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What Leads People to Commit Mass Shootings?
And are all shooters the same?
We want, no, we demand, a clear and immediate reason why so many mass shootings are occurring in this country. There has to be an explanation to help us fix this situation, fast, and so we glom onto the first thing we hear about the latest shooter.
Multiple concussions from sports
Scorned because of trans identification
Snapped after mother died
Hated the LGBTQ community
Was an incel
Was a loner
Wasn't being treated well at casinos
Constantly played violent video games
It’s difficult to put a one-size-fits-all label on mass murderers. The only label that seems to fit is “murderer.” Still, we try to find a common denominator. A popular one these days is the all-encompassing term mental illness.
The 25-year-old who shot and killed several fellow bank employees in Louisville had some mental health issues “which we, as a family, were actively addressing,” his parents said. They added that “there were never any warning signs or indications he was capable of this shocking act.”
The shooter at a Christian school in Nashville was being treated for an unspecified “emotional disorder.” The 43-year-old man who shot and killed three people on the Michigan State University campus left a note saying he was “tired of being rejected. They hate me why? why? why? why?” A former girlfriend of the shooter in Uvalde, Texas, said he had become lonely and depressed.
“If we could just address mental illness properly,” some say, “we could prevent more mass shootings.”
But what mental illnesses are they talking about? And are those really a factor in mass shootings?
“Approximately 5% of mass shootings are related to severe mental illness,” explains Dr. Ragy Girgus, associate professor of clinical psychiatry at the Columbia University Department of Psychiatry and the New York State Psychiatric Institute. “And although a much larger number of mass shootings (about 25%) are associated with non-psychotic psychiatric or neurological illnesses, including depression, and an estimated 23% with substance use, in most cases these conditions are incidental.”
A paper that Dr. Girgus produced with colleagues from Columbia’s Center of Prevention and Evaluation stated that “the contribution of mental illness to mass shootings has decreased over time.” Nevertheless, “A lot of people who aren’t experts in mental illness tend to equate bad behavior, and often immorality, with mental illness,” Dr. Girgus says.
It may be just as oversimplistic to fault bad behavior for mass shootings as it is to cite mental illness. Most people who exhibit bad behavior don’t commit heinous acts. To that argument, Dr. Girgus would add that several other factors often combine to lead someone to the most violent of bad behavior:
a history of legal problems
challenges coping with severe and acute life stressors
The epidemic of the combination of nihilism, emptiness, anger and a desire for notoriety among young men
That last item, Dr. Girgus says, especially defines younger males committing school shootings. These people “feel rejected by society, blame society for their rejection and harbor a strong desire for notoriety,” he notes.
Why notoriety by gun violence? Quite possibly, it’s the availability of guns.
Dr. Girgus breaks it down like this:
The yearly prevalence of the incidence of mass murder was stable at about 7 per billion people, or seven mass shootings for every billion people, between 1900 and about 1970. Then between about 1970 and 2019, the incidence increased by four times, so now mass shootings occur about 28 times per billion people around the world. One might say that this is because of the availability of guns in general, and automatic weapons, in particular, especially in the U.S. where these weapons became more available to the general population during this time period. Mass murder committed with means other than firearms also grew, but at a slightly slower rate. The other thing that one must consider is that most mass shootings are committed with non-automatic weapons, making them the weapons of choice, and supporting the notion that gun availability is a primary contributor to method of mass murder.
So while one could sensibly argue “guns don’t kill people; people kill people,” it can also be effectively argued that the amount of guns in the marketplace (and on the black market) makes it that much easier for immoral people to commit large-scale violence.
The wrong kind of fame
Let’s go back to Dr. Girgus’ comments about “nihilism, emptiness, anger and a desire for notoriety….” Nihilism is, essentially, believing in nothing. Nihilists are skeptical of government and social structure, and for the most part, they reject God, morality and love. Such a perception of the world naturally leads to an empty, angry feeling - if nothing is true or good, there's nothing to look forward to.
Because life has no meaning, nihilists are less inclined to respect the lives of others and themselves. At the same time, a narcissistic element - the desire to actually feel like something in a world that means nothing - can lead some nihilists to seek a few moments of glory - even if those might be the last moments of their lives.
Putting it all together
Can we apply these same factors to other shootings, the ones that happen inside homes, on the streets, in vehicles, etc? We’re talking about the everyday shootings and murders that rage through cities around the country. They happen during domestic disputes, robberies, drug deals gone bad, road rage incidents and even seemingly normal arguments.
On April 12, a woman facing eviction from a Cleveland apartment got into a verbal spat with management. The woman then called family members to assist her. Eventually, her 24-year-old granddaughter fatally shot Jametta Cooper, 61, who witnesses say was trying to diffuse the situation. There is also speculation that Cooper cut the granddaughter with a knife after she was punched, which led to the shooting. The grandmother, her daughter and the granddaughter have all been charged in the incident.
If this isn’t nihilism, what is? When three generations of a family can’t solve a dispute without killing someone, we must be dealing with an evil that evolves from a denial of morals and a lack of respect for human life. In this way, the “small” shootings we don’t often hear about share much with the mass murders that garner so much attention. They are often committed by people filled with emptiness and anger, and for whom the potentially lethal aspect of a bullet is the ultimate solution.
No wonder we want to find what we perceive as clear-cut solutions for these shootings; how much easier it would be to get rid of guns and eliminate mental health disorders than it would be to restore faith and common decency!
Is that true, though? Are we so far gone as a society that we can’t expect just about everyone to respect each other? What’s it going to take to get people to put down the guns and behave themselves? These are rhetorical questions that only critical readers and thinkers can answer.