Contextualizing Gun Violence: Suicide by Mass Murder in Newtown, CT

Gun ViolenceAs part of a rising epidemic of mass shootings in the U.S., the horrific slaughter of children in Newtown, CT has rapidly turned into a political opening to advance long-standing gun-control legislation. At the same time, it has reinvigorated the age-old debate over whether guns kill people or people kill people.

In reality, research on the social determinants of health would suggest that this is a false choice: the ease of accessing guns in the U.S. generates greater opportunities for gun violence. Likewise, mentally deranged individuals, choose to act out their pathologies through violent acts of aggression (i.e., if guns were less available, perhaps they would still find a way to make good on their nefarious intentions).

This theme is illustrated tellingly in Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine when he goes to Canada and finds high levels of gun ownership but also high levels of trust without the mass shootings. Indeed industrialized countries, including Canada, have not been entirely spared from mass shootings. There were two notable mass shootings in Montreal in the early 90s. Recently, in Norway, one of the deadliest mass shootings was carried out by crazed neo-Nazi Anders Behring Breivik.  Finland has also experienced two deadly school shootings since 2008.

Yet, this pales in comparison with the U.S., which by some accounts has experienced 62 mass shootings over the past 30 years, far outpacing its North American and European neighbors. What is it about American society that is producing such a high per capita incidence of mass shootings?

One characteristic that nearly all mass shooters share is that they are young, white males, often rural, who have experienced some form of social marginalization. Many or most mass shootings end with the offender committing suicide or being killed by the police, leading some to dub this type of violence as “suicide by mass murder”.

While some explanations blame violent video games, more convincingly, Kalish & Kimmel suggests that “aggrieved entitlement” is the answer- feeling aggrieved by a system that fails to protect or represent them and an entitlement to make others hurt in the way that they have been hurt. The necessary conditions for this “syndrome” are living in a system that is unresponsive or fails to protect young men who are socially marginalized and a sense of emasculation. Importantly, actual mental illness may be only coincidental to mass shootings in that people with mental illness are more likely to be teased or experience social isolation, which can breed a sense of aggrieved entitlement. The father of Sociology, Emile Durkheim, referred to this societal condition as “anomie”- normlessness- or a breakdown of social bonds between an individual and his/her community.  He observed that “anomic” societies had higher rates of suicides. So too may be the case for suicide by mass murder: the toxic combination of high rates of gun ownership and a high degree of anomie among socially marginalized individuals may help explain the high rates of this form of violence in the US.

Addressing the root causes of societal anomie is less clear cut than advancing gun control, which has a ready-made policy solution. However, it may be necessary to avert what is seemingly a rising tide of mass shootings- at least 4 mass shootings within the past year alone. To address this, we need to better understand the psychology of white males in the U.S. and what leads them to act out their aggressions in this particular manner.

Although it is unlikely that gun control on its own will be sufficient to reduce the rising tide of mass murders that is afflicting US society, gun control should be advanced for other reasons. While it doesn’t get the attention of the deliberate assassination of 20 innocent children in the safety of their elementary school, thousands of children are killed in the streets every year from stray bullets from guns that should be less readily available. Furthermore, there is absolutely no reason that assault rifles and high capacity magazines should not be banned and this would likely limit the amount of damage that could be done during any one incident