Weeks ago a Facebook acquaintance, Bob Kruger, took a stab at this question, isolating five causes of mass shootings. I think he’s right about the first three, less so about the other two. I include a sixth since it’s often invoked by those on the political right.
1. Wealth disparity/ubiquitous media. Kruger argues that young men who see themselves at a permanent disadvantage become dangerously antisocial. He’s right that this is a cross-cultural phenomenon; men as a rule are highly attuned to their social status as it impacts their economic and sexual prospects. In the context of current American climate — i.e. the increasing divide between the 1% and everyone else — the combination of wealth disparity and ubiquitous media exaggerates everyone else’s achievement (financial, sexual, or otherwise) and this is hugely provocative to unstable young men. If I had to isolate a #1 cause, it would probably be this one.
2. Social media. Kruger points out that online interactions allow people to find easy reinforcement for their antisocial concepts, to narrow their exposure to news and articles, movies and games, and to communicate with like-minded people. Browsing habits keep people immersed in alternate realities that can be at hazardous odds with a broader consensus reality. This is true.
3. News media. Adding to this, says Kruger, is the diligence of the American news media, which goes out of its way to make celebrities out of mass shooters. Each incident is widely broadcast in the internet age, and becomes a ready inspiration for the next shooting. To this I would add that many shooters were bullied at some point, and in their minds failed to get the attention they deserved. By their murderous martyrdom, mass shooters finally get the attention and fame they were denied in life.
4. Easy access to guns. Leftists tend to think this is the absolute root of the problem, but that’s an overreaction to the right-wing. I do agree that we need tighter gun control laws — certainly assault weapons should be banned — but such measures wouldn’t make a dent in mass shootings. The vast majority of mass killers use firearms that wouldn’t be restricted by an assault-weapons ban, and listing people against any kind of weapon is usually futile anyway. Mass killers plan months ahead and find illegal ways of obtaining what they want, just as drug buyers do. Nor would improved background checks help, since most mass murderers don’t have criminal records or any history of psychiatric hospitalization.
5. Deficient mental-health services. Leftists also insist that better mental health care would cut down on mass shootings. With Kruger I agree that Ronald Reagan set America on the wrong path by undercutting funding for subsidized living and outpatient counseling/medication. We should indeed improve mental-health services, for the general betterment of our society. But as with gun control, I doubt this progressive move would have significant impact on mass shootings. These killers externalize blame, see themselves as victims of mistreatment; the problem always lies with others and never themselves, and they would resist any encouragements of seeking help.
6. Antidepressants. Right-wingers (especially NRA affiliates) have blamed mass shootings on antidepressant drugs like Prozac, Zoloft, Ritalin, and Paxil. While it’s true that many mass shooters use these drugs, it begs the question as to whether or not their behavior was the product of the drugs, or a condition for which the drugs were prescribed to begin with.
Plain sanity and human decency demand better gun laws and mental health care. But neither of those are leading causes for mass shootings — they are certainly not the “smoking guns”, to make the obvious pun. Improved legislature would go a long way to curbing other gun abuses (like domestic violence), but not the staged slaughter variety. The dispiriting reality is that American culture has deteriorated in ways that require redress in ways that are more complex, and in that sense I think Bob Kruger is entirely right.
And as an afterthought… it’s astonishing to see people jumping on the anti-gun bandwagon in the aftermath of yesterday’s shooting in San Bernardino. First of all, this was an obvious Islamic jihad-related attack from the get. Coordinated efforts by multiple attackers make this a sure bet almost all the time. The main shooter went back and got his partner, and they suited up in camouflage jackets, ammunition belts and assault rifles. They apparently planted IEDs when they left the facility. They had a getaway plan. The main shooter was soon revealed to be Syed Rizwan Farook, a devout Muslim and had been hanging out for weeks with a group of other men from the Middle East, working late into the night in a garage. (Pipe bombs have since been found in the garage.) To see people harping on “gun laws” in the wake of this kind of attack shows how blinkered our perspective is.