An Evidence-Based Look at Mass Shooters in the US

Photograph Source: Lorie Shaull – CC BY 2.0

The US has become a shooting gallery (New York Times, January 24, 2023). Here is a list of mass shootings in the US since the 1920sMass shootings involve 3 or 4 deaths and often additional injuries among survivors. The list is quite telling, and the list makes the shootout at the OK Corral look like child’s play and there is absolutely no intent of any kind of humor involved here! The US frontier or West is one place where machismo and guns (“Gun Sellers’ Message to Americans: Man Up,” New York Times, June 22, 2022) were turned into national ideals. It is no longer adequate to list the endless mass gun shootings in the US and pass them off to an unbridled Second Amendment frenzy, fascists in the streets, or bald-face machismo. No other so-called “developed” nation comes close to the mass shooting deaths in the streets, buildings, and other places in the US. We are nonpareil in that respect.

Besides the mass shooting at the University of Texas, the so-called tower shooting in 1966 in which 15 people were killed, mass shootings got limited attention, besides the initial shock, until the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado. In that scene of mass murder, bullying was one reason given for that school massacre. Charles Whitman, the University of Texas tower gunman, had a host of issues leading to that massacre, including domestic violence, a contributing factor in many mass shootings. Whitman was shot and killed by two police officers. Many mass shooters place themselves in situations where the police will kill them after their heinous acts of mass murder, or like Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook Elementary School, take their own lives. Suicide is a recurring theme in mass shootings. Like Adam Lanza, decades later in Newtown, Connecticut, Whitman would kill his mother, and also his wife, before his shooting spree at the university. Reportedly, he wanted to spare his mother and wife the fallout from the school shooting. Whitman’s history of domestic violence may have factored into the murder of his mother and wife before the massacre at the University of Texas. Schools and other places where the public gathers such as churches and synagogues, shopping malls, a music venue, and a movie theater seem to be the places of choice for lethal gunmen/shooters. The onslaught of mass murder by those with many motives has moved with the swiftness of the Niagara River over Niagara Falls.

…[T]here is no single profile that can reliably predict who will use a gun in a violent act. Instead, gun violence is associated with a confluence of individual, family, school, peer, community, and sociocultural risk factors that interact over time during childhood and adolescence (“Gun Violence: Prediction, Prevention, and Policy,” American Psychological Association [undated]).

Notably, mental illness is not a major factor in the variables (but it does exist) at work in who commits an act of mass murder with guns. But, the example of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting comes to mind, where Adam Lanza, the gunman, lived for years with allegedly undiagnosed mental health issues before committing the atrocity in a school he once attended. There are other variables to the terror of Sandy Hook Elementary School and Lanza belonged to the gender group that commits the vast majority, in fact nearly all, mass murders. He was isolated from his community and spent a vast amount of time on the Internet playing violent video games and interacting with others on Internet sites on which violence and mass violence was a theme. Lanza practiced shooting at a gun range and his mother had what many would consider a legal arsenal of handguns and rifles, some of which were military style. Lanza used some of those guns in the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

In an evidence-based approach to mass murders, two professors found:

There’s this really consistent pathway. Early childhood trauma seems to be the foundation, whether violence in the home, sexual assault, parental suicides, extreme bullying. Then you see the build toward hopelessness, despair, isolation, self-loathing, oftentimes rejection from peers. That turns into a really identifiable crisis point where they’re acting differently. Sometimes they have previous suicide attempts.

What’s different from traditional suicide is that the self-hate turns against a group. They start asking themselves, “Whose fault is this?” Is it a racial group or women or a religious group, or is it my classmates? The hate turns outward. There’s also this quest for fame and notoriety (“Two Professors Found What Creates a Mass Shooter. Will Politicians Pay Attention?” Politico, May, 27, 2022).

The New York Times profiled mass gunmen/shooters over the past fifty years in “We Profiled the ‘Signs of Crisis’ in 50 Years of Mass Shootings. This Is What We Found,” (January 26, 2023). The article is a restating of Professors Peterson’s and Densley’s evidence-based research cited above that looked for commonality in the profiles of mass gunmen/shooters. Here are some of their recommendations.

Increased investment in suicide prevention, crisis intervention and reporting systems for violent threats will help prevent desperate people from becoming mass shooters.

Our communities and governments need to find ways to reduce social isolation more broadly and improve access to mental health care and substance abuse treatment.

These steps must be taken not in place of but in addition to passing widely supported gun safety laws like background checks, longer waiting periods, safer gun storage requirements and red flag laws.

What rational ways are there to deal with gun violence in the US? Programs that reach kids across the nation that discuss ways of dealing with stressors common to youth of all ages; alternate ways of looking at male development; social involvement that puts kids in touch with kids and less with a keyboard or computer mouse; programs that focus on bullying; suicide prevention programs among adolescents and young men supporting healthy male development; and alternatives to the massive availability of drugs on high school and college campuses. The Wild West machismo associated with guns needs to be countered. Alternatives need to be presented that make armed individuals and groups appear as they really are, a possible threat to society.

In a nation with a rotting infrastructure and abandoned cities, towns, and former industrial areas, jobs programs like the New Deal Civilian Conservation Corps are not pipe dreams. Federal and state investments in jobs programs to counter environmental destruction could also put young people to work and create a sense of belonging and meaning. Better counseling facilities and personnel in high schools, community colleges, and colleges and universities are also ways to prevent gun violence in the future.

Some believe that gun profits or gun lobbyists and gun groups are at the center of mass gun violence in the US. In 2022, $10,713, 890 was spent on so-called gun rights [gun lobbying and gun promotion] according to Open Secrets. While money flowing into guns ($51 billion from the US firearms industry in the US economy) and their use may fuel massacres, the question is why the power elite would allow this obscenity of gun violence and mass shootings to happen if it moved the elite in any way? Like the political right and the neoliberals, the power elite will support anything that enhances their power and put an immediate stop to obstacles to that power driven by the elite’s lust for money. Their authoritarianism would stop at nothing. A base of alienated and angry people is there to support them. Violence could turn on political enemies with a wink and a nod from those in the US elite. It can happen here, and with a small political left already banished from mainstream discourse, disappearing the voices on the left is already well under way.

The beauty of the natural world is defiled by greed and meanness and violence. The greatest achievements of this species in art, literature, dance, music, and science stand to be obliterated.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).