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At the time of writing, the death toll is 34 for the three most recent mass shootings one week apart and two within approximately 12 hours of each other in Gilroy, California, El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. More are wounded so it remains unknown if, by the time of publication, that number will rise – or indeed if another shooting might have taken place.
The coverage has become achingly familiar. First, the initial chaotic scene, the transcript of the 911 call, cell phone photos and video, interviews with survivors and distraught families. These images are quickly followed by statements from law enforcement and local politicians. “Nothing in my x years of experience on the force/in local government has prepared me for this. Horrific. Why here? Why us?”. All crushingly true but, at the same time, repeated so often they have become almost rote. After the immediate coverage come the statements from national politicians and – given the massive herd of democratic hopefuls – a blizzard of statements from wannabe candidates as they try to out-do each other with sincere emotion while their fingers fly to get out their politically punchy tweets. Finally, commentators and experts take to the airways to offer their explanations and suggestions.
However, given the relentless number of events, these waves are coming closer together even as they begin to have a ring of familiarity: mental health, gun control and security in public spaces top the list while racism, similar events and manifestos have also become a sadly constant theme. To that list, these latest attacks have added the invidious power of video/online entertainment and the murky and terrifyingly invasive notion that we should identify shooters through their online presence – before they attack.
The predictability of this pattern is not only depressing because of its regularity, but because it repeats and reinforces bad science and bad politics. In the face of speechless horror, people must still find words, but what is new to say? Tragedy makes it all too likely that language will run to hyperbole while frequency can affect the use of fact. There is so much we do not know, it may be an ideal moment to step back and review what we do know.
First, there is a real problem in terms of definition. To discuss terminology as people fight for their lives may seem cold, but such issues matter, particularly when we come to suggestions for policy. Perhaps it is the pressure of reporting on the latest event, but there is now almost an expectation to assert a dramatic rise in the number of such events though most people are unaware that there are at least five different databases and ways to frame the same information.
For the FBI, a mass murderer is someone who kills 4 or more people in a single incident (not including him/herself). However, the government does not have a separate category for a mass shooting. Most people tend to use the mass murder definition, but this leaves open at least two major issues. The first is incidents where more people were injured, but not killed, or there are more deaths, just not due to gunfire. Some researchers have tried to address this problem by using 2 or more injured victims (rather than fatalities) and others have used 2 or more, 4 or more injured OR killed or 4 or more, including the perpetrator. The second issue is whether the shooting took place in connection with some other type of gun violence e.g. gangs, drug deals or family disputes etc. These two points alone can shift the incident count from over 300 to less than 10. Similarly, there is a question of the timeframe used. Mass shootings in 2010 were relatively low whereas they were much higher in 2012. The point is, what you ‘find’ will be affected by when you start the clock. Interestingly, there is more agreement on the definition of an active shooter which has no casualty threshold. The problem with this terminology is that it becomes more difficult when there were no causalities and the intention more complicated to discern.
In more recent situations, the definitional dilemma expands to include who constitutes a terrorist or white supremacist. The presidential candidates seem intent on framing every shooting with racist intent, but the rambling ‘manifestos’ (the quotations are intentional as a manifesto, by definition, suggests a thought out plan or set of policy ideas) are more accurately described as screeds of unconnected ideas and ill thought out opinions that are as anti-corporate or even pro-environment as they are anti-immigrant.
Some, including former FBI Assistant Director for Counterintelligence, Frank Figliuzzi, have suggested that the FBI has not been working as diligently as they should on the ‘radicalization’ of American youth, going so far as to argue they have become domestic terrorists. Other former FBI agents agree, and argue that while Muslims or Muslim-Americans have been the focus, other threats, including white supremacists, have been ignored – even though these groups are responsible for more deaths in recent months.
Moving to policy prescriptions, bad science begins to appear. In an understandably desperate effort to ‘understand’ the incomprehensible, the final stage of coverage is typically speculation on the shooter’s motives. The interviews with family or more often, former girlfriends or friends from school, are designed to show they: “Saw it coming. There were signs. Someone should have stopped them sooner”. Of course this is hindsight and bad science as there is little evidence to suggest that there is any way to predict murderous intent. Further, the ability to predict the outlier is far more difficult than to find those who follow a formal ideology. The move to the online world has further isolated those who are most at risk of becoming a threat to their community. Perhaps ironically, the more connected a person is to the world around them, the less likely they are to do harm to that community. Whereas, the more isolated and remote the world becomes, the more anger and resentment can spill into acts of violence.
Predictive policing results in over-policing as argued in a study by the Swedish Defense Agency in their study conducted in the wake of the shooting in Norway in 2011 that left 70 dead (and was mentioned by some recent shooters). Their conclusion was that the detection of the lone wolf “is in our view, not possible” as there is just too much conflicting data and not nearly enough sophistication in terms of interpretation.
When we look around the world, what we see is that Americans do not suffer more from, and spend about the same on, mental health (though countries with a high suicide rate tend to have low numbers of mass shootings). Americans are no more likely to play video games and the US is not the only place in the world with racial diversity.
However, we also see that Americans, who make up just over 4% of the world’s population, own just under half the world’s guns (only Yemen comes close with a gun ownership rate second only to the US). The logical conclusion is that ready access to guns makes all the issues found in society more lethal. Mental health is not higher, crime is not significantly different, but Americans are more likely to die.
All of which brings us to the most fundamental fact – beyond explanations of mental health and even more than race or ideology, shooters tend to be young; generally 25 or younger. That fact should be first and foremost in our consideration. These are not ideologically driven terrorists with well thought out agendas. They are lost and alienated boys who have been encouraged to believe they are the center of the universe and that it is acceptable to externalize their despair and their rage. They have been released from social constraint and given free access to some of the most deadly arms devised. These disaffected young men will continue to kill their school mates or people gathering at prayer, going about their back-to-school shopping or out for an evening until we prevent them from getting the weapons they use. If we focus solely on the horror of the manifesto, we will miss the tragedy of the man.
Dr. Alison Holmes is Associate Professor of International Studies and Politics at Humboldt State University, CA. She lived in the UK for over 20 years and worked at the BBC, ran BritishAmerican Business in London and was speechwriter to the US Ambassador.