Explanations for mass shootings are obscured by history
A book by a former New York Times columnist and editor team, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Dunn, posed a modern paradox: “We explore Mars … embed telephones in wristwatches and … design robots that drive cars” but face major failures in human relationships. The most dramatic example is the number and increase in the rate of mass shootings in the United States since the first such event at the University of Texas in 1966.
Mass shootings are defined in different ways. But according to the most expansive definition by the Gun Violence Archive, 2,687 shootings occurred from 2014 to 2020. This month more than 40 shootings have taken place. A 2014 FBI active shooter study reported that 46 percent of incidents took place in businesses or commercial settings, 17 percent in schools, 8 percent in institutions of higher education and 30 percent in other sites. School shootings cause special psychological distress; they have affected school procedures throughout the U.S.
A National Institute of Justice study found that 98 percent of perpetrators were male. Their racial distribution roughly followed demographic patterns in the U.S. Middle-aged white men tend to be associated with family shootings, young whites dominate school shootings and young Blacks tend to be associated with crime and gang-related violence. But many violent events occur in seemingly random fashion.
The most prominent but controversial cause is the sheer number of guns in the country (120.5 firearms per 100 people) and the lethality of guns (i.e. the availability of semi-automatic weapons and large-capacity magazines). Ghost guns (lacking serial markings) are an increasing problem. The relationship of gun ownership rates to shootings is the subject of conflicting reports. But incidence of mass shootings has been reduced by restrictive gun laws and bans on high-capacity magazines.
A search for “mass shootings” on Amazon books returns hundreds of titles. A detailed summary of contributing factors includes mental illness, school or workplace bullying, media coverage and the Columbine (copycat) effect, legal or other troubled history, alcohol, recreational and other drug abuse; suicide ideation and fascination with death, (film) violence and violent video games, terrorism, “malignant narcissism” and “toxic masculinity.”
Since, by definition, shootings involve firearms, reducing their accessibility and lethality would seem logical and straightforward. But even the most egregious killings have failed to counterbalance gun advocates’ lack of trust in government. They assume that steps toward gun control will ultimately disarm responsible citizens. The ideological association of liberal groups with gun control increases opposition by conservatives.
After the Sandy Hook shootings, Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the National Rifle Association, popularized the slogan that the best answer to a shooters was “A good guy with a gun”.
But pro-gun arguments to reduce shootings by expanding training and protective access to guns (making America even more of an armed camp than it is now) also fail reality tests. Only 3.9 percent of interventions against shooters have been attributed to armed “good guys.”
The contrast between America now and before the 1960s is dramatic. It was easy to access guns back then, but there weren’t suicidal, single-perpetrator mass shootings in American history until recently. The sense of community that brought all sectors of American society together in World War II mostly continued in the 1950s. In 1958 a Gallup Poll recorded 73 percent public confidence in government, compared to 19 percent today. Though still subject to discrimination, African Americans were encouraged by the NAACP legal victories that overturned enforced segregation. Divorce was rare, and the overwhelming majority of children (including African Americans) were born in nuclear families.
The deeper reason for shootings has to do with what’s called “anomie” — the loss of a sense of community. In a report on suicide, the French sociologist Emil Durkheim defined anomie as changes in society that break down norms and the sense of community. This can bring on “a psychological sense of futility. . . emotional emptiness and despair,” he wrote.
Individuals suffered personal crises before the 1960s, and overall suicides rates were similar to those since 2000. But people did not feel the sense of alienation and isolation that a dangerous fraction of persons now exhibit. Suicide rates in the volatile 15-24 age group have risen disproportionately. Two-thirds of gun owners cite protection as a reason for owning guns.
Only when the historic background for the rise in gun ownership becomes part of the discussion will real progress against shootings be made.
Frank T. Manheim is an affiliate professor and distinguished research fellow at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.
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