Rampage killings: A possible explanation

I’ve searched for a sociological theory to explain mass shootings, like that which occurred in Florida last weekend. The only explanations that come even relatively close are in a rather isolated field, called “collective behavior.”

Theories of collective behavior focus on mobs, riots, and crowds. The actions of the “lone wolf” have been rarely investigated. However, I think that a new theory is in its formative stages, and it deals with the causes of a phenomenon that the author calls “rampage killings.”

Because the term “lone wolf” has been used to identify a single shooter, it has often been reported that the gunman was a “loner.” This portrayal of such a killer is disputed by Katherine Newman, principal author of “Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings.” She told CNN, “The shooters are rarely loners, but tend instead to be failed joiners, and their daily social experience is full of friction.”

This assessment is based on interviews with survivors, school and public officials, and relatives of victims, as well as perpetrators of school shootings. The study was conducted by Newman and a team of graduate students from prestigious universities over a two-year period. They concentrated on the 25 school shootings that involved mass murder (defined as involving three or more murders) between 1974 and 2002.

The researchers found that the shooters had been nearly always rejected by a group that was important to them. Newman said, “Rebuffed after trying to join friendship groups, they look for a way to gain attention, to reverse their damaged identities.” For example, a boy who was a “failed joiner” in a Kentucky high school pulled pranks, stole goods, and told loud jokes in an attempt to impress his classmates. When none of that worked, he started talking about killing people, and that got him the attention that he craved.

When the boy was interviewed by Newman’s group, he indicated that he never thought about how his actions would destroy lives or negatively affect the entire community. He simply thought that the other boys would become his friends, ask him over to their houses, and would think that he was cool. He was 13 years old, wore glasses, was fond of reading and terrible at sports, and he shot and killed three high school girls and paralyzed another.

During the period of the study, all of the shooters were males “who struggled to live up to masculine ideals.” They were usually labeled as “ineffectual nerds or geeks” who didn’t fit well within the school-based pecking order. Typically, the rampage killings took place in small, tight-knit communities that were relatively peaceful and had a strong family orientation. Newman points out that “densely interconnected networks of friends and family can be suffocating for youthful misfits” and they can experience “unbearable social claustrophobia.”

The team also found that, in contrast to most popular explanations, no shooter suddenly “snapped” in some kind of rage. In fact, each killer carefully planned his assault and either spoke directly about his intention or gave significant clues as to what he was going to do. And, of course, the school is the natural public stage and, therefore, the symbolic target of frustration and aggression in a small town. Five conditions

Based on the observations reported by her team, Newman believes that five conditions are necessary for a rampage shooting to occur. First, the shooter must see himself as being marginal to his social worlds. This can involve being bullied or ridiculed and feeling socially isolated. These unpleasant conditions create a sense of despair. Second, the shooter’s vulnerabilities become magnified, causing the perpetrator to ruminate and obsess over his difficulties.

Third, the shooter has access to “cultural scripts.” In some cases, this may be taken literally. Several shooters read and reread manifestos that were expressed by previous shooters. Otherwise, this could be nothing more than being part of culture that connects manhood to violence, guns, domination, and “the thrill of terrifying the innocent.” The would-be shooters somehow understand that violent aggression will improve or reinstate their status in the group. Newman says that these scripts “offer a masculine exit from social subordination.”

Fourth, there must be a failure of the system of social control. Newman points out that most shooters were doing moderately well in school and lacked extensive histories of criminality. But, local systems did not provide sufficient warnings to alert authorities to the pending rampage. Even though a number of shooters talked about what they intended to do, this information never made it past their peers or was ignored by adult authorities. Newman says, “These would-be killers thus fell under the radar screen of adult networks.”

Fifth, each shooter had access to guns. Because no individuals had possession of all the relevant information that would allow them to piece together the warning signals that flashed across various spheres of the killer’s personal environment — family, school, and neighborhood — nobody shut down his access to guns.

Taken individually, no one of these conditions is necessary and sufficient to cause a young man to pick up a weapon and shoot others. Consequently, an explanation of behavior that is built upon these five conditions is known as a “value-added” theory. This means that each condition adds to the overall effect that is experienced by the individual. When all five conditions are met, some type of hostile outburst will occur.

It is now left to us — society — to devise ways to counteract these conditions. The most potent recommendation made by Newman, who is now senior vice president for academic affairs of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, is to make disciplinary, academic, and counseling records available across bureaucratic boundaries. This is obviously controversial because such information can potentially stigmatize students who have a troubled past but no intention of harming others. However, Newman argues that there is an equally valid concern: providing public protection.

I think we need to find some kind of middle ground that will preserve individual privacy while safeguarding public safety. Unfortunately, it will take a lot more research like that done by Newman and her team to find the solution.

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Jim Glynn may be contacted at j_glynn@att.net. He chose not to use the names of the murderers who were cited in Newman’s text. The Florida incident was overshadowed by the 24-hour daily coverage of Sen. John McCain’s death. In Jacksonville, two people were shot to death, nine others were wounded, and two were injured during their escape at a gamer’s competition before the gunman killed himself.