Project and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.