Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Mass Shootings in America - Why They Are not Terrorism

Infographic: Mass Shootings in America | Statista You will find more statistics at Statista

American media is so used to mass shootings that many are set up to reflexively release provocative and often poorly thought out theories after the incident.  The fact that there is rarely much more information about the shooter's motive reinforces this process.  The tragic event in Las Vegas is no exception.  It is currently the worst mass shooting incident in the USA and here is a link to the previous two.  There is the usual gun debate and public relations maneuvers by wide gun access advocates.  There are the rational responses by citizens calling for some measure of gun control.  I say rational because there is excellent evidence (1) that stricter gun laws enacted after a mass shooting incident, prevent further mass shooting incidents.  In the media coverage after this incident and on various social media cites there appears to be some confusion over whether American mass shooters are terrorists or not.

Before I go on, I have noticed that in social media many people are posting state statutes that equate terrorism with acts of violence.  The US Code defines both international and domestic terrorism as intimidation or coercion on a domestic population in order to influence the conduct or policy of the government.  I would take it a step further in that there needs to be an ideological message.  All of the news about who takes "credit" for these incidents implies this is a critical dynamic along with all of the publicity generated by many of these groups with very explicit messages.

For all of these reasons, typical mass shooters in the United States are not terrorists.  There is no ideology, no message, and no attempt to influence the government.  There certainly may be mental illness, but that alone is insufficient to produce a typical mass shooter.  There are many more mass shooters that are not technically mentally ill than those who are, but I will admit that the methodology for studying the problem is inadequate since many of these perpetrators are dead or unwilling/unable to produce a coherent story.  I will also be the first to admit that this is my impression, because the data on mass shooters is large and I have no access to all of that data.  For example, the NY Times came out with a graphic showing that in the past 477  days in the US there were 521 mass shootings (2).  They use the criteria of 4 or more people killed or injured qualifying as a mass shooting.  I have no access to that data.  There have been attempts to look at the data according to specific types of mass shooters like rampage killings.  The most recent FBI study looked at where the events occurred, if there was any connection between the shooter and the location.  It did not focus on the potential motivations of the shooters despite having access to all of the data:

Though this study did not focus on the motivation of the shooters, the study did identify some shooter characteristics. In all but 2 of the incidents, the shooter chose to act alone. Only 6 female shooters were identified. Shooter ages as a whole showed no pattern. However, some patterns were seen in incident sub-groups. For example, 12 of 14 shooters in high school shootings were students at the schools, and 5 of the 6 shooters at middle schools were students at the schools. (p. 20).
It did look at some specific locations and the relationship of the shooter (employee, family member)  to that location.  The critical analysis of this report was that it appeared that although mass shootings have occurred a long time in the United States - they appeared to be increasing in rate and lethality as indicated by the following graphic from that report:

The graphic points out that not only is the general problem of mass shooting being ignored from  policy perspective, the increasing rate and lethality of these incidents is being ignored.  From the FBI report some of the motivations clearly involve enraged employees or former employees.  Mental illness was omitted as a possible motivation.  All of the vignettes of each incident are attached to the end of the report.

My views on mass shootings, violence prevention, and even homicide prevention have not changed from my previous posts in this area.  I will add one more dimension to the issue and that is the cultural meme of the mass shooter in America.  Granted there are various etiologies that can produce a mass shooter, but after terrorism has been  eliminated there is a prominent cultural meme present in the USA and that is - if I feel like I have been wronged - I can pick up a gun and and make things right (at least in my own mind).  Americans are oblivious  to the presence of this thought pattern in our culture and what it implies.  The most significant implication is that reality is suspended if I merely feel like I have been wronged.  The reality of why I was fired, divorced, arrested is secondary to my thoughts on the matter.  Most adults in this country have had experience dealing with somebody who had this pattern of thinking.  To some extent most people with some level of self awareness can catch themselves in the process of making the same errors - most frequently when angry or emotionally upset.  Varying degrees of road rage is a classic example.  There is an anthropological argument that violence, aggression, and homicide are age old solutions to often minor disagreements.  In many cases the aggression spreads to a  larger number of targets than were involved in the original conflict.

There is the issue of violent and homicidal fantasy being common in both normative and violent criminal populations (4).  Various theories about the function of these homicidal fantasies exist.  Some homicidal fantasies seem higher risk than others but the study of fantasy per se, is limited by inadequate methodology including degree of self disclosure and lack of long term follow up.  Much of the work is anecdotal.
At the cultural level is there a larger problem in America?  American culture unquestionably has viewed firearms as tools for settling disputes.  That plays out time and time again in various movies and to varying degrees in American subcultures where being capable of violence and aggression is synonymous with being respected. To be very clear most people can tell the difference, but cultural influences can have a powerful effect.

No matter what the intrapsychic or cultural ground for gun violence, one thing is obvious if a firearm is available it is more likely to be used in both incidents of suicide and homicide.  We currently have a Congress and various political factions that are in denial of that basic fact.  Unless there is a radical change in that political approach and/or a concerted effort toward violence and homicide prevention reversing the trend in the FBI graph is unlikely.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA


1:  Chapman S, Alpers P, Agho K, Jones M. Australia's 1996 gun law reforms: faster falls in firearm deaths, firearm suicides, and a decade without mass shootings. Inj Prev. 2015 Oct;21(5):355-62. doi: 10.1136/ip.2006.013714rep. PubMed PMID: 26396147.

2:  The Editorial Board.  477 Days. 521 Mass Shootings. Zero Action From Congress. New York Times; October 2, 2017.

3:   Blair, J. Pete, and Schweit, Katherine W. (2014). A Study of Active Shooter Incidents, 2000 - 2013. Texas State University and Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington D.C. 2014.

4: Gellerman DM, Suddath R. Violent fantasy, dangerousness, and the duty to warn and protect. J Am Acad Psychiatry Law. 2005;33(4):484-95. PubMed PMID: 16394225

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