mass shootings

Mass Shootings: A Public Health Epidemic

In Employee Training, Law Enforcement by Beth

To say that Mass shootings in the US are a troubling phenomenon is an understatement. The effect is immediate and tragic but the cause leaves most of us puzzled beyond any logical explanation. The United States is at epidemic proportions with the number, frequency, and increase of these horrific events in 2021.

While the cause or triggers for such heartbreaking events are inexplicable, studies have shown that there are commonalities in the types of individual perpetrators, the places that they occur, and perhaps some symptoms of the reasons.

Hindsight is 20/20 in most situations but in the cases of mass shootings in the United States, we continue to see a dramatic increase in the number of these shootings without finding a way to reduce and learn from these tragic events.

It would be helpful if there was a universal definition of what constitutes a mass shooting. Most but not all agree that it is when 4 or more victims are injured or killed by a firearm.  All agree that the total number of victims does not include the perpetrator if he/she is killed in the commission of the offense whether by suicide or police officers.

Thus far in the US in 2021, there have been more than 147, according to data from the Gun Violence Archive  (GVA), a non-profit based in Washington. There have been 45 incidents alone from March 16th through April 19th.

While the location and places change, the choice of weapon is almost always a firearm. A 2020 Gallup poll reported that 42% of citizens in the US have a firearm in their homes. Interestingly, in a poll completed earlier in 2020 by Gallup also, 57% have voiced their opinion that there should be stricter gun laws, but that percentage is dropping.

It has been anecdotally discussed that the COVID-19 pandemic may have reduced the number of mass shootings during the last year. It is believed that the closing of stores and schools may have had an impact on the number and now that the country is opening back up, we are witnessing a return to negative normalcy.

Former President Barack Obama stated recently, “A once-in-a-century pandemic cannot be the only thing that slows mass shootings in this country,” he said. “We shouldn’t have to choose between one type of tragedy and another. It’s time for leaders everywhere to listen to the American people when they say enough is enough — because this is normal, we can no longer afford.”

During an interview with CNN, former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe said “absolutely nothing” will stop the country’s return to pre-pandemic mass violence if lawmakers refuse to curb access to weaponry.

“This has become part of the American experience, and let’s not forget: It’s completely unique to us. There’s not another similar country on Earth that experiences the same number, the frequency of mass shootings as we do, and it is directly attributable to the profusion and the availability of guns, particularly high-powered assault-style weapons, and how easily pretty much anyone can acquire them here in this country.”

When the media reports a mass shooting event, our hearts, and minds go immediately to the innocent victims. The victims were going about their day in the simplest ways, food shopping, church services, or attending school. These tragedies occur without warning at the most mundane and unexpected places.

Eliminating Mass Shootings

What can we do to reduce with the hope of eventually eliminating mass shootings?

The answer to this question is not clear but the US needs to begin to take necessary steps that can assist in the process.

On April 7, 2021, President Biden declared gun violence a public health epidemic and issued an executive order to address the administration’s commitment. The opening paragraph of the Order sites the most recent mass shootings in the US so although this is a gun violence Order it is intended to put into place processes to reduce the number of mass shootings.

The Order has six initial actions:

  • The Justice Department, within 30 days, will issue a proposed rule to help stop the proliferation of “ghost guns.” We are experiencing a growing problem: criminals are buying kits containing nearly all of the components and directions for finishing a firearm within as little as 30 minutes and using these firearms to commit crimes. When these firearms turn up at crime scenes, they often cannot be traced by law enforcement due to the lack of a serial number. The Justice Department will issue a proposed rule to help stop the proliferation of these firearms.
  • The Justice Department, within 60 days, will issue a proposed rule to make clear when a device marketed as a stabilizing brace effectively turns a pistol into a short-barreled rifle subject to the requirements of the National Firearms Act. The alleged shooter in the Boulder tragedy last month appears to have used a pistol with an arm brace, which can make a firearm more stable and accurate while still being concealable.
  • The Justice Department, within 60 days, will publish model “red flag” legislation for states. Red flag laws allow family members or law enforcement to petition for a court order temporarily barring people in crisis from accessing firearms if they present a danger to themselves or others. The President urges Congress to pass an appropriate national “red flag” law, as well as legislation incentivizing states to pass “red flag” laws of their own. In the interim, the Justice Department’s published model legislation will make it easier for states that want to adopt red-flag laws to do so.
  • The Administration is investing in evidence-based community violence interventions. Community violence interventions are proven strategies for reducing gun violence in urban communities through tools other than incarceration. Because cities across the country are experiencing a historic spike in homicides, the Biden-Harris Administration is taking a number of steps to prioritize investment in community violence interventions.
  • Five federal agencies are making changes to 26 different programs to direct vital support to community violence intervention programs as quickly as possible. These changes mean we can start increasing investments in community violence interventions as we wait on Congress to appropriate additional funds.
  • The Justice Department will issue an annual report on firearms trafficking. In 2000, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) issued a report summarizing information regarding its investigations into firearms trafficking, which is one-way firearms are diverted into the illegal market where they can easily end up in the hands of dangerous individuals. Since the report’s publication, state, local, and federal policymakers have relied on its data to better thwart the common channels of firearms trafficking. But there is good reason to believe that firearms trafficking channels have changed since 2000, for example, due to the emergence of online sales and proliferation of “ghost guns.” The Justice Department will issue a new, comprehensive report on firearms trafficking and annual updates necessary to give policymakers the information they need to help address firearms trafficking today.

Another important facet of the Executive Order is that the President will nominate David Chipman to serve as Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. ATF is the key agency enforcing our gun laws and the agency has not had a confirmed director since 2015. Chipman served at ATF for 25 years and now works to advance commonsense gun safety laws.

Mass Shooting and Mental Illness

As we take steps to improve this horrendous issue, we must consider the individuals who are the mass shooters and ask ourselves why. Often times when we believe that alone mass shooter is mentally ill, we rationalize why it occurred.

The most common response from people when they hear about a mass shooting is that the person must have been mentally ill. Studies have found that this is not the case.

A study conducted by Gary Brucato, a research scientist in Columbia University’s Department of Psychiatry in New York City, sought to gain much-needed insight into the relationship between serious mental illness and mass shootings. This extensive study reviewed 14,785 worldwide murders between 1900 and 2019. They analyzed 1,315 mass shootings and discovered that only 8% of all mass shooters had a serious mental illness.

Also in this study, some other commonalities of the US mass shooters included that they were more likely to have legal histories, abuse alcohol and use recreational drugs and have histories of non-psychotic psychiatric or neurologic symptoms.

They also found that since 1970, the rate of mass shootings has been far higher than the rate of non-firearm mass murder and that the vast majority of mass shootings in the world have been in the United States.

Who is the mass shooter?

The demographics of the mass shooter are as follows.

  • Between the years of 1982 and April 2021, 118 males and 3 females.
  • The average age is 33.4 years.
  • 53 percent were carried out by white shooters, 17 percent by African Americans, and eight percent were Latino.

5 profiles of mass shooters

According to The Violence Project researchers, there are some personal characteristics and certain types of locations targeted by shooters. They are as follows.

  • K-12 shooters: White males, typically students or former students at the school, with a history of trauma. Most are suicidal, plan their crime extensively, and make others aware of their plans at some point before the shooting. They use multiple guns that they typically steal from a family member.
  • College and university shooters: Non-white males who are current students at the university, are suicidal, and have a history of violence and childhood trauma. They typically use legally obtained handguns and leave behind some sort of manifesto.
  • Workplace shooters: Forty-something males without a specific racial profile. Most are employees of their targeted location, often a blue-collar job site, and have some grievance against the workplace. They use legally purchased handguns and assault rifles.
  • Place of worship shooters: White males in their 40s, typically motivated by hate or domestic violence that spills out into public. Their crimes typically involve little planning.
  • Shooters at a commercial location (such as a store or restaurant): White men in their 30s with a violent history and criminal record. They typically have no connection to the targeted location and use a single, legally obtained firearm. About third shows evidence of a “thought disorder,” a term for a mental health condition, like schizophrenia, that results in disorganized thinking, paranoia, or delusions.

What do they have in common?

According to The Violence Project, the majority of Mass Shooters shared the following commonalities.

  • Crisis – they reach a crisis point and become angry, despondent, and suicidal
  • Social Proof – they study the history of mass shootings to develop their own plan.
  • Opportunity – once they have their plan and become committed to it, they need access to the place, people, and firearms.
  • Trauma – they experienced at least one or more episodes of violence in their childhood.

Statistically, mass shootings account for only a tiny fraction of the United States gun deaths. However, it is the shocking and tragic manner in how, when, and where they occur. Most of the victims are living a typical day in their lives when they are truly victimized. The impact to the victims, their families, and friends as well as the local community cannot be minimized.