When it comes to murder and mass shootings, America is a freak among nations. Murder rates are highest in countries with the most income inequality, and the U.S. is high on that list with the likes of Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, and Guatemala, according to a 2018 peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Our culture of guns and violence has no comparison among wealthy nations.
Professors Jillian Peterson and James Densley examined the histories of mass shootings in the U.S., 172 at the time of their publication in 2021, and compiled data sets from every aspect of these events. They interviewed hundreds of people, including some of the shooters. This book is a product of their work for The Violence Project, a nonprofit and nonpartisan research center based in St. Paul, Minnesota, but known worldwide.
The authors identified four factors common to most mass shooters: childhood trauma; an identifiable crisis point; a script to follow with someone to blame; and opportunity.
They begin with a chapter called “Monsters.” The authors argue that although the shooters have committed crimes that are monstrous, to simply label them as monsters is wrong and limiting. They are humans with tragic stories, creating more tragedy. The label enables some to dismiss these murders as just the acts of a “nut case” with no way to predict or prevent these crimes, justifying a lack of movement toward ending gun violence.
Mental illness played no part in 70% of mass shootings. The research reveals that psychosis played a part in only 30% of cases, with 10% of that group experiencing psychosis prior to and during the crime, responding to delusions or hallucinations that were the major factor in the murders. Promoting a view blaming mental health illness serves to wrongfully stigmatize others affected by serious mental illness, who are far more often victims of violence instead of perpetrators.
Instead, the researchers found that 80% of shooters had reached a crisis point in the weeks, days or hours before their shootings that they were unable to overcome with their usual coping tools. Throughout the book the authors use the illustration of a balloon inflated beyond its ability to contain air. Stretched with tension and stress, a fully inflated balloon must be handled with care or it will break. In the same way, these people in crisis, stretched too thin, exploded. Half of all shooters had been in trouble at work, others had relationships fail, or experienced sudden financial ruin.
The book discusses the often violent, unstable early lives of shooters, frequently abused by their own parents, leading those traumatized individuals to become suicidal and murderous. Those experiencing childhood trauma were most likely to be school shooters. Those experiencing trauma as an adult tended to choose workplace locations, restaurants or other public places for their shootings.
The research also shows that most shooters “leak” their plans, especially if they are young. They signal their intentions in advance. They will tell a classmate, or an adult, or a workmate. But the message is often missed or dismissed. The leak is, in reality, a cry for help. In one case, 34 people knew a shooter had plans for mass murder, and reported nothing.
In addition, most shooters do not intend to survive their mass shooting event, because it is an act of suicide. They leave messages, notebooks and social media posts detailing the planning they have done and their motives for shooting and suicide. The shooting will be their last act. A “good guy with a gun,” such as police officer at a school, is therefore no deterrent.
Idealization of the Columbine murderers is common among young potential shooters. In 1999, two high school students shot 12 children and two others, then took their own lives. Young, aspiring shooters study every detail of this event, visit the site, and make references to “going Columbine.” They also study other mass shootings to better prepare their own. They desire notoriety and they look for ways to work around potential obstacles. The shooters look for a script for their crime.
Another strong motive for mass shootings is hate. White nationalists, for example, believe that whiteness itself is under attack, and that there is a conspiracy to replace white people with people of color. Even in the absence of any proof, the belief exists, reinforced by internet sites aplenty. The ideology found there helps the shooters to feel “part of the pack.” The locations of the shootings also are intended to send a message. When a young white man killed nine African Americans at a church Bible study, he was sending a message.
In 2020 the rate of mass shootings fell dramatically. The reason? No opportunity. COVID-19 shut down the contagion of violence — mass shootings fueling other copycat shootings.
The authors also discuss the availability of guns and ammunition in relation to suicides and murders. Two heavily armed countries, Switzerland and Israel, greatly reduced murders and suicides by restricting the availability of either guns or bullets when not needed by their citizens for military service. The Swiss found a reduction of suicide by 40%. Suicide in the Israel Defense Forces dropped 57%. Lack of opportunity is a form of prevention.
The book gives considerable space to teaching readers how to de-escalate crisis situations and create mentoring relationships with students. It lists protective factors that may stop violence against all odds. It helps readers understand how small but meaningful actions may prevent violence and death.
The book ends with hopeful and practical suggestions for individuals, institutions and members of society to stop mass shooting episodes. It emphasizes that violent actions are not inevitable if one learns to become aware of the signals from a person in crisis and has the willingness to act.
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