January 21, 2013

Thinking Sociologically about Mass Shootings

RaskoffBy Sally Raskoff

Much has been said about the Sandy Hook murders and other mass shootings in the United States. Some blame media or the accessibility of weapons, others cite gender, and others our medical infrastructure or even the killer’s parents.

What makes people do such horrible things? If there were a simple answer or one source of such behavior, we would have figured that out by now and made a simple solution!

Seeking answers is a natural part of healing after a terrible event such as this. However, seeking such answers through speculation can add to our misery since it may lead us to institute solutions that are not really solving the problems.

Many cities across the country have begun to have their law enforcement personnel make an appearance at schools on a regular basis. Does this solve the problem of mass shootings? Would seeing more security at a school hamper such behavior? Not necessarily.

Using science through good research and a sociological perspective can help highlight from what the problems stem and what solutions may be effective.

Is media a source or cause of this behavior? While there is some evidence that many of the people who have perpetrated these crimes were avid consumers of violent media and games, correlation does not prove causation. Since there are many people who consume such media and who do not perpetrate such crimes, considering this media as a source is not sufficient.

While there is research that suggests that people who consume a lot of violent media may have some attitudinal changes and become inured to suffering and tend to be more likely to “blame the victim”, nothing in that research supports the notion that consumers of violent media will  act on what they see. Attitudes and behaviors are not necessarily connected.

Is the accessibility of weapons – especially automatic weapons – the issue? It is clear that without automatic weapons, many fewer deaths would occur. However, it would not avoid all such horrible attacks.

On the same day as the Sandy Hook incident, a man attacked children at a school in China where stringent gun laws prohibit ownership of such weapons. In this latest knife attack at a school, there were  many injuries but no deaths. Was it any less horrible for those who survived? I think not. Those children and the adults involved will certainly be affected by that violent event for their entire lives.

Is gender an issue? Research and the gender profile of the shooters suggests a definite yes on this one but again, being male does not mean that one will become a killer. Being male in a culture that has some measure of gender inequality and links masculinity with violence does seem to be necessary but not sufficient.

To date, no women have perpetrated such mass killings using guns. Why not? In our culture, women are less socially isolated than men. We raise them to be more connected to others and to share their issues while men are encouraged to figure things out on their own and hold in their emotional distress.

Can we then blame the medical infrastructure or mental health services – or lack thereof? Or why not just blame the parents? From the reports on the Sandy Hook incident, it seems the young man had access to plenty of services while he was in school and his mother, the primary custodial parent, was very involved. Once he got out of school those services evaporated. His mother continued to live with him while the other moved away and might not have been involved in his son’s life. The mother and young adult were left on their own without any apparent social supports.

Social class is also relevant when analyzing why these mass shootings occur. The shooters tend to be young men from middle or upper middle class backgrounds. This could explain the access they have to legal automatic weapons, along with their invisibility to law enforcement and the hyper visibility to the media. Vandalism or acting out behaviors are perceived and dealt with differently at the different social classes.

Sociologist William Chambliss’ 1978 article “The Saints and the Roughnecks” still has relevance today. In his study, he found that boys from more affluent families who caused trouble were considered to just be “sowing wild oats” and pulling immature pranks, while school administrators and police considered boys from lower income families delinquents and future criminals.

Keep in mind that when shootings occur in working class or poverty stricken areas – and which happen much more often than these mass shootings – are not covered or even mentioned by the media at all.

Social isolation, lack of social support, and class privilege are not often mentioned in our society’s discussions about why these mass shootings occur.  They should be, though, because such events are more likely to occur in a society where there is social isolation, a cultural context of masculinity linked to violence, accessibility to weapons with the capacity to kill many in a short time, and an ineffective mental health infrastructure.

Knowing more about these social factors can help us devise more effective solutions to gun violence, but doing so will be easy. How do we change our culture from one with masculinity steeped in violence? How do we ensure people who need social support to combat social isolation can get that support?



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Interesting analysis. Please edit for typos as they require re-reading to figure out what is being said. I believe that in paragraph 10 (gender) the word "yet" was intended to be "yes." The second to last paragraph makes sense only by removing the word "when." Thanks!

For starters parents must not be in denial concerning their children's mental status and seek early intervention to help their children.

Mass shootings are not crimes associated with the working poor. The suspect in Newtown lived with his mother who was receiving a mid-six figure support check from her former spouse at the tie of her murder. The Aurora CO shooter was a PhD candidate at the time of his crime. Crazy favors no particular demographic. There are plenty of mentally ill people who could daily be classified as part of the working poor who do not commit these types of crimes. In my work I cone into contact with people with significant mental health problems on a regular basis. There is no common theme with regards to their social standing that I have been able to discern.

Sociology indeed helped a lot people in our society.Through this science, we can study people a lot.And through this we can understand why people act the way they do.

Have you spent time with your kids today and have you told them you love them? No more use of pejorative words.

There is one glaringly obvious variable here: location in the USA. Notwithstanding your reference to the knife attack in China, it is the case that with very few exceptions (eg Dunblane in Scotland) school shootings do not take place in other western societies. All of these societies are exposed to much the same media, computer games, patterns of childrearing &c as in the U.S., so it is not these that are the 'cause'. It is clearly something about US culture and it is most likely that it is the high level of acceptance of gun ownership and use that is at the root of these events.

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