The latest case of what is generally referred to as a mass shooting or mass killing occurred last night in Lafayette, Louisiana. A White male, 58, shot several people in a movie theatre during a screening of the movie, “Trainwreck.” Two people as well as the killer are dead, and nine others are injured. For the families and friends of the victims, and the space in which these things takes place, a mark and a memory is forever imprinted. For the rest of the nation, there is as usual, temporary shock and surprise.
The problem with mass shootings and how we discuss them is that there is no official, agreed upon, conclusive definition. When the FBI released their study on active shooter incidents between 2000 and 2013, it revealed a rise in incidents. The definition of an active shooter according to the FBI is, “an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.” When the public at large and public officials discuss mass killings and active shooters – they often do so interchangeably, so studying the numbers, because of the rhetoric, is difficult.
“Four or more people” shot in a public space was the threshold for mass killings with respect to the FBI. Mass shooting tracker – a crowd-sourced site that monitors gun-related deaths uses that threshold. President Obama redefined that threshold to “three or more people” in the Investigative Assistance for Violent Crimes Act of 2012, approved in 2013. Because of the semantics confusion as well as differences in constitutions of mass killings, interpreting research and public policy can be an exercise in frustration.
When scholars from the Harvard School of Public Health and Northeastern University conducted a study about mass killings, and wrote about it in Mother Jones, their definition constituted, “attacks that took place in public, in which the shooter and the victims generally were unrelated and unknown to each other, and in which the shooter murdered four or more people.” Keeping in mind that this analysis excluded gang related killings, as well as private killings (domestic cases, spaces where victims and perpetrators knew each other, etc.), the researchers found that mass killings were indeed on the rise. Using a Systematic Process Control approach that accounts for time intervals, the researchers found that from 1982 to 2011, mass killings took place every 200 days. Since 2011, mass killings have been taking place every 64 days.
Notably, the researchers in their conclusion, discuss that many mass shooters may have shown signs or struggled with mental illness, often seen as part of the complex set of variables that may result in a mass killing. But they also accurately point out that not only is there no reason to believe that mental illness is on the rise, federal research points to a decrease.
Now, good research is my bread and butter. I love it fundamentally because it shows that social occurrences are not just random events, but events that can be put into patterns, observed, and explained. It takes consequences that happen in the real world and juxtapose them against social theories for people to interpret effectively.
There is another pattern that I have observed, albeit unscientifically, in the rhetoric and culture of mass killings/active shooter/”lone wolf” incidents, and the resulting consequences (or lack thereof). And it goes like this:
1. “Lone” (typically) White male from age 16+ (not described as “terrorist” or “thug,” mind you), shoots people in a public space. For whatever reason there is a notable pattern of this occurrence in movie theaters, schools, and malls.
2. Said male is described as being troubled, and facts about his childhood are told to either humanize him, or used as the “reason” for the tragedy.
3. Next, mental illness is blamed. Even though those who suffer from mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violent crimes than to commit them, and violent crimes committed by those with mental illness are extremely rare. (This is not to negate the very real need for mental health care. But can we please stop with the stigmatization that portrays those who suffer mental illness as violent?)
4. Arguments about gun laws ensue that will inevitably end up futile because “Second Amendment!!!!” Even if was written in 1791, and the kind of weaponry that would develop could not have been foreseen.
5. Then the media goes on like a circus, public officials and politicians go through the same old tired rhetoric that ends up being nothing more than superficial ideological shouting matches. Either way, nothing productive comes out of it.
6. Then we’re asked to pray. When theologically, and all the evidence suggests, that prayer without action will clearly not get you very far. (The Catholic in me likes to reiterate this: “God helps those who help themselves.”)
7. Within a few news cycles, the public at large, forgets what happened.
8. In a few weeks (or more accurately 64 days, give or take) the same thing happens.
—-> Return to No. 1. Rinse and Repeat.
Given these patterns, I propose that we look into researching something else: The historical amnesia and cultural insanity of America’s sociopolitical response to recurring national problems.