Mass Shootings In United States
In the last 20 years, mass shootings in school settings have been a concern for the United States (Baird et al., 2016)1. The media portrayed these incidents as an epidemic of school violence and that schools are no longer safe for children (Rocque, 2012)2. This created a “moral panic” from the media, which some may argue that school shootings are not a concern, but it is only what the media lead us to believe (Rocque, 2012). Even though mass school shootings is less than one percent of all annual homicides, the repercussions of these incidents are so severe that it needs to be a focus to be researched and understood (Baird et al., 2016). There is no general consensus on the definition of “mass shooting” (Cohen et al., 2014)3, but in efforts to understand a phenomenon, the definition below will be used.
Mass shootings are described as intentional, planned, perpetrated shooting events involving the use of firearms to kill or injure multiple victims typically carried out in a school, worksite, or other public venues. Mass shootings involve firing upon random individuals who were not pre-identified targets of the assailant, although a subset of the victims may have been selected for harm, such as family members. Mass shootings are usually carried out by a single shooter (or occasionally, a pair of shooters) with no formal affiliation to an armed group but with a premeditated plan to unleash violence using firearms as a primary lethal means to inflict harm. Other deadly weapons may also be employed, such as improvised explosive devices.
(Cohen et al., 2014, pg. 2)
Increasing Rates. The first school shootings happened in the 1760s and school shootings have gradually increased since (Lee, 2013)4. Between the years 1981 to 2012, the number of mass school shootings nearly doubled (Baird et al., 2016). There were landmark events that shook the nation (Rocque, 2012) in the 1990s, including the tragedies of Columbine High School, Thurston High School, and Westside Middle School (Baird et al., 2016). Research of mass school shootings began after these incidents in the 1990s (Baird et al., 2016). There were 54 school shootings that happened since 2010 that included Virginia Tech in 2007 and Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 (Lee, 2013).
Access to Firearms. Not only the number of shootings are increasing, it is also a concern how many children have access to firearms. When compared to Finland, France, or New Zealand, a child in the United States is 13 times more likely to be killed with a gun (Lee, 2013). Even though the United States does not have the highest firearm homicides rates compared to Latin American nations, the United States has the highest proportion of rampage shooting, and second to that is European nations (Cohen et al., 2014). Based on the University of Sydney’s “Gun Policy” research displayed 14 nations’ (i.e. Latin America, Caribbean, Africa, Honduras, U.S., El Salvador, Jamaica, Venezuela, and Brazil) firearm homicide rates, Honduras is the highest in the world, 18 times of U.S. rate, and in El Salvador, Jamaica, and Venezuela, 11 times the U.S. rates (Cohen et al., 2014). Yet, among these 14 nations, there is only one single high-fatality mass shooting in Brazil (Cohen et al., 2014).
The Lasting Effects. Lastly, the repercussions of the shootings leave many people including the survivors, school staff, the families and the community devastated. Psychological distress, posttraumatic stress, depression, and anxiety symptoms are shown after the shooting based on the degree of physical exposure and social proximity to the incident (Cohen et al., 2014). Many of these symptoms increase following the mass shooting within a short time frame (Cohen et al., 2014). At Northern Illinois University, PTS symptoms jumped from 20%, before the shooting, to 49%, within the first 30 days after the shooting (Cohen et al., 2014).
The rate of mass shootings and rampages are increasing, a concern of access to firearms, and the effects of the incidents are all factors that need to be considered when attempting to create policies for schools. Clearly, mass school shootings should be a concern because not only does it affect the students in the incident, but it also effects, the families and the community. The media is portraying that school may become a place that can no longer be safe for students to learn (Rocque, 2012). With a better understanding of the cause and effects, policymakers and school staff can work together to develop a framework for prevention, as well as, intervening at the time of the incidents.
The attacker of mass shootings varied across demographics (Lee, 2013). The ages ranged from six years old to the 50s (Lee, 2013). Most attackers were between the ages of six to 18 at the time of the attack (Lee, 2013).
Nearly all attackers were young men at 99% of the time (Lee, 2013). However, there were at least five female incidents that were documented, Brenda Spencer (16) in 1979, Laurie Dann (30) in 1988, Jillian Spencer (19) in 1996, Latina Williams (23) in 2008, and Professor Amy Bishop in 2010 (Lee, 2013).
Race and Ethnic.
Attackers were 76% European American, 12% African American, 2% Native Alaskan, 2% Native American, and 2% Asian (Lee, 2013).
The family background of the attackers ranges from traditional two-parent families to foster homes (Lee, 2013). There were 63% of attackers living with two-parent families, 44% are with biological parents, and 19% are with one biological parent and one stepparent (Lee, 2013). Only 5% of attackers came from a foster parent or legal guardian situations (Lee, 2013).
Grades of the attackers’ ranges from excellent to failing. Generally speaking, 41% of attackers were receiving A’s and B’s in their classes; 15% receiving B’s and C’s, 22% receiving C’s and D’s; and only 5% were failing school (Lee, 2013).
Social Engagement Level.
Many of the attackers, at 41%, who were mainstream students or socializing with mainstream students (Lee, 2013). About 27% of attackers were socializing with disliked students or involved in a marginalized group themselves (Lee, 2013). However, 34% of attackers were considered as loners or felt that they were loners (Lee, 2013). Though, nearly half, 44% of attackers have involved in extracurricular activities in or outside of school (Lee, 2013).
Some may assume that the attackers had to pass behavioral problems, but interestingly, nearly 63% of attackers have never been in trouble (Lee, 2013). Only 27% of attackers were suspended from school and 10% of attackers were expelled (Lee, 2013). A majority of attackers showed no signs before the incident of mass shooting with 56% had no change in academic performance, 73% had no change in friendship patterns, 59% had no change in the level of interest in school, and 68% had no change of school disciplinary problems prior to the attack (Lee, 2013).
As shown above, the profiles of the perpetrators are varied across the board. There is no one profile that fits all school shooters (Rocque, 2012). The mass shooting is a unique phenomenon that it would not be beneficial to pinpoint an exact prototype of the attacker (Lee, 2013).
Instead of depicting the prototype of a future school shooter, the U.S. Secret Service (2004) suggests that it would be more productive to focus on a student’s behaviors and communications to determine if that student is engaging in behaviors that pose preparations for a school shooting.
(Lee, 2013, pg. 93)
Many of the incidents, 95%, the attackers have thought out beforehand and involved some degree of “advance planning” to harm the target(s) (Lee, 2013). The school shootings are rarely an act of impulsivity (Lee, 2013). They are pre-meditated with much thought of a definite plan to unleash violence (Cohen et al., 2014).
The targets in mass school shootings differ from mass murders, warfare, and crimes mass shootings (Cohen et al., 2014). School shootings tend to have targets that are “innocent” or “defenseless”, not pre-identified by the shooter, and not socially connected to the shooter (Cohen et al., 2014). The mass school shootings often happen in communities with low crime rates and committed by someone with no prior reputation for violence (Cohen et al., 2014).
Social Psychological Theories
The mass shooting in schools is no laughing matter, as it causes much distress to all the involved parties (Cohen et al., 2014) as well the United States, standing at the highest rate of mass shootings (Rocque, 2012). There are at least two main causes of school shootings (Lee, 2013). One is because of bullying and the other is because of psychiatric drugs (Lee, 2013).
There is no consensus on the definition of “bullying” across the board, but studies show that being disliked or disrespect can exhibit aggression (DeBono & Muraven, 2014)5. Though a logical and safe explanation to why youth want to attack peers is because they were relentlessly tormented by their peers (Rocque, 2012). Extensive evidence suggests that feeling disrespected may lead to a greater level of aggression than feeling disliked (DeBono & Muraven, 2014) Being disliked may be perceived as the lack of fondness or enjoyment, whereas, being disrespected may be perceived as being disregarded and lack considerations from others (DeBono & Muraven, 2014). A majority of school shooters reported feelings of exclusion, social isolation, rejection, and abused by peers (Baird et al., 2016). Research by Vossekuil, Fein, Reddy, Borum, and Modzeleski states that a large majority of school shooters are the victims of bullying (Rocque, 2012). With the lack of interpersonal justice or the feelings of being respected, there is a link to retaliatory behaviors (DeBono & Muraven, 2014), hence the acts of violence.
By far the most prevalent psychological theories that help explain school shootings are related to mental illness (Rocque, 2012). Attackers may be sufferers from severe depressions that were rarely recognized prior to the shootings (Rocque, 2012). Peter Langman developed a thoughtful typology to categorize the attackers (Rocque, 2012). He categorized them into three groups, psychopathic shooters (i.e. Eric Harris, Columbine; Andrew Golden, Jonesboro, Arkansas), psychotic shooters (i.e. Dylan Klebold, Columbine; Michael Carneal, West Paducah, Kentucky; Andrew Wurst, Edinboro, Pennsylvania; Kip Kinkel, Springfield, Oregon; Seung Hui Cho, Virginia Tech), and traumatized shooters (i.e. Mitchell Johnson, Jonesboro, Arkansas; Evan Ramsey, Bethel, Alaska; Jeffrey Weise, Red Lake, Minnesota) (Rocque, 2012).
Psychopathic shooters do not feel an emotional connection to other humans and are unable to feel guilt or remorse (Rocque, 2012). Psychotic shooters stuffer with disconnection from reality, where they may see themselves as being different or as an alien (Rocque, 2012). Traumatized shooters typically experienced emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, thus suffering from the stressors that led to the attack (Rocque, 2012). To add to Peter Langman’s categories of the shooters, Jonathan Fast introduced a new concept to mass shooting: the ceremony (Rocque, 2012). The ceremony is considered a distinct act that is “theatrical, tragic, and pointless” (Rocque, 2012). Johnathan Fast suggests that ceremonial violence is the consequences of mental illness, social isolation, and suicidal displayed in a ceremonial fashion (Rocque, 2012). These ceremonial violent acts are attempts to gain status and prestige (Rocque, 2012), which is in closely related to retaliate, a form of aggression (DeBono & Muraven, 2014), for being disrespected or bullied.
Many of the shooters want to commit suicide (Rocque, 2012) during the shooting. Anthony Preti calls this “suicide with hostile intent” (Rocque, 2012). He linked this practice to ancient ceremonies in which suicide was accomplished alongside revenge (Rocque, 2012). Mass shootings have a flavor of the “ritual” with a goal of “cultural recognition” (Rocque, 2012).
A social-psychological factor is called imitation (Rocque, 2012) of high profile shootings. There is some evidence that the “copycat” factor had increased the number of school shootings in the 1990s (Rocque, 2012).
One school shooter, T.J. Solomon, wrote after his attack, “I felt the next thing left to release anger would be through violence. I had gotten the idea from the shooting at Columbine High School on April 20”.
(Rocque, 2012, pg. 308)
Even though mental illness and peer to peer conflicts are logical explanations to mass shootings, it is tough to say that access to guns or weapons is not a concern. While the number of guns increased, a number of people that own guns did not (Rocque, 2012). However, there is a cultural attitude in the United States that “guns solve problems” (Rocque, 2012). Many also consider violent media (i.e. movies and video games) is a contributing factor to school shootings and studies showed that violent media does increase aggression (Rocque, 2012). On top of the attackers’ interest in violent media, having access to a weapon is clearly dangerous.
Many of the factors, mental illness, peer to peer conflicts, access to weapons, and the interest to intimate may overlap each other that may help lead up the mass school shooting. Even though it may seem like all odds is against the situation, in order to prevent future mass shootings in schools, all students and staff need to be aware of what happens at the social level of the school. Those responsible for safely in schools should know what questions to ask and where to uncover information (Lee, 2013). This allows staff to develop the capacity to pick up and evaluate information that might put the school at risk (Lee, 2013). With the increasing of mass school shootings, alongside with suicidal attempts, this is a very complex and serious concern.
- Baird, A. A., Roellke, E. V., & Zeirfman, D. M. (2016) Alone and adrift: The association between mass school shootings, school size, and student support. The Social Science Journal. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.soscij.2017.01.009.
- Rocque, M. (2012). Exploring school rampage shootings: Research, theory, and policy. The Social Science Journal, 49, 304-313. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.soscij.2011.11.001.
- Cohen, A. M., Espinel, Z., Flynn, B. W., Gaither, J. B., Garcia-Barcena, Y., Muschert, G. W., O’Keefe, K., Shaw, J. A., Shultz, J. M, Thoresen, S., and Walter, F. G. (2014) Multiple vantage points on the mental health effects of mass shootings. Current Psychiatry Reports, 16, 469. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11920-014-0469-5.
- Lee, J. H. (2013). School shootings in the US public schools: Analysis through the eyes of an educator. Review of Higher Education and Self-Learning, Vol 2, Issue 22, 88-120.
- DeBono, A. & Marvan, M. (2014). Rejection perception: feeling disrespected leads to greater aggression than feeling disliked. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 55, 43-52. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2014.05.014 0022-1031.
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