By MARGIE O’LOUGHLIN
Mass shootings—what causes them, and what can be done to prevent them? Dr. Jillian Peterson, associate professor at Hamline University in criminology and criminal justice, and Dr. James Densley, Metro State University associate professor in criminal justice, are creating a database to better understand these questions.
The Center for Justice and Law at Hamline University hosted an event for the researchers to present their findings on Nov. 9, called Pathways to Prevention. Peterson and Densley recently received a $300,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice to finance their ongoing research for the next two years.
Photo left: Dr. Jillian Peterson, Hamline University professor, said, “I’ve seen over and over again that the worse the crime, the worse the life story of the perpetrator.” (Photo by Margie O’Loughlin)
The overflow audience, which contained several law enforcement officers, got a crash course in what is true, and what is not true, about mass shooters.
The modern American history of mass shootings officially began on August 1st, 1966, in Austin, TX. On that day, 25-year-old Charles Whitman climbed to the top of the university tower and began firing indiscriminately with multiple firearms. The attack lasted more than 90 minutes; 17 people were killed, and 31 were injured.
Densley explained, “The FBI defines a mass shooting this way, four or more people are killed by guns in a public place within 24 hours. By that definition, there have been seven mass shootings so far in 2018. Mass shootings are relatively rare, but ‘focusing’ events since they make up less than one half of one percent of all firearm deaths in the US annually.”
Contrary to how it feels, mass shootings are not happening more often, but they are becoming more deadly. From 1966 to the present, there have been 151 mass shootings in this country.
“This has been a difficult database to compile,” Peterson said, “but we believe that if you’re going to have data-driven conversations—you need to have data. The scope of our project is considerable, and there’s only one way that we could take it on: with the help of our Hamline students. We have 20 research associates who have worked long hours, and made invaluable contributions.”
The students have been tasked with coding known mass shooters based on 53 variables such as past trauma, family makeup, history of mental illness, and social media profiles. “The data are still being compiled,” Peterson explained,” but we have noticed two consistent characteristics: hopelessness, and a desire to achieve notoriety either in life or in death.”
The public assumes a lot about mass shooters. According to their research, 58% of mass shooters coded positive for mental illness (depression, anxiety, substance abuse, or other mental disorders). But, 50% of the US population would code positive for one of those factors. “Mental health doesn’t hang out there on its own. It’s a slow build over time, with other risk factors piling up. When there’s a lack of a healthy support system, and access to firearms, that’s when everything falls apart,” Peterson said.
Densley said, “Add social media to all that, and you’ve got a really different reality. Sites like Gab (described as a safe haven for neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and the alt-right) reinforce violent ideas in an echo chamber. Social media can have a very negative contagion effect. It’s not uncommon for attackers to be making posts on social media while they’re shooting. Suddenly we’ve got a world where some people are performers, and some people are audience members—but everybody’s watching.”
So, what’s a country to do?
“Last year’s mass shooting in Las Vegas was the catalyst for our project,” Peterson said. “We are trying to find ways to identify people who might turn into motivated shooters and strategies to prevent future attacks. Our first recommendation is that when an attack happens, the shooter should not be named. Focus media attention on acts of heroism instead.”
Peterson and Densley hope to complete their project by 2020 and begin sharing it with the public. Between now and then, they’re scheduling five interviews with living mass shooters who are incarcerated across the country. They plan to interview them face-to-face about what their lives were like growing up. They’ll also talk with family members and friends, to help them understand the support systems that mass shooters either had or didn’t have.
The topic of mass shootings is highly emotionally charged. In Minnesota, although a student is six times more likely to be struck by lightning than to be shot while at school, we spend $25 million annually on school safety measures. Several major retailers are now selling bulletproof backpacks for kids.
Peterson said, “We’re traumatizing a whole generation of students with lockdown drills and talk of active shooters. Why aren’t we also spending more money on crisis intervention skills?”
To learn more the Pathways to Prevention Project, go to www.theviolenceproject.org.
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