Mass Shootings: From Grief and Outrage to Activism and Action
May we not just grieve, but give:
May we not just ache, but act;
Amanda Gorman, “Hymn for the Hurting”
On May 14th and 28th, two eighteen-year-old males massacred 31 people and injured many more. I am referring to the events in Buffalo and Uvalde, the two mass shootings that have received the most attention in the month of May. However, between May 14th and June 6th, there have been at least four dozen more mass shootings. Experts tell us that these horrific events fit a pattern, that the sequence that preceded these events unfolded as most do, and that the data clearly tell us what will solve the problem of mass killings and what will not. The only question now is whether the sequence that follows will also follow a predictable pattern: doing nothing that will make a positive difference in decreasing civilian homicide.
There is another important aspect to the pattern that research has documented: despite extensive media coverage of mass shootings and school shootings in particular, the actual effect on individuals’ emotional state fades after about one week unless a person lives in the vicinity where the events have taken place. Given how intense the immediate emotional response is to murdered children and caring adults who tried to protect them, the window of public pressure to create political action closes remarkably fast.
In this statement, I am going to highlight a few areas that relate to mass killings, but I am not trying to cover all the meaningful angles that converge on this topic. I am focusing on aspects that relate to what might be broadly considered the psychological arena since that is my area of expertise.1 The topics I am addressing are not presented in order of importance.
- Othering and Racism: There are many avenues through which a person or group of people portray other persons or people as “other,” but the effects are always problematic and sometimes fatal. Othering can happen on an individual level and at the level of institutions and the State. A young man who is bullied by his peers may also be ignored by his teachers, despite indications that he is troubled. He may also belong to a group that is historically marginalized by the community or State. This seemed to be the case in Uvalde, where the shooter lived in a community that was significantly more impoverished than communities further north in the city.
Ideologies that circulate in the community, often in online communities, and are adopted by individuals, create “in” and “out” groups. Racism, anti-gay rhetoric, and replacement theory are all examples of ideologies that “other” some people and create belonging for others. Many people claim that the Buffalo and Uvalde events show a different racial pattern from each other. The killer in Buffalo was a white male who sought out the nearest location to his home that had the highest density of African Americans in it. The Tops grocery store he entered was in a zip code that is 78% Black according to the 2020 census. The killer in Texas was from the same ethnic community of the people he massacred. He and the murdered children and adults all lived in the southwest section of Uvalde that is majority Hispanic. One in three of those children lived in poverty and the shooter may have as well. But the dynamics of the Uvalde massacre also have racial dimensions, given that the law enforcement response was largely white in a school that had a 90% Hispanic student body. The school’s parents are asking whether the 78-minute delay before the shooter was killed would have been less had the children been white. In other words, they too are wondering whether their precious children had been seen as “other” by the heavily armed law enforcement officers who were in the school and did not intervene.
- Loneliness and Feeling Othered: Significant attention has been drawn to mental illness as a factor in the histories of people who commit mass killings and yet the data do not support this conclusion. When attention is drawn to mental illness, demands for better mental health care are also made and this is absolutely needed and necessary. However, it will not solve this problem. Fewer than 3% to 5% of US crimes involve people with serious mental illness, and the percentages of crimes that involve guns are lower than the national average for persons not diagnosed with mental illness. Databases that track gun homicides, such as the National Center for Health Statistics, similarly show that fewer than 5% of the 120,000 gun-related killings in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were perpetrated by people diagnosed with mental illness. A more recent study in 2021 found that only 11% of mass murderers and 8% of mass shooters exhibited symptoms of serious mental illness. “On the other hand, victimization among people with mental illness appears elevated relative to the general population,” indicating that they are at risk also because they are “othered.”
While a person who commits a mass shooting may not have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness, this does not mean that that they are well adjusted and happy. In fact, loneliness has been identified as a key factor and may be a by-product of their being “othered” by their peers, perhaps drawing them to ideologies in which creating in/out groups, superior/inferior status is a core concept. According to the US Census Bureau, as of 2019, about 30% of households are single-person ones, creating what has also been termed an epidemic of social isolation.
- Leaking Plans Beforehand: Another point that is being made by people who study the profile of mass shooters is that they often “leak” their plans to peers, on- and offline. The Violence Project, which I will discuss at length in the final section of this essay, has data to support these numbers: 44 to 50% of mass shooters leaked their plans through social media or by telling friends or family. Among school shootings, more than 78% of mass shooters leaked their plans. Their peers know that these individuals are angry or disaffected or loners or in some way are distinguishing themselves from their associates. Yet the peers most often do nothing to draw the attention of responsible adults to them. This too may be an aspect of a mental health issue. Peers of shooters are witnesses before tragic events occur and lack the education to know what to do. If the shooter is still in school, they are most often in school communities that do not provide training on what to consider, or mechanisms to safely report, disturbing communication and/or behavior to school personnel or other responsible community adults.
Texas state officials asserted that the Uvalde gunman was a “deeply troubled individual,” but he had no history of ever having received a mental illness diagnosis or treatment for any mental disorder. This again fits a pattern. People who commit a mass shooting may have mental health issues but picking out who may become a mass shooter from a cohort of people with mental health issues is impossible! On the other hand, identifying people who are bullied, disaffected, unhappy and leaking information about plans to commit an act of mass shooting is doable if people who learn about this act on the information they have.
- The Criminalization of Mental Illness: When attention is drawn to the need for mental health care, it is often disingenuous and used to deflect attention from more relevant and needed remedies. Once again, Texas governor Greg Abbott blamed mental illness as the root cause of the Uvalde shootings, as he did with the El Paso Walmart massacre. Juxtaposing some statistics makes the case for what has been called a “charade” in Texas. Texas ranks last of all 50 states in overall access to mental health care, according to the nonprofit Mental Health America. The ranking is based on data that measures the share of children and adults who seek but are unable to receive mental health treatment. Texas is the state with the highest share of residents who are uninsured, while other states have used Medicaid to cover mental health care. Gov. Abbot has blocked this avenue for mental health care coverage.
One can juxtapose these statistics with those related to incarceration. In general, people with a mental illness in the US are 10 times more likely to be in prisons than hospitals. Additionally, more than 70 percent of those in prisons have been given a mental illness diagnosis, making the “prison system, in effect, the largest psychiatric institution in the nation – one that doesn’t treat mental illness effectively.”
We can ask ourselves what are the historical conditions that have led to policies that criminalize mental illness. There have been profound analyses of this phenomenon, among which a school to prison pipeline is one, Michelle Alexander’s searing book, The New Jim Crow, another, and Alisa Roth’s book, Insane, a third.
- Gun Availability: A great deal has been written about the fact that serious mental illness is a global phenomenon, affecting all peoples everywhere, and yet mass killings are not ubiquitous. What makes the difference, it is argued, is the availability of guns. The notion that arming the good guys will stop mass shooting is also not borne out by the evidence, of which the Uvalde massacre is a recent and clear example.
In 2020, Emma Fridel, an assistant professor of criminology at Florida State University, published an article in the journal Justice Quarterly that looked at the effects of gun laws in every state. Fridel found that in states with more permissive gun carry laws, gun-homicide rates were 11% higher than in states with stricter laws, and the probability of mass shootings increased by roughly 53% in states with more gun ownership. Texas has 8,000 gun dealers and an estimated 37% of the population own firearms. Texas had 14.2 gun deaths per 100,000 people in 2020. By contrast, California, with stricter gun laws, had 8.5 gun deaths per 100,000 people, lower than the US average. It is also the case that people living in California are 25% less likely to die in mass shootings compared to those living in other states. The national assault weapons ban was phased out in 2004. States that banned large-capacity magazines, compared to those that didn’t, as one would expect, have fewer public mass shootings, and fewer people killed per shooting. These numbers add perspective to a comment made by Jill Cook, the Executive Director of the American School Counselor Association: "If somebody comes to a door with a semiautomatic weapon, that's it."
People argue that a 2008 Supreme Court ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller would violate the Second Amendment. However, in an opinion piece in The New York Times on May 31, Kate Shaw and John Bash, who clerked for the majority and minority opinions that were made in the Heller case, state that, “every member of the court on which we clerked joined an opinion, either majority or dissent, that agreed that the Constitution leaves elected officials an array of policy options when it comes to gun regulation.” They further write: “Most of the obstacles to gun regulations are political and policy based, not legal; it’s laws that never get enacted, rather than ones that are struck down, because of an unduly expansive reading of Heller. We are aware of no evidence that any mass shooter was able to obtain a firearm because of a law struck down under Heller. But Heller looms over most debates about gun regulation, and it often serves as a useful foil for those who would like to deflect responsibility — either for their policy choice to oppose a particular gun regulation proposal or for their failure to convince their fellow legislators and citizens that the proposal should be enacted.”
- Hardening Classrooms: The final point I want to address relates to this unusual set of dichotomous terms applied now to schools: “soften” or “harden.” Although I cannot know for sure, these terms likely derive from work started in the 1950s by Jane Jacobs and published in a 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, that argued that crime flourishes when people do not live in spaces that permit meaningful interaction with their neighbors. She believed that one could design physical environments to reduce crime. From this decidedly “softening” perspective, a very different idea emerged in the 1970s, memorably amplified in a book by Oscar Newman published in 1972: Defensible Space - Crime prevention through urban design. Within two years of the publication of this book, federal dollars began rolling in to study and demonstrate the merits of concepts related to defensible space. Security walls, gated communities, private police, and security guards are all manifestations of these concepts.
The current movement of “hardening” schools has direct links to the Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) movement that emerged from Newman’s book. Both the Columbine school shooting in 1999 and the tragedies of September 11, 2001 triggered federal spending to schools to increase security. In 2003, the Department of Homeland Security spent $350 million to help local schools create surveillance and security systems. At the time of the Parkland school shooting in 2018, school security had become a $3 billion dollar industry and nearly 84% of schools had CCTV. Perhaps most poignantly, or ironically, the Sandy Hook Elementary School is now in a $50 million building with features such as “doors close and classroom doors deadbolt automatically. Windows are coated with a special hardened glaze, so that even if the window is shot, it would take an attacker 10 to 15 minutes with a sledgehammer to force open a hole big enough to crawl through.”
Robb Elementary School in Uvalde received funds from the state to “harden” its schools. In the summer of 2020, “police officers swept hallways in active-shooter drills. The city’s SWAT team was brought in to map layouts….The chief of the school district’s police force called the exercises ‘very successful,’ according to documents obtained by the New York Times.” We all know what happened instead.
One child inside classroom 112 showed extraordinary courage and what I might call, from a distance, not knowing anything about this young girl, exquisite social-emotional intelligence, risking her life by making five 911 calls in an effort to protect her classmates and herself. Those who argue for “hardening” schools are often the same people who oppose curricula that promote social-emotional learning (SEL), programs that build self awareness, improve decision making and develop relational skills, precisely those skills the child manifested. Conservatives who oppose SEL believe that SEL is a back door into introducing children to sex education and other ideologically “liberal” points of view. Proponents of SEL cite it as a means of creating a more hospitable classroom and school environment that decreases bullying and mitigates suicide risk by helping children address their feelings constructively.
Despite the extensive lobbying of the security hardware and product industry, available research consistently shows that school hardening “doesn’t work and is often counterproductive.” Several studies have shown that students and staff in schools that have extensive security experience higher levels of fear than in schools with fewer security measures. Researchers from Ohio State University concluded this in a 2019 published paper: “Instead of simply hardening schools against attack, educators should focus on building school environments characterized by mutual trust, active listening, respect for student voices and expression, cooperativeness, and caring relationships with and among students."
Supporting the witnesses
While we are all familiar with the terms “victim” and “perpetrator,” far fewer of us use the term “witness” to apply to all the myriad situations in which that term is most apt. Far and away, the majority of acts of violence and violation – any disturbing interaction or event – is experienced by people in the witness position. People who receive “leaks” are witnesses, whether they know what to do with the information or not. That little girl in classroom 112 was a witness and a very special kind at that, a child who epitomizes the attributes in the quote above.
I have developed a model of witnessing in which I describe not one but four positions from which a person can witness violence. Our positions vary depending on the situations we witness. The model helps us account for different roles people take on in situations in which a violent or violating event is occurring. Recently, I have applied the model to provide one framework for understanding the different witness positions in the George Floyd murder in 2019. Through various media, people all over the world could learn about the massacres in Buffalo and Uvalde; we are aware but disempowered witnesses; from a distance, not one of us could intervene effectively. Closer to the school itself, parents were also aware and disempowered witnesses, watching law enforcement officers in the most dangerous position of all, empowered but unaware of – or oblivious to – what was urgently needed in the situation. These heartbroken, enraged parents remained – and were restrained from becoming anything but – witnesses rather than effective actors. The child who made five 911 calls was an aware and empowered witness. (She walked out alive).
It is likely that most of the citizens of Uvalde are having reactions common to those who witness horrific events. Surely all the children, their relatives and friends, the teachers, and staff at Robb Elementary School are suffering the aftereffects of the massacre, what I have called “common shock.” Many will also show symptoms of trauma, acutely or over time. According to a Washington Post database, there are the more than 360 children and adults who have been injured on K-12 campuses since 1999. In a poignant recent article, journalists interviewed children who had been nearby when a school shooting occurred, capturing the lingering and long-term effects of witnessing murder.
Increasingly we are living in a country where citizens in different states have access to different environments. With an anticipated Supreme Court ruling that will overturn Roe v Wade, some people will live in states where abortion will be available and some will live in states where it will be criminalized. So too, some of us will live in states where we will be safer from people wielding assault weapons and some of us will be at greater risk. On both of these issues the majority of Americans favor the position that is less likely to be enacted legislatively. Given this, I do not despair and instead I have “reasonable hope,” a practice that looks for goals and pathways to them that may not be all of what we want in favor of getting some of what we do.
During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic the New York Times published a graphic of what is known as the Swiss Cheese Model of Pandemic Defense. The analogy to Swiss cheese helps us visualize that while no one defensive measure can stop transmission of the virus, when many layers of intervention are added, eventually all the holes are plugged. The concept was articulated in an article published in 2000 by James Reason, Professor of Psychology at the University of Manchester, who proposed a Swiss cheese model to describe “the alignment of failures that must occur in a system to allow an unintended bad outcome.”
It seems to me that this is precisely what is called for now and in this I follow the lead of two academics, Jillian Peterson, Associate Professor of Criminology at Hamline University, and James Densley, Professor of Criminal Justice at Metro State University, who began a project three years ago, now published in The Violence Project: How to Stop a Mass Shooting Epidemic. They constructed a database of every mass shooter since 1966 who shot and killed four or more people in a public place, and every shooting incident at schools, workplaces, and places of worship since 1999. Additionally, they compiled life histories on 180 shooters from speaking to many people who had known them. Since few shooters survive their attacks, there are few available to interview. However, they did speak to five shooters in prison.
From this work they have compiled a profile of mass shooters and as one reads their description, it is evident that these are all individuals who are deeply unhappy and for whom systems have failed to support them in the ways they needed. Petersen has said this: “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…. I don’t think most people realize that these are suicides, in addition to homicides. Mass shooters design these to be their final acts. When you realize this, it completely flips the idea that someone with a gun on the scene is going to deter this. If anything, that’s an incentive for these individuals. They are going in to be killed.”
It’s hard to imagine that anyone reading this compelling description will come away believing that more guns will make a positive difference in reducing death by guns. The Violence Project has an affiliated project, The Off-Ramp Project, that takes a holistic approach to violence prevention. Their work epitomizes the Swiss Cheese approach, layering interventions at the individual, institutional, and societal levels and providing information in three domains: resources, training, and policy. Each section of their website offers numerous suggestions that enhance awareness and pathways for action.
In 2020, for the first time in 25 years, the federal budget allocated $25 million for the CDC and NIH to research reducing gun-related deaths and injuries. This is a drop in the bucket of what is needed. A 2017 study reported these results: “Compared with other leading causes of death, gun violence was associated with less funding and fewer publications than predicted based on mortality rates. Gun violence had 1.6% of the funding predicted ($1.4 billion predicted, $22 million observed) and had 4.5% of the volume of publications predicted (38 897 predicted, 1738 observed) from the regression analyses. Gun violence killed about as many individuals as sepsis. However, funding for gun violence research was about 0.7% of that for sepsis and publication volume about 4%.”
In April, the Justice Department announced $53 million in new funding on top of the already allocated $64.7 million for proposals to prevent and respond to violent episodes at schools. Rather than being discouraged by this fact, I am going to see it as one of the layers plugging a hole in the social fabric that leads to mass killing. Any proposals to stop mass shooting will likely impact not just these crimes but the 45,222 deaths by guns that happen in other contexts in the US each year. The firearm-related increases documented in [a new CDC report] track with overall increases in teen and young adult suicide in recent years. Between 2007 and 2018 the suicide rate among those age 10 to 24 increased nearly 60%.
All of us can play a role by advocating for a measure that plugs a hole, of which there are ones that are acceptable to people on virtually any point on the political spectrum. We just must act and act now, turning our grief and outrage into effective activism and action.
1Dr. Katelyn Jetalina also has a summary blogpost on the topic of mass shooting and mental health. There is slight variation between the statistics she is using and the ones I use, which is an indicator of the variability in research on this topic.