Why Mass School Shootings?

by John M Repp

One of the most disturbing news reports we hear nowadays is a report of a mass shooting at a school. Usually, the report tells us how many people are killed, the location, and ends with a statement “no motive has been established”. The listener or viewer’s heart sinks.

 A few years back, two professors of criminology and criminal justice respectively, Jillian Peterson and James Densley, put together a database of mass shootings in the United States since 1966, when the first one happened. In 2021, they published a book The Violence Project: How to Stop a Mass Shooting Epidemic. Politico published a review of the book in 2022. Quotes below are from the review.

Many mass shootings are “acts of violent suicide.” This finding makes the idea false that somebody on the scene with a gun is going to deter a mass shooting. Most mass shooters know the shooting is their final act. Some also crave fame. The shooter turns the self-hate that is the cause of their suicide outward. Early childhood trauma is the foundation: “violence in the home, sexual assault, parental suicides, extreme bullying”. The driver is that people, especially young males, feel more looked down upon and disrespected in a massively unequal society. They feel a loss of face.   

Often, the shooter studies other shootings. Many shooters even tell people beforehand that they are going do it but are not believed. Older shooters who shoot up people in their workplace are often different from younger shooters who go to their school to shoot. They seem upset about the workplace or people in it. Strong labor unions might help in those cases.

Unfortunately, mass shootings of all kinds are socially contagious. The number of mass shootings is increasing.

There is a huge debate between conservatives and progressives in the United States about the cause of our high number of mass shootings. Is it too many guns or mental illness? The USA has the most guns per capita by far, almost twice what the next country has. There are more licensed gun dealers in the United States than all the McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway and Wendy’s combined. And that does not even count the unlicensed or on-line outlets.

 The huge number of guns is a key factor, but the professors Peterson and Densley write “Why does it have to be an either/or?” It is both! Our polarized debate is leading nowhere.

In terms of prevention, one approach that Peterson and Densley discuss is the need to focus on mental illness, and then we need follow through. Republicans say the problem is mental illness. Republicans do not want to tighten up the gun laws, but they do not follow through with money to help mental illness, in the schools for example. The authors suggest we place 500,000 psychologists in our schools to find troubled individuals and counsel them. That would be about four to five psychologists in each school. It would cost $35 billion in funding.

The only gun control laws Peterson and Densley mention are red flag laws which allow a judge to temporarily remove guns from a person who is a danger to themselves or others. But most people don’t know they exist (and they don’t exist everywhere), don’t know how they work, and the police need to be trained and supported in the effort to enforce red flag laws. It would not be easy to confiscate the guns of a potential shooter in a rural pro-gun community with a small law enforcement body that everybody knows.

As of May 2023, 21 states and the District of Columbia have enacted some form of red-flag law. The specifics of the laws, and the degree to which they are utilized, vary from state to state. Oklahoma has an anti-red flag law!

Nor is this a problem we are going to punish our way out of. The Parkland shooter of 2018 who shot up Marjory Stone Douglas High School “had just been expelled and then came back.” Nor has “hardening schools – metal detectors, armed officers, teaching our kids to run and hide” been working all that well. Maybe we should try to implement what our social scientists suggest: help counsel our young men while they are in school, and longer term, mitigate the massive inequality and lack of upward mobility in our society than is causing such shame to young men.

But let’s be bold and dream of a better America! Why can’t we learn the lesson Australia can teach us? After a decades long series of mass shootings, there was a mass shooting in Port Arthur Australia in 1996. There was a moment of collective revulsion, and Australia decided “to require a license to own virtually any type of gun and to regulate semiautomatic pistols and rifles as tightly as fully automatic ones.”    (p. 149) In other words, they license all guns and rifles like we license cars and fully automatic weapons. “Since the implementation of these laws in Australia, there has been only one small mass shooting and the number of suicides has dropped by 77 percent.” (Same source as above, also same page149)

These simple and elegant solutions are being blocked by the profit-seeking behavior of our gun manufacturing companies, our gun dealers, and the gun lobby.