Will public shootings ever stop?

The mythology of 'The Lone Wolf'

I have had the privilege of speaking to law enforcement agencies in the past about preventing mass acts of violence such as public shootings. One of the challenges in prevention is that the causes of public violence are often complex and varied. In addition, it is my expertise as a psychologist, in particular, to destigmatize mental illnesses as they are Not an effective predictor of whether or not a person will become violent.

After another mass shooting in our schools, I'm here to advise readers: don't be fooled by the rhetoric of this government or those in power. Lawmakers lament that this shooter was a "lone wolf" who was "messed up" and distracts from the very real truth that access to firearms in an increasingly polarized society with a lack of resources or support for - or marginalized legitimate - men a recipe for this is disaster.

At conferences with experts trying to figure out the profiles for mass shooters, here are the predictors that we all agree on and that research backs up: being white and being male. And access to weapons. These are better predictors of whether a person will become a mass shooter than a host of other variables that politicians will be promoting after this recent tragedy.

And for those of you who are willing to argue, this is not the time for politics to get real: it is absolutely political when our schools are no longer safe for our children. No parent should ever have to receive a text message from their child as they are hiding in a school that has an active Sagittarius and wondering if their message will be the last they will ever hear from their loved one. The fact that these atrocities continue to occur - yes, I use the word atrocities on purpose - is a massive failure of political will.

Access to weapons not only increases the risk of mass violence among those who are already unstable or who have the potential to pose a risk to themselves or to society at large. Social science research dating back decades has identified a "gun effect" in which the mere presence of a firearm increases the likelihood that a person will become aggressive. In fact, people who are reported to have access to firearms are more likely to die from murder or suicide, let alone become perpetrators of gun violence (Center for Injury Research & Prevention, 2017).

What has been revealed about the Sagittarius - I'm not going to identify him by name to further build his notoriety - is that, in addition to a reportedly disruptive social media presence and some concerns about his behavior, he was before he was expelled from school was, was was steeped in weapon culture. Perhaps most tellingly, a spokesman for a white supremacist group in Florida has confirmed that he was affiliated with their group. The bottom line is that the motive does not matter to the dead or their loved ones who must mourn their loss. If he didn't have access to an AR-15, he could never have perpetrated one of the bloodiest shootings in the history of our nation.

The ubiquitous level of gun violence in America is a fact of which we should be ashamed as Americans. Gun death rates in our nation are far higher than practically anywhere in the world, as if we were a nation at war. For a government that has had a searing and divisive rhetoric about “terrorism” there is an epic failure to recognize the role that gun violence against us by our own citizens fits into the textbook definition of terrorism. Moreover, it happens when disaster capitalism enters a nation: profits take precedence over the sanctity of life or the safety of our citizens. On average there is more than one mass shooting per day in America - war-torn nations like Iraq may regularly deal with explosives and bombs on their streets, but this is our battlefield (e.g. Lopez, 2018). Here, however, the enemy is from within. Additionally, it's not surprising that Florida has seen a wide variety of shootings, as states with greater firearms restrictions tend to have fewer gun-related deaths (Lopez, 2018).

Despite the misleading rhetoric in our media about mental illness, the "threat" posed to immigrants in our nation, higher populations, or reportedly higher levels of stress has been the largest indicator within a state of the number of gun deaths of individuals Researchers simply viewed it as a basis for how strict their gun legislation was (Lopez, 2018).

The mantra of "thoughts and prayers" after these atrocities, that "guns don't kill people, people do" or that the perpetrator was a "lone wolf" or otherwise psychologically unstable, are all distractions designed to create the illusion that it is there is no way to stop or prevent these acts of public violence. The truth is that political action is required, that while it is always a person behind the trigger who intentionally aims and kills another fellow human being, the weapon is the vessel that enables their act of violence, and that mental illness is only one of a A host of other Red Herring politicians will focus on this because they have strong incentives not to stand up to the very powerful gun lobbies.

As social scientists, we look at numbers, follow a scientific method, and look for the truth. This time around, the truth is ugly and will stay the same: until our lawmakers put sensible restrictions on access to firearms, our nation will continue to be a war zone and no public space will ever be completely safe.

Not even our children's schools.

Copyright Azadeh Aalai 2018


Lopez, G. (2018, updated February 15). America's unique weapons problem explained in 17 maps and diagrams. Vox. Retrieved February 15, 2018 from: https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/10/2/16399418/us-gun-violence-statistics-maps-charts

Gun Violence: Facts & Statistics (2017). Center for Injury Research and Prevention. Philadelphia Children's Hospital: Research Institute. Retrieved February 15, 2018 from: https://injury.research.chop.edu/violence-prevention-initiative/types-violence-involving-youth/gun-violence/gun-violence-facts-and#.WoX91iXwapo

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