What is the best theory for the rise in mass shootings?

Keep in mind that overall shootings and murders are down, way down.  Yet here is Michael Rosenwald:

In 1975, someone walking up the street shooting people was such an alien idea that one of the officers who responded didn’t believe it and hadn’t been trained for it. The phrase “active shooter” had yet to enter the cultural lexicon. Now mass shootings are so common that the assailants draw inspiration from one another, and the degrees of separation between victims appear to be closing.

The 1966 U. Texas incident is seen as one turning point, Columbine in 1999 another.  The timing doesn’t exactly coincide with a social media hypothesis, although social media likely play a big role in the echo chamber and copycat effects.  Is there an increase in fame-seeking behavior of all kinds?

What other testable predictions can we come up with?  The frequency of the attacks is accelerating, again while violent crime and murder are largely falling.


Similarly, Bill James' book on crime argued that serial killers weren't much of a thing until the late 1960s. I wouldn't be surprised, however, if serial killers are down in the 21st Century compared to 1970-2000.

More likely serial killers went undetected in years past and outside the USA. You notice, as evidence of this theory, historically some medieval serial killers (mentioned in passing in the literature), and the fact here in the Philippines there are no serial killers of note, because nobody looks for them or indeed any murderer (many murders escape arrest here simply by moving to another town, and the Federal police is weak except for the most infamous crimes, mostly involving politicians).

Bill James comes up with accounts of several serial killers from before the late 1960s, so they existed. But there's a lot of evidence that there was a serial killer inflection point around 1968-70, as with so many other cultural trends.

Lately the serial killer trend seems to have reversed. A couple of academic criminologists wrote in 2014:

"Looking at the actual numbers, it is clear that serial murder peaked during the 1970s and 1980s, and has declined dramatically ever since. During the 1980s, for example, there were an estimated 200 serial killers operating in the United States; in the first decade of this century, by contrast, the count was half that figure."

"Why? The reasons for this precipitous decline are complex.

"In part, the drop parallels the sharp downturn in all forms of homicide beginning during the 1990s, and is, to some extent, a result of some of the same factors. The growth in the U.S. prison population, for example, kept many violent predators -- including many potential serial killers -- safely behind bars. In 1980, for example, the number of prisoners under the jurisdiction of state or federal authorities stood at 330,000. By 1990 that number had climbed to 773,000, and by 2009 it had soared to 1.6 million."


Forensic science and the proliferation of CCTV and cell phones would be another obvious candidate. It is simply much riskier to commit a single murder let alone multiple ones stretched out over time. Mass killings are much closer to terrorism in the sense that they are usually intended as one-time, catastrophic events and ones which the perpetrator doesn't expect to get away with, as Dzhaughn notes.

"The reasons for this precipitous decline are complex" is a pompous way of saying 'we haven't a bloody clue'.

You can't be a serial killer with a cell phone ratting on you at all times... besides you would not be able to post your stuff in facebook or instagram.

I suspect social media tends, on the whole, to depress juvenile delinquency. Young people spend a lot of time thinking about doing stuff that what would make them look good on Facebook. But that's their Permanent Record, so it's not a good idea to post photos of themselves committing crimes.

What are you talking about when you say serial killers.

1. An individuals who kills one person at a time and over time kills numerous people.

2. A person who kills multiple people at one time and probably never again.

I sense you are confusing the two.

# 2. is more like a video game.

#2. also gets you instant fame.

#2. gets you the best of video gaming and "reality" TV.

3. Someone who kills the same person over and over again.

That seems off topic. A serial killer is different than mass killer. There is no clear psychological comparison of the Columbine shooting to the BTK Killer. For one thing, there was no effort to get away with it.

It's not off topic: Steve Sailer made the point that serial killing also seemed to take off in the sixties. He is thereby inviting people to wonder whether there can be any common explanations for the two rises.

Or serial killers are just an example of another crime phenomenon that once went up, like mass shootings have gone up. But now serial killers have gone down.

In general, murdering a lot of people, whether all at once or one at a time, is a Bad Idea. And Bad Ideas don't necessarily remain popular forever.

The entertainment industry may have primed the pump for serial killers during the 1960s. Hitchcock made a fortune off his low-budget "Psycho," a movie he definitely didn't need to make.

Paul Newman starred in a Boston Strangler movie and the Rolling Stones made a song about the Boston Strangler (Midnight Rambler).

Here's another trend that was huge for awhile, but has, hopefully, died out:

Trying to shoot Presidential candidates:

1963: JFK
1968: RFK
1972: George Wallace
1975: Gerald Ford (twice)
1981: Reagan

This sounds like it might be attributable to the lead in gasoline giving everyone brain damage and making people less able to control their impulses.

Could be.

But what about lead in paint?

We need better studies of the historical impact of lead than we've seen so far, or at least a meta-analysis of the work that has been done already.

If I understand correctly, the number of serial killers detected (defined as having committed > 3 homicides) have been running in the last 15 years at 30 per decade, v. about 120 per decade ca. 1975, so the amplitude is greater than that for homicide in general

We live in a time when providing for the basic necessities of life are easier than they have been at any time in history, and yet at the same time we feel more insecure. In response we are likely to feel far more disconnected and far less valued.

Whenever we try to make a charitable contribution, for example, it can be readily consumed with little evidence that the contribution did indeed make some measurable improvement, or turned away as unneeded. Displays of gratitude in the absence of being able to observe the effects of a personally held altruistic intent are brief, often feigned, impersonal, and nearly irrelevant.

A gradual decrease in empathetic behaviour is only a natural response to observations that suggest our individual behaviours are increasingly irrelevant. Yet a decrease in empathetic behaviours corresponds with increasing levels of depression, sociopathy, narcissism, psychopathy, and paranoia. Sensing a loss in empathetic behaviour of others, people begin to intensify their desire to derive personal meaning and purpose from external validation (or extrinsic sources) from increasingly rare sources, especially when said people don't possess strong intrinsic means of personal validation.

I suspect increases in terrorist activity, whether religiously motivated or not, are likely the result of individuals frustrated with being unable to derive personal affirmation, and through violent acts are demanding extrinsic personal validation in response to their lack of success in perceiving validation through other means. Decreasing levels of empathy serves to promote the perceived viability of violence as means of achieving extrinsic validation.

I would prescribe counter-measures to include spiritual and religious training (contrary to what people might expect), opportunities for social engagement (internet-based socializing is very poor substitute), and public education (especially in the realm of socio-psychology with a particular emphasis on attachment theory.)

That's not how I read Bill James; I read him as saying that before the 80s, cops simply didn't believe that serial killers existed in any large numbers, so crimes that we'd now identify as serial killer crimes got written off to a loved one or acquaintance.

That's nonsense. Identified serial killers were at their most numerous during the 1970s and there were some very prominent cases, among them Juan Corona and the "Double Initial Murders" in Rochester.

The cognitive dissonance between our vision of ourselves, and the reality of ourselves is becoming more visible. And the state's reliance on violence to suppress external disagreement creates a culture of suppressing cognitive dissonance by force. Lies and violence begat lies and violence.

oh - and - the increase in survelliance means less chance of getting away with simple murder. So murder/suicide becomes more of an option. And if you're going to go out that way....

You may be aware that Australia lead the OECD countries in violent crime. When visiting Sydney I witnessed a nasty domestic violence in a public park that required police response. Aussies like to fight, maybe some of that infamous prisoner DNA responsible?

Google tells me otherwise: http://www.civitas.org.uk/crime/crime_stats_oecdjan2012.pdf or http://www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org/topics/safety/. We (civilised nation that we are) reserve our violent instincts for our women (note that we are way out in front for rape). So your domestic violence thing - totally believable. As for the cause... I don't personally believe it's the genetic heritage from the convicts (I'm proud to have a convict forbear), and I'm not sure how much it's their cultural heritage either - there's lot's of historian contention about this (http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/the_myth_of_sydneys_foundational_orgy) but overall it was actually pretty good (http://www.amazon.com/The-Tin-Ticket-Journey-Australias/dp/0425243079 - good read). My nominated causes: alcohol, a dead heart, and a culture not prepared to deal with it's problems for a generation or two

What's a "dead heart"? Curious...

Your link did not support your claim; it goes to a 'better life index', not at all same as violent crime. By contrast, this link shows the UK (and Sweden) near the top, and I recall Australia was right up there with them: http://www.nationmaster.com/country-info/stats/Crime/Total-crimes-per-1000

Haha you clearly don't know many Aussies if you think they'd be ashamed of being potentially descended from a convict. It's a point of pride for them.

Not in South Australia it isn't.

There were about 140,000 convicts sent to Australia in total. There were millions of immigrants over the same period in search of gold, farmland, or other business opportunities. The convict thing is overdone.

Prior to British settlement of Australia there were a lot of convicts sent to the US and the Caribbean too.

Adam Lanza just couldn't handle the cognitive dissonance of some undefined vision and reality? Really?

Every mass shooting was committed by Adam Lanza? Really?

In general, different varieties of pointless mass murder come and go in fashion. For example, "going postal" -- shooting up coworkers at the Post Office -- was a thing in the 1980s and 1990s, but there has only been one such incident in this century.

K-12 school shootings first became notorious in 1979 with the "I Don't Like Mondays" massacre that inspired the Boomtown Rats' biggest hit song.

"That morning, Brenda Spencer, a 16-year-old with a history of petty theft and violent thoughts, opened fire from inside her house at students outside San Diego’s Grover Cleveland Elementary School across the street. In a 15-minute spell, she fired 30 rounds of ammunition from a semi-automatic .22-caliber rifle her father gave her for Christmas. Principal Burton Wragg and custodian Mike Schar were killed in the attack; eight children and a policeman were wounded.

"Spencer, who had told classmates a week before that she “wanted to do something big to get on TV,” then locked herself in the house as the SWAT team descended. The standoff lasted nearly seven hours before Spencer finally surrendered. During that time, a reporter from the San Diego Tribune spoke to her on the telephone. She explained her actions by saying, “I just did it for the fun of it. I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day. I have to go now. I shot a pig, I think, and I want to shoot more. I’m having too much fun.”"


My vague impression is that the K-12 genre really took off in the 1990s, peaked at Columbine in the late 1990s, and then mostly burned out. I covered a 2001 school shooting in Santee, CA. The media coverage was immense -- I counted 31 satellite trucks -- so I assumed all us journalists would inspire more copycats.

But instead the rate of K-12 shootings dropped way down after that. Perhaps they got boring? Indeed, the 2001 massacre I covered seemed derivative, uninspired. Perhaps would-be shooters got embarrassed over how hackneyed and predictable another K-12 shooting had become. Or maybe they realized they'd wouldn't top Columbine, so why bother? Or maybe when 9/11 came along a half year later that rerouted bad craziness in other directions?

Indeed, the 2001 massacre I covered seemed derivative, uninspired. Perhaps would-be shooters got embarrassed over how hackneyed and predictable another K-12 shooting had become.

Perhaps someone will come along and do a deconstructivist revitalization of the genre.

She explained her actions by saying, “I just did it for the fun of it. I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day. I have to go now. I shot a pig, I think, and I want to shoot more. I’m having too much fun.””

This would definitely be used to try to ban video games, had it happened in a later year

I was just talking about that with a friend the other day. It's been ages since a postal shooting.

Decline in the fear of Hell.

I don't know. It seems there has always been a reliable supply of people who did not care about religion or what was handed them as religion, that could have done those things (if you are already going to Hell for liking rock n' roll, skipping the Mass or having an affair, it seems silly not go the extra mile anyway). If every Brazilian (or Portuguese, illegitimacy was rampant in Portugal when my family left the country) who adopted sin as a way of life took to mass murdering, Mankind would have gone extinct already. And it is a little unnerving thinking we have been surrounded by legions of people--including children-- whose only reason to not shoot us, our mommas and our children is "fear of Hell".

Reminds me of a New Yorker cartoon. Five guys in great business suits and executive haircuts are moping around in Hell. One says, "Of course the reason we're here is the Callahan deal! Do you think it's for missing Mass?"

It is vsry funny, but maybe it really WAS for missing Mass. Who am I to say? It is like Goebbels is often said to be the only Nazi leader to have been excommunicated (for having married a Protestant divorced woman). I have never seen a cogent evidence of this, and as I far I know no Nazis have been excommunicated (except maybe for some kind of automatic excommunitication Communists for instance are subject to). It just sounds plausible at first hearing. Centuries of tradition made it obviously clear he was at odds with expected Catholic sexual/matrimonial behavior while other Catholics could rationalize their work with the Nazi regime in a way maybe only personal excommunication or a direct appeal from Rome for resistence could have shattered. After all, where begins the difference between Hitler, as seen before WW II and the Holocaust happened and were acknowledged by the world, and some other ruthless rulers? Mr. Clinton was clearly breaching Christian rules in his adventures with Mrs. Lewinsky. It is easy. But what about bombing Yugoslavia?

People's picture of hell was something like Dante's. Missing mass and murder didn't land you in the same soup.

But any sin landed you in a bad enough place. Blasphemers, treators, heretics, usurers, they all got theirs. Not to mention that what people think is doctrine is asmimportant as what is doctrine. In some families, listening rock secretly was as good as goog a break with Christianity as feasting on pork would be a break with Islam. Also, since Enlightment at least, there have been lots of people who are unbelievers or at least skeptical of the Churches' teachings about the next world. It is hard to believe we only got critical mass around the late 70s.

This is much in keeping with the tongue-in-cheek hypothesis that H. L. Mencken put forth to explain the 1927 murder of Albert Snyder by his wife, Ruth Snyder, and her paramour Judd Gray. Gray, Mencken pointed out, was a model God-fearing Presbyterian who, having committed adultery with La Snyder, took that as proof that he was inescapably damned, and should conduct himself accordingly.

"In his eyes the step from adultery to murder was as natural and inevitable as the step from the cocktail-shaker to the gutter in the eyes of a Methodist bishop. He was rather astonished, indeed, that he didn't beat his wife and embezzle his employers' funds. Once the conviction of sin had seized him he was ready to go the whole hog."

But read the whole thing—a bare summary and a short quote really can't do justice to Mencken...

Doesn't comport with Gray's behavior subsequently.

@ One Woman's Fight Against Pornography: Thanks for the suggestion, I will read it.
@ Art Deco: I can't vouch for Mencken's hypothesis as applied to Gray for I am only aware of the basic facts of the murder.The general idea makes sense for me, though. I don't see how "fear of Hell" could prevent some people from murdering without preventing the same people from "fornicating", missing the Mass or, for those who were raised a certain way, listening Elvis. And, in the late 50s, there were already lots of people doing those things.

What is this, National Gun Control Month at MR? Tyler's crash course on Blue tribe signalling?

Why would this be pro gun control? It's not as though we had strong gun control before the 60s and 70s and looser gun control afterwards. If anything, the non-correlation between mass shootings and gun control would weaken the case.

You said a lot about yourself with this comment.

That he's interested in evidence-based reasoning?

TC is going to great lengths to be agnostic on the issue.

There is definitely an element of "Zeitgeist" to this. Around 1900 bombings were similarly popular but today hardly anyone plants random bombs, even though the requisite materials and knowledge are easily accessible.

Bombings are making a comeback this year. They may be positively trendy in 2016. Does arson go in and out of fashion? It seems like there are occasionally arson waves in the news. Possibly a single firebug starts it and then copycats/insurance-fraudsters decide to join in.

Yes, mass suicide related to cults peaked long ago. Could Jonestown happen again?

It is possible the risk of detection in dealing with or testing bomb-making materials is so high compared to the ease of purchasing a firearm that the latter tends to win out. There have also been many failed bombing attempts over the years suggesting that it isn't all that easy for someone of average aptitude to successfully build and detonate a bomb. The Columbine killers tried and failed to bomb their school using propane tanks and a pipe bomb. Times Square was almost bombed in 2010 and a backpack bomb in 2011 was disarmed before it could kill participants in an MLK Day parade. Etc.

The evidence suggests that bombing can easily lead to a humiliating fizzle for the would-be terrorist unless that person is backed by a network of people with experience in building bombs and detonators or has some training in chemistry or engineering. People are also more on the look-out for unattended bags or packages in crowded areas. For a lone wolf of modest ability, it's much easier to buy a gun off the shelf.

When learning to build bombs, you don't get a lot of chances to learn from your mistakes, as the 3 New Left radicals who blew up their apartment next door to Dustin Hoffman's in NYC in 1969-70 discovered.

Here's a possibility: the late 20th Century rise of suicide bombers in Asia (which, I believe, started with the Tamil Tigers and spread to the Middle East and which got immense publicity in the 2000-2009 decade) made common in American culture the idea of Going Out With a Bang.

But in America, lone nuts seldom have access to infrastructures for making bombs, so they turn to guns instead of bombs when they feel like killing themselves and a bunch of other people.

My pet theory is that a lot of the people who would have become mass shooters in the past were either committed to state mental institutions, or suffered their conditions without access to today's psychoactive drugs. There are so many drugs now. How they work we have no idea, but they seem to help depression. Some of them reduce other conditions with p < 0.05, but with occasional side effects of suicidal ideation. In other words there drugs being prescribed today that have a strong effect on impulse control. Most of the lone mass shooters in recent times have either been under psychiatric treatment or have had prior run-ins with the law that should have raised red flags. I think the decline of state-funded mental institutions combined with the proliferation of poorly understood psychoactive drugs is at least partially responsible for the growing number of mass shootings.

A question for people with religious belief - how can a physical drug affect your personality?

Wow, that really blows the lid off the whole thing. I guess if Jesus had known of the existence of alcohol, he would have realized how untenable his whole intellectual system was.

Maybe He wasn't aware. A fellow I grew up with insisted Christ never drank wine, just grape juice, and he transformed water into juice or unfermentated wine at the Marriage at Cana. As fringe religious positions go, it seems to be somewhat popular. On a more serious note, religious people love to point out that science can't explain counsciousness and men's intellectual gifts as easily as it explains how a computer and the lungs work and like to seize on cases where cogntion seemed to happen without brain activity (near-death cases are eternal favorites). It is at least fair to point their model doesn't explain the relation between brain and soul. One of them seems redundant most of time.

Actual laughter was produced. Thank you for that!

I think you are probably unconsciously committing to a kind of Cartesian dualism. You are not some disembodied will working a meat puppet. Of course your physical body, including your brain effects your personality. You might as well ask why it hurts when you touch a hot stove.

If not a disembodied will, then what will shed the mortal body and outlive it to? We only know human counciousness paired with (and maybe created by) a working brain.

Philosophy of mind isn't all that obscure a topic. Why not use your google machine?

Edward Feser is a very clear writer articulating the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition. You could start with him. Of course there are many other schools of thought among theists.


I had written a sloppy explanation, but I found this which better expresses what I was trying to explain:


OK, but all these schools (and the fact we are talking about schools, plural, shows none of them has belled the cat yet) as far as I know doesn't have gone farther than the materialist approaches (whether right or wrong).
"He argues that because man is able to know all bodily natures by means of his intellect, his intellect cannot have in itself a bodily nature."
This is an assumption, by no means a proven fact. "The body cannot be the principle that accounts for life, since a body, when deprived of life, is still a body, but not alive." You can say the same of any machine you are not apt to fix. Maybe we simply don't know enough. "Nevertheless, man also has activities which do NOT involve the body, i.e. intellection". Yet, all intellection we know comes from living bodies, saying wht is due the body (including brain) and what is due to a soul is a difficult task, unless you start knowing what a sould does, then it is just tautology.
"The separated soul, then, needs God either to reunite it with its body, or infuse it with knowledge, both of which would be supernatural gifts." Speculative, at best.
This is not to say the theistic schools are wrong, but I don't think they do much to explain intellection.

I'm not going to argue with you except to say that the things you are calling assumptions are conclusions of philosophical inquiries found elsewhere. We are talking about a philosophical tradition going back to Thales, and presumably earlier. You simply have a lot of reading to do. Or don't bother, it's up to you. Have a nice weekend.

"I’m not going to argue with you except to say that the things you are calling assumptions are conclusions of philosophical inquiries found elsewhere."
They are assumptions no matter how many times they had been assumed before. Saying we can not understand bodily natures with a bodily intellect is assuming what one wants to prove (the nature of the intellect). And all speculations about the different kinds of souls (even plants and animals have them) don't bring us a iotta nearer understanding the nature of human soul, its relation with human live, its workings in a human body and its existence after death.
"The animal's form or functional organization, i.e. organization of material parts by which an animal accomplishes its vital functions, remains the same. This form is the animal's soul." And now we fall into Platonic mystic speculation about forms that exist apart material reality. We are not told what this form has to do with the business of keeping the animal alive and the man thinking, in fact it is like someone had decided to call the idea of homeostasis soul. We can as well say the brain does the thinking all alone and call it a day.
And it is strange to decide the "body is necessary for a soul to exercise all vital capacities, since (almost) all vital functions are the functions of body and soul together" when one only knows "body and soul together" and (dead) bodies without souls. It is too assume too much about the nature of (never seen) separated souls.
"Have a nice weekend."
So do you.

"A question for people with religious belief – how can a physical drug affect your personality?"

It pleaseth me.

I witnesseth thy pleasing.

"then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground" : Genesis 2:7

Adam from the adama (soil or earth in Hebrew). The human from the humus. Judeo -Christian scripture is clear that humans are material creatures that manifest spirit.

"Then the LORD God formed the man out of the dust from the ground and breathed the breath of life into his nostrils, and the man became a living being."
This opens a new can of worms. What happens when man dies?
"Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?" : Ecclesiastes 3":21

But, afaik, none of these people were actually on any anti-psychotic medications: James Holmes, Jared Loughner, Adam Lanza, Robert Dear. None of them had even been diagnosed.

The problem is we're not identifying and diagnosing mental illness in the first place.
I think the reason is that people who are mentally ill are more likely to become socially isolated today and go undiagnosed. Instead of friends and family trying ot get them help, they just stop associating with them.

Dear was (per his former wife) more or less normal at age 42. The probability he turned up with schizophrenia in middle age is very slight. Lanza did have diagnoses.

Actually mid 40 and late teens are the two ages when schizophrenia tends to appear. Lanze was diagnosed with Aspergers, which is nothing, really.

No, mid-40s is not when schizophrenia appears in men or women. Per Fuller Torrey, diagnosis after age 45 is so unusual that some clinicians think that late-onset schizophrenia is not the same disorder.

Where did you get this info from?

Holmes was taking meds, Loughner had been diagnosed, and Lanza had taken Celexa. Not sure about Dear, but he certainly seems mentally ill.

Can confirm with a google search.

(1) The myth of a few good souls surrounded by evil soulless masses is everywhere in movies, video games, Zombie Lit, Snowden. Assange.

(2) Over the last 50-100 years, the value in human life is increasingly regarded as inhering in our social connection to and influence on other humans, not in our personal experience or our direct relationship to a divine order. How might this effect those on the edge of society? (a) it decrease their estimate of how much other people value their lives (because only people that are cared about matter.) (b) it diminishes their estimate of the value of others, as they do not respect the social order which gives rise to their victim's value.

(I am not suggesting they reason it out like that; but I do think they get the message.)

(3) In the old days (if I could find a beautiful essay by Guy Eaton,) one could run away, live in the hills, stay anonymous, move to Daggett, move to Brazil. They'd kill you if they found you, but they wouldn't hunt you either. Interpol will get you now. There is no physically escaping society anymore, not even a dream of doing so. So the remaining escape is into madness.

Excellent points. Note, that (1) might be due to a decline of "tangible" enemies such as the soviet union. Without them, the soulless system in general takes the role of the bogeyman.

But the problem stated in the 60s when the USSR was a big deal.

Anyway, could it all be related in any way to the Kennedy assassination? Pathetic weed changes the world and gets heaps of publicity with just a few rifle shots: would that inspire copycats, who would pick victims not protected by a small army of armed men? It would certainly offer an explanation for why the phenomenon started in the US.

Sounds plausible. The JFK assassination was immensely mulled over by everybody, so the idea that it had all sorts of cultural influences can't be dismissed out of hand.

A lot of subsequent events were seen in light of JFK. For example, almost nobody at the time grasped that RFK's assassin Sirhan Sirhan was a Palestinian terrorist because the Lee Harvey Oswald model for him was right at hand. Similarly, the career criminal who shot MLK was given the Oswald categorization, too, so the notion that he was acting on behalf of some kind of white racist conspiracy was never much followed up.

The U. of Texas belltower shooter of 1966(?) who strikes Baby Boomers as the first famous mass shooter was easy to fit into the Oswald mode -- Texan with a rifle shooting from above. That guy had a brain tumor and he kept warning people he wasn't right in the head, but that got kind of lost.

option 1 is interesting. Previous moral narratives implied a majority of good people ( religious ones) and a minority of bad apples that caused all the problems. Today, the moral narrative has skewed to a majority of ignorant/passive/bad people while a few enlightened ones know best. It does not only happen on movies or video games, it happens with organic food, environmentalism, etc.

Indeed, I remembered this Spiegel article on how young people is indoctrinated. "the indoctrination begins, through videos about genetically engineered food or alleged conspiracies. The goal is to make the victims believe that the world is evil and that only they have been chosen to make it a better place. As a result of this brainwashing, the young women and men gradually lose their connection to everyday life and their old identities. Once a new identity has been created, they often see themselves as members of a chosen group of fighters for a better world."


In this case, the process is consciously applied by terrorist head hunters that need a fighter. However, the resented males that go shot everybody at school because they feel alienated are also in this line of thinking. Some people may be developing GMOs, women don't look at them, the military bombs another country, people lobbies for open borders, other people runs abortion clinics......these things break the illusion of a perfect world a child has. Adolescents and slow 20 adults have not arrived to the level of development to understand trade-offs. They literally kill the good (real people) in the name of illusion of their perfect world.

"Previous moral narratives implied a majority of good people ( religious ones) and a minority of bad apples that caused all the problems."

The opposite has existed for a long time within certain strands of Calvinism and apocalyptic religion. Many of America's first European settlers almost certainly did not think most people were good.

...the difference being that the Puritans did not think anyone was good, including themselves.

Montana still exists.

Also Wyoming, although it feels tainted by the ghost of Mathew Shepard.

Agree with comparison with 1900 bomber, 1980s serial killer and 1980s going postal. Mass Shooting is cultural-specific disease like Amok in Malays, Lynching in 1930s, Hikkomori and Suicide in Japan, flagellants in medieval Europe, etc. Its popularity is deeply interwined with 2010s America culture : media fascination, macho response to deprivement/loneliness in live, gun-toting culture, etc somehow make connection with one another and create this problem. Lets hope this 'fashion' would go quickly.

"Going postal" is just a specific strain of the general category of mass shooting incidents. The LA Times put together a timeline and description of mass shooting incidents in the U.S. going back to the 1980s and it is difficult to distinguish any supposed "trends" from pure randomness. It is noteworthy that the 1990s saw a period of four years between the Long Island Railroad shooting of 1993 and the Jonesboro shooting when there were no such incidents. The LA Times lists nine mass shootings between 1984 - 1993 and I don't think their list is comprehensive.

"“Going postal” is just a specific strain of the general category of mass shooting incidents."

Perhaps. Yet it once was enough of a standalone pattern that the phrase got a big laugh in the movie "Clueless" in 1995. Those two words were one of the most talked about lines in 1990s screenplays. Back then I read much learned speculation about what precisely led postal workers to shoot their coworkers.

But then going postal stopped being a pattern.

I don't think the term "mass shooting" that we're now, unfortunately, so familiar with was particularly well-known 20 years ago. That's one reason "going postal" was a sensation in 1995: it gave us a catchy phrase to categorize things that had been happening. Like Orwell said in "1984," echoing Sapir-Whorf, without a vocabulary it's hard to think about concepts.

Here's another example of Sapir-Whorf in history: one of the most dramatic incidents of my youth was Robert F. Kennedy being assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan minutes after winning the California Democratic primary on June 5, 1968. But it wasn't until this century that I realized that Sirhan Sirhan ought to be categorized less as a "lone gunman" than as a "Palestinian terrorist:" Sirhan, who was born in Jerusalem, murdered RFK on the 1st anniversary of Israel launching the Six Days War as payback for RFK making a campaign promise to send 50 warplanes to Israel.

But the term "Palestinian terrorist" did not really exist in America in 1968, so Sirhan was categorized with Lee Harvey Oswald and the career criminal who shot MLK. Americans didn't have the term "Palestinian terrorist" until the spectacular skyjackings of 1969, and virtually nobody went back and updated their mental categorization of Sirhan. It took me, for example, more than 30 years to do it.

"Like Orwell said in “1984,” echoing Sapir-Whorf, without a vocabulary it’s hard to think about concepts."

Is there a particular quote you're thinking of? I've got a presentation coming up where a quote to that effect, especially by Orwell, would fit perfectly.

I do remember reading once that postal workers often had abusive bosses and huge workloads. Maybe the Internet has reduced their workloads.

I think you're mistaken. The characters who shot up Congress in 1954 and killed a police officer in a plot to kill Harry Truman in 1950 belonged to an actual political cell. Sirhan did not have any association with political organizations and appears to have been a head case in a manner and to a degree that James Earl Ray and Lee Harvey Oswald were not (though without the discrete clinical diagnosis that Arthur Bremmer had).

Oswald and Ray were self-aggrandizing losers (with Oswald suffering from delusions of grandeur and odd personal resentments). Sara Jane Moore fancied herself some sort of pinko agent of vengeance. Squeaky Fromme and Dan White had odd and idiosyncratic motives. Sirhan, Mayor Cermak's assassin, Bremmer, John Hinckley, and Jared Loughner seem to have barely had any coherent thoughts at all (or their coherent thoughts were not grounded in mundane life).

See the Appendix on Newspeak in 1984.

Sapir-Whorf is often dismissed today because there isn't much evidence that a language's grammar matters. But Orwell rightly seized on the key importance of vocabulary.

By the way, Whorf's day job was in fire insurance. He did inspections for insurance companies and was motivated by how often buildings went up in flames because workers didn't understand wordy warnings. I don't think Whorf, who died young, was personally involved in the fire insurance companies' successful push to replace the ambiguous English word "imflammable" on warning signs with the clearer neologism "flammable," but that's a good Whorfian example of vocabulary influencing behavior (in this case, for everybody's benefit).

There was a joke about going postal in Seinfeld, too: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M7ApHL1xi9U

IIRC, the line "You wouldn't by any chance be a United States Postal worker?" was uttered by a gun store clerk in the movie Harry and the Henderson years earlier.

I wonder what the base rate of such work place killings might be. If we knew that rate across work places we could calculate a fair estimate of how often we could expect clumps/clusters of "postal" type shootings by chance alone.

This is the only post (so far) that uses the word "disease", but I think that is the most apt word for it.

We have always had sociopaths, and for decades those sociopaths have had access to semi-automatic weapons and bomb-making materials. The missing element is the germ of an idea somehow planted in these individuals' heads. Postal and K-12 shooters in the 80's-90's were exposed to those ideas at the snails pace of news-at-11 mass media, but today's shooters have the hugely effective echo chamber of social media to draw their ideas from.

I hope that like any other disease, this particular strain runs its course. Eventually the supply of susceptible individuals will run out, or law enforcement organizations will develop appropriate containment mechanisms.

advanced capitalist secular societies strongly select for individuals with narcissistic personality disorder, and possibly sociopathy as well

has there ever been a culture for which inculcating 'self-esteem' in children was considered the paragon and highest responsibility of parenting? (i suppose the only innocent premise for such a practice would be that 7 year olds chasing a ball across the park are in fact tortured by feelings of inadequacy and shame . . . )

How does that differ from other societies? Look to the leadership. I bet no matter if its a capitalist system or something else, we, as a race, strongly select for individuals with narcissistic personality disorder.

In smaller more tribal cultures the narcissists get pushed off the cliff or shamed and ostracized.

Which societies select for capitalization and readable text?

It's okay. Charlies has several personalities. Not one can write well. Capitalism has not been good to him.

First-person shooters. Video games have gave people a false sense of how easy it is to shoot and kill moving targets. A kid who plays Halo all the time probably think he could mow down a hundred plus unarmed people easily, and maybe even a few armed cops with minimal training.

haha yep, I predicted this comment above

Or maybe movies and TV in general? They often portray people dying quickly after one shot in the torso.

Or maybe Plato was right in the final section of The Republic and violent poetry leads to violence in society.

malcolm gladwell wrote a piece about this recently -- http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/10/19/thresholds-of-violence

he explains the rise in shootings as a kind of chain effect -- each shooting contributes to its normalization as the cultural threshold against it lowers per incident. i find it an interesting theory.

"each shooting contributes to its normalization as the cultural threshold against it lowers per incident."

That would imply a continuously increasing effect versus the wave effect noted above.

If Malcolm Gladwell has a theory it's usually safe to assume the opposite.

One thing that is often (quite reasonably) overlooked about mass shootings like Sandy Hook (that are not related to other forms of crime or political violence) is that the shooter usually also ends up dead, either by their own hand or shot by police (known as suicide by cop). Even if they didn't intend to kill themselves, before the act the perpetrators of mass shootings must have known that their chances of survival were slight.

For the shooter, their own death is probably a more significant act than killing others, especially if the other victims are strangers.

We know that there are suicide clusters whereby people copy methods used by previous people to kill themselves. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/media-spotlight/201208/when-suicides-come-in-clusters

In addition, in order to avoid others copying a suicide and creating a suicide cluster, media guidelines emphasize that reporting of suicide should avoid sensationalizing the act, and should not provide a detailed description of the methods used. http://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/suicide/resource_media.pdf For very understandable reasons media reporting on mass killings does both.

So I'll speculate that the media attention could encourage copycat acts by people intent on killing themselves. Instead of doing that alone as is by far the norm, a minute proportion of suicidal people might decide to copy a method given a very high degree of media attention.

The more mass shootings there are, the greater the media attention, and the greater likelihood that more people will copy the method.

I don't though see how it would be possible not to have sensational media coverage over mass shooting.

At the mass shooting I covered in 2001, at exactly 11:00 pm, seven TV reporters lined up side by side about 10-15 apart all went on the air simultaneously. It would make a great shot in a David Fincher movie.

And we wonder why they happen.

The rise of cable news in the 1980s meant that these shootings could be national news and not local news anymore. This could have inspired alot more copycat shootings than before.

And going back to the 1960s, the development of videotape for news allowed television news to be preserved. There are a lot of "iconic" moments from the 1960s that have to do with the new technology. Perhaps the Texas belltower shooter got dwelled on so much because videotape existed to be used in subsequent documentaries and retrospectives?

My hypothesis: c. 1960 CE, global population was three billion, c. 1975 four billion, c. 1990 five billion, c. 2005 six billion, c. 2015 seven billion. Apart from results and effects of the historical development of military tradition and practice that TC cited recently, the US is particularly vulnerable to the expression of violence amid global population increase due to the heterogeneity in the US population we also have cultivated and to the failure to recognize that distinct populations carry with them culturally varying temporal conceptions yielding vastly different expectations about how much time is available to resolve perceived disputes (varying cultural perceptions of time, temporal velocity, and history work out on both macro and micro levels). Distortions of temporal perception have been aggravated themselves by the quickening tempo provided to the populace through mass media and mass communications: everyone's perception of the rate of temporal velocity is changing.

(To now invoke speculative science at all mildly: perhaps our part of galaxy and universe is already subject to a gravitational anomaly otherwise undetected. I also find it curious or oddly coincidental that quantum oscillations and perturbations that came to the attention of Rutherford, Bohr, et al., barely a century ago only came to anyone's attention approximately in this era of stupendous global population increases.)

I dont think its a diversity problem.... most of the shooters are white!

Perhaps not all canaries in all coalmines are yellow.

". . . most of the shooters are white."

Do you have a list?

The meme du jour of mass shootings, more than one a day, list contains mostly drug and gang crimes. Most such actions are not white shooters. Also, review the 2015 list. A couple things jump out. One, the proportion of KIA is not as high as one would assume, more WIA's. Two, many of the entries identify the shooter a "unknown."

Since 1993 (to 2013), the number of privately-owned firearms increased 56%, while gun homicide rate decreased 49%.

Yeah, but these aren't really appropriate to the relevant discussion of non-crime related mass shootings, going postal, what-have-you. We should acknowledge that that list's criteria is too general to be very useful in a going postal context and just move on.

The last time I looked it up, last year, recent shootings were something like 40% non-white. But that was a small sample

Why does global population matter? If anything, local population density is how an individual interacts with population. Do shootings correlate with population density?

That's a fair point. I think some of the recorded US mass killings have occurred in comparatively remote areas (Montana or the Dakotas come to mind for one or two episodes, which events consisted of murder-suicide in large families: the FBI requires four or more homicides in an event to qualify as a mass killing).
On another hand, in this era of "virtual reality" and long-distance participation in all manners of discourse, communication, and information ("quasi-physical localism", if you want to put a name to it), I think physical locality counts for something less today than in all previous eras.

This is somewhat similar to what I was going to point out.

Lets say that 0.01% of the population is wired up so that they are going to go out and kill lots of random people someday.

With a world population of one billion, that gets you a million of these people worldwide. With a world population of seven billion, you get seven million of them. Eventually you reach a tipping point. If the US population increases by another 120 million, then you get another 120,000 of these crazies. This is independent on how well society can deal with this, or how accessible powerful weapons are.

This is one reason why increased population also correlates very well historically to increased measures of control from the top over the masses.

Yeah. That explains Luke Woodham and Michael Carneal perfectly.

31 comments, nobody mentioned that this is fundamentally a mental health problem? Perhaps combined with increased daily acess to violent imagery (videogames, films, .... ) and a uber-survival of the fittest culture ?

Yes capitalism is causing it, thanks for your input.

Uber survival-of-the-fittest culture? Where the fuck do you live, Sparta?

Here in the US, we exalt deficiency and disability. Ten thousand times more effort and money is spent on "special needs" kids in school than on high achievers. Victimhood is the highest aspiration of all right-thinking young strivers at college. We live in exactly the opposite of a "survival of the fittest" culture. Hell, a rich kid who drives a porsche, has Rahm Emmanuel on speed-dial, is student body president and homecoming king has to resort to whining about his "marginalization" on campus to get some press.

That said, your first point about mental health is good, specifically the "de-institutionalization" movement of the late '70s and early '80s means a lot of people with serious mental issues are left in the community, with predictably unpredictable results.

That and it's become a social meme due to the slavish media coverage that if you're an alienated kid who isn't getting dates, you're supposed to shoot a lot of people to get your pain famous.

Sorry, but in comparison with other major industralized countries (with the exception of Japan? South Korea?) my perception is that it is a lot more survival of the fittest... Notice that Japan also has severe mental health problems, but instead of mass shootings we get the so-called Hikikomori... teenagers who live their bedroom for years.

It is fair to ask if there is any correlation with GINI Coefficient

We actually have both in the America of diverging cultures.


I don't think you can say that we have more mentally unhealthy people today,
as a percent of the population,
than we had ten years ago.
We have more gun owners, as a percent of the population,
Than we did ten years ago.

Do the math.

I am in the 'mental health' camp. I agree with Bill's conjecture that we probably have the same number (or per capita) people with mental health disorders. But it is possible that 1) they have fewer resources for help or distract these people - not just in terms of professional help, but also community support (e.g. neighbors who care). 2) they have greater access to weapons that can do mass harm, and 3) they have more information than before (e.g. 24-hour news that presents examples, internet access that provides instructions, etc).

I don't think these are 'special needs' students. My guess is the vast majority of them have delusions, are down, and feel like mass murder is a 'fix'. My arm-chair guess is that the Boston bombing had more in common with Columbine than jihadies.

I thought gun ownership, as a percentage of the population, was declining...

This is true, the number of guns owned is at an all time high, but the percentage of households that own guns has been declining for decades.

Wiki says you are wrong. Post your source. I am using phone so difficult to post link

"Number of households with guns on the decline, study shows

The number of Americans who live in a household with at least one gun is lower than it's ever been, according to a major American trend survey that finds the decline in gun ownership is paralleled by a reduction in the number of Americans who hunt. According to the latest General Social Survey, 32 percent of Americans either own a firearm themselves or live with someone who does, which ties a record low set in 2010. That's a significant decline since the late 1970s and early 1980s, when about half of Americans told researchers there was a gun in their household."


Gallup shows it steady, Pew and GSS show decline related to decline in persons who hunt (decline in hunting and change in population in rural states). Composition by type of weapon and intended use is important: shotguns get counted; but 80% of gun deaths are by handguns; assault type weapons (although data is difficult to get) have increased steadily over time. Here are some links: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/07/15/the-demographics-and-politics-of-gun-owning-households/ See also materials on percentage of gun ownership and death by guns: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2015/06/gun-owners-study-one-in-three Data on growth of assault weapons: http://www.slate.com/blogs/crime/2012/12/20/assault_rifle_stats_how_many_assault_rifles_are_there_in_america.html

Polling on gun ownership yields poor info. If some random person called and asked you this question, how would you respond?

Roadrunner, You can see this in the GSS survey where non-responses increase over time.

JW, Re additional sources. Depends on the poll:
"A Gallup poll quoted by the Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics asked U.S. residents the following question:

Do you have a gun in your home?

In 2010, 39% of respondents answered "yes." The figure has been fluctuating between 38% and 42% in polls taken since 2000, and has ranged between 36% and 51% since polling began in 1959.

This figure depends on people answering honestly; the National Rifle Association claims that a more accurate current figure is almost half of U.S. households."
Source: http://www.infoplease.com/askeds/owns-guns-america.html

Bill, i agree that if the percentage of private gun ownership would decrease, we would probably see a decrease in the number of mass shootings/ mass violence incidents. But I dont think this is the fundamental cause, i think this is the symptom. People who decide to do this are clearly somehow sick.

Overall shootings and murders way down, mass shootings up (if true?) --- sounds like a type of inequality in propensity for violence, roughly overlapping in time with the rise in inequality of ability to earn wealth and income. Maybe, our society over the last few decades has evolved to amplify differences across individuals. In general, this has been a good thing: more freedom, openness, empowerment, etc. But, perhaps, this amplification is also revealing the natural diversity of the human spectrum, especially when comparing the tails (both positive and negative) to the central bulk. Most people are becoming less violent because our society is becoming more prosperous, free, etc. However, people on the left tail of sanity are becoming more deranged and violent or, more precisely, more able to express and display that derangement and violent nature. Most people are becoming materially better off due to economic growth. People on the right tail of economic productivity are gaining even more, while those on the left tail fall farther behind, at least in relative terms. We similarly see wider inequality/disparity in marriage age, number of children, now even gender of marriage.

If there have been 250-300 mass shootings this year in a population of 300 million, then we are talking about the actions of people in the bottom millionth of the distribution. By definition, they are extreme outliers and, hence, those actions are not caused or explained by societal factors. Ironically, the overall drop in violence, which is a societal result, may be what is causing us to notice these mass shootings. They were buried in the "noise" of all the other violence before, but now that much of the "normal" violence is gone, we notice the outliers more.

If there have been 250-300 mass shootings this year in a population of 300 million

Just to be clear, the 250-300 number floating around is an unofficial number that includes many, many times a gun was merely fired in public without anyone killed, as well as including, e.g., gang shootouts or domestic violence, not just someone "walking up the street shooting people". There's really no accurate historical data on those numbers, especially with a looser definition that includes things that problem would not have been reported (or covered by the media widely). By the criteria that Mother Jones has used, which is closer to FBI definitions, there have been four this year. It still does seem like a modest increase over the years, though especially striking compared to the strong overall decrease in gun (and non gun) homicides, a much larger number per year than deaths due to mass shootings.

Yes, change the statistical counting method and change the story/trend. I immediately thought of a friend who served on a jury in which a fight broke out between two men who shot at each other on the street, killing an innocent bystander and grazing a few others, including the shooters. A cynic would argue that better guns were needed to avoid "mass shooting" status. BTW/ jury did not convict -- reasonable doubt as to which shooter's bullet killed the bystander.

Bystanders being shot in crime- or disagreement-related shootings is bad and an argument for stricter gun control, but it is a separate argument from these going postal slayings.

The fact that they are outliers does not imply that societal factors are irrelevant. Outliers also respond to societal factors.

Not in a predictable and systemic way. That's what makes them outliers.

Forty years ago it was common for young men to be members of a gang. It didn't really matter how socially maladjusted one was, a gang would typically take you on as a member based simply on your ethnicity, locality, class, or ability to own a motorbike. This was simply because each new recruit strengthened a gang in relation to other gangs. While a person might be low in a gang's hierarchy, each and every member was useful and valued provided they were loyal to the gang and not cowards when it came to a fight. Provided a person had the ability to engage in violence there was a place for them. There were no losers in a gang.

Gang culture no longer exists for many American young males, particularly white ones. Instead of gangs vying for rep there is now an individualistic winner takes all culture where socially maladjusted males can end up as complete losers at the bottom of the social order with no gang membership to give them support or a place or make them feel valued. And when these individuals lash out violently the results can be horriffic.

Gang culture was the cause of a great deal of violence and crime. That's the reason why it has been broken down and removed to such an extent. However, while a youth with a prospensity for violence could earn themselves a high status position in a gang, they would also find their violence reigned in and channeled by other members. There would be rules to be followed and even when extreme violence was committed on rival gang members attempts would be made to limit harm to bystanders because it would otherwise be detrimental to the gang as a whole.

This is one reason why we generally don't see African Americans perpetrating mass shootings. Firstly, they are on average exposed to more gang culture and even those that have little or nothing to do with it are still part of a discriminated against minority with an outside enemy to struggle against - racism - and are automatically members of group united in struggle which gives them a place and value. I am not suggesting that the camaraderie that can be found in oppression compensates for it, but there is strength to be found in adversity.

Religious mass murder is a little different. In this case there are basically gangs where status is earned by suicidal acts of extreme violence. It is self defeating, but can be extremely damaging to those who become points on a dead murder's scoreboard and those left behind.

Interesting, not sure if I agree, but I like the concept.

Wow, that is a fascinating theory. Of course, not all mass shooters are low status white males, but I guess a majority are.

You might be interested in Jack Donovan's stuff, if you haven't seen it.

I am just looking up Jack Donovan now. Hmm... While Donovan may have some insights into "masculinity and tribalism" I don't really agree with his conclusions. Or much of anything I've read so far.

Not only that, but for Italian and Irish immigrants, organized crime was a decent path to middle-class respectability. Maybe not for you, but for your children and grandchildren.


Gangs virtually didn't exist among white suburban Baby Boomer kids in Southern California, although they existed among some Eastern whites. In fact, they had barely existed a generation before, as the late social scientist James Q. Wilson noted when he moved from his native Long Beach, CA to the Boston area to attend Harvard. He was surprised by how territorial Boston Irish were over their turf. In contrast, Southern Californian white kids drove around a lot, so they didn't develop as much territorialism.

I'm curious about this. Can someone tell me about America's social changes over the last 40 years of so? It is my observation that Americans are lonelier than ever. But I could be wrong.

Sorry. No one will talk to you anymore.

This is valid for other rich countries as well... not sure there is even a correlation

Some reference material for your query: Neil Postman's book Amusing Ourselves to Death

Wouldn't the obvious one be Bowling Alone?

Less face to face contact, less outdoor play, less crime, more decrepit sexual mores....

Keep drugging up and isolating your young men, America.

Three points:

1. To believe this is new, you have to ignore history. The deadliest school attack in the U.S. was not Sandy Hook, it was the Bath school bombing in...1927. Andrew Kehoe managed to kill more school kids than Adam Lanza because bombs are more effective than guns. And this is not an American (or even modern and western) phenomenon as Steven Pinker so vividly described.

2. The focus on guns is misplaced. Bombs (like those used in Boston or Bangkok) are not difficult to make. But it's even easier to drive into a crowd at high speed. The girl at Oklahoma State wasn't even trying to kill or injure anybody, she was just drunk. Imagine how much worse the carnage would have been if she'd been driving a much heavier vehicle at a much higher speed.

3. Given how dead simple carrying out any of these kinds of attacks would be for motivated individuals, it must be true that the only reason we do not have multiple attacks day after day, week after week, simply HAS to be that the number of such 'motivated' individuals among us is extremely small. So relax.

That other attacks are "easier" certainly leads to the question of why guns are preferred.

The rise of the AR as America's gun cannot be ignored.

Not every AR owner goes postal, but those that do increasibgly come from that group - people who have spent a lot of time visualizing paramilitary shooting, modifications, accessories ...

The AR series being popular has nothing to do with it. Nice how you stereotype owners of the most popular rifle in the US has basically militia types.

The Virgina Tech and Oregon college shooters used handguns.

I am old enough to know that gun popularity goes in cycles. Everyone wants a varmint gun. Everyone wants a big revolver. Everyone wants a long range rifle.

The difference between that and the AR is the rise of a surrounding culture that focuses ON THE ABILITY TO DO MASS SHOOTINGS.

Get the chest rig. Get multiple large magazines. Load then all up. You are good to go.

"Get the chest rig. Get multiple large magazines. Load then all up. You are good to go."

Would it be constitutional to require all firearms, magazines and other gun accessories to be painted a bright princess pink?

The difference between that and the AR is the rise of a surrounding culture that focuses ON THE ABILITY TO DO MASS SHOOTINGS.

Do tell us about this culture. Where are its websites? Where do they meet?

Schwarzenegger's movie "Raw Deal" from the 1980s was the first I can remember with an elaborate, fetishized "arming up" scene in which the hero spends about 90 seconds loading himself up with his weapons. That became a pretty standard scene, like the getting in shape montage in Rocky had become a convention earlier.

I suspect there may a rudimentary "arming up" scene in "Taxi Driver" in 1976, a movie that in retrospect clearly tapped into a lot of malign energies out there before they were obvious to most people.

The difference between that and the AR is the rise of a surrounding culture that focuses ON THE ABILITY TO DO MASS SHOOTINGS.

Possibly the stupidest, most offensive comment ever posted here.

Someone's Google is weak. From a gun club page:

" Tactical Handgun and Tactical Rifle matches emphasize use of firearms in tactical, real-world situations. Thus, accuracy, technique, and situational awareness are considered to be paramount rather than the speed of execution or quantity of ammunition used. We offer an opportunity for both experienced and middle level shooters to develop and practice skills appropriate to the real world."

Training for the "real world."

Not making it up.

There's an "arming up" scene in The Iliad. While the focus wasn't solely on weapons, there are similar preparation scenes in many Westerns before a showdown (The Magnificent Seven comes to mind).

Anticipation is often more pleasurable than the act itself.

Which may also explain the ability to commit suicide after a mass shooting. A shooter still has to have the motivation to kill themselves. What better motivation than despair? The act they've been obsessed with for quite some time turns out to be something other than what they anticipated.

I'm too lazy to cross-reference, but I wonder if strong ideological belief (ex. Dylan Roof, Timothy McVeigh, Farook) tends to insulate a shooter from this despair?

I didn't say the other methods were easier. Bombs, when done 'properly', are more deadly, but they require some level of expertise and are more prone to discovery beforehand. But attacking crowds by vehicle is obviously easier than shooting (everybody has access to a car and knows how to use it). All you need to do is find a place where a crowd gathers near a roadway. So why isn't that form of attack more common? I don't know, but I expect that if guns became really hard to get (which seems unlikely) they would become so. But 'more common' would still mean 'extremely rare' (just as mass murder by gun is now).

Just wait until cars can reliably be driven remotely

I don't think that'd be much of a technical challenge as it is -- a drone controller with streaming video uplink could probably be adapted. It'd be a lot easier to test/perfect without arousing suspicion that a bomb as well. In fact:


"Bombs (like those used in Boston or Bangkok) are not difficult to make."

I pointed this out in another comment but you have to consider all the relevant factors such as risk of detection, failure to detonate, improper placement, etc. There were actually two bombings in Bangkok but only one of them caused injuries or deaths. In the U.S., the Boston bombing stands against two other bomb plots in the past five years that failed. The first World Trade Center attack was supposed to cause a partial or total building collapse but it wound up killing only six people. Many bomb plots outside of war zones or active insurgencies seem to either fail completely or else kill a number of people in the single digits. Bombs have an ability to terrify because they explode with no warning and can cause horrific injuries to survivors. And a few very rare incidents can be associated with catastrophic casualties. But, in actual practice, bombings are more difficult to pull off than you make it sound.

See also the Happy Land nightclub fire.

I'd forgotten about that one. You'd certainly think that libertarian-leaning economists would be expecting innovation and substitution effects if the 'price' of guns went up. The number of possible ways of killing a lot of people in crowds or enclosed spaces is pretty large.

Arson was a major problem at one time. For example, the Catholic elementary school fire in Chicago around 1960 that killed about 100 kids might have been started by a juvenile fire bug. Right now, fortunately, arson seems to be out of fashion. It's gotten harder to pull off with better smoke detectors and sprinkler systems.

And it doesn't come up much in movies these days. Heroes in movies are always arming up with big guns and going out to slaughter bad guys. They are seldom portrayed skulking around setting fires.

Another example: the dummies in charge of the "Bojinka" plot who were trying to plant bombs on American aircraft were detected after the apartment they were using in Manila to assemble the "dead simple" bombs caught fire. Then there is the underwear bomber...

Another way of putting this is that with a gun, you have potentially many chances to kill many people before you are stopped. In a bombing attempt, you have exactly one chance and a lot can go wrong in the run-up to the attempt.

"Another way of putting this is that with a gun, you have potentially many chances to kill many people before you are stopped. In a bombing attempt, you have exactly one chance and a lot can go wrong in the run-up to the attempt."

That doesn't follow. Not all bombings are suicide bombings (neither the Boston nor Bangkok bombings were). With a gun, the attacker obviously has to be present at the time of the attack. With a bomb, the attacker could be thousands of miles away (given how long it took to ID them, the Boston bombers probably had enough time to get to Syria if they'd boarded a plane immediately after leaving the backpacks)

I know you will not want to read this recently presented paper, but you should:
A strange paradox is emerging in America: Overall violent-crime rates are down, but active shooter events — in which a person is trying to kill multiple people in a populated area — appear to be on the rise, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics.

Meanwhile, a just-released study finds that although the United States has just about 5 percent of the world's population, the country has 31 percent of the world's mass shooters. The reasons for these numbers are complex, researchers say, but the data suggest that the availability of guns, and perhaps the American obsession with fame, may be to blame.

The United States has more private gun ownership and more desire for fame than any other country in the world, said Adam Lankford, a criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama and author of the new research, presented Sunday (Aug. 23) at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. [5 Milestones in Gun Control History]"

The possible association between mass shootings and a desire for fame is particularly eerie, given the nation's latest high-profile killing. Early this morning (Aug. 26), a former employee at a local news station in Virginia allegedly killed a reporter and a cameraman on-air, while filming the shooting with a GoPro camera. He later posted the film to social media. Because there were fewer than four victims, the event does not qualify as a mass shooting, according to most definitions. But the apparent desire to broadcast the crime places the killer in the same company as many notorious mass shooters of the past decade. [The History of Human Aggression]

"Especially some of the younger ones — they want attention," said Mary Muscari, a forensic nurse at Binghamton University in New York who has studied revenge-driven mass killers. "That's why you see them wanting to have a bigger head count, a bigger body count, to try to outdo the last one or to do something that is going to cause more of a rise."

A person claiming to be the alleged gunman in the Virginia attack sent a 23-page fax to ABC News after the shooting, claiming to be influenced by Seung-Hui Cho, the killer in the Virginia Tech shooting of 2007. "He got NEARLY double the amount that Eric Harris and Dylann [sic] Klebold [the Columbine shooters] got," the writer of the fax added, according to ABC News. The fax also claimed that the shooting was in response to the mass killing at a Charleston church in June."

Here is the link for further information in Live Science: http://www.livescience.com/51991-why-america-is-prone-to-mass-shootings.html

Also, there is a sex difference in mass shootings as well.

From a more recent article in the same source: "But by the end of the day on Dec. 2, the police revealed something surprising. One of the two shooters who attacked a health department training and holiday party that day was female.

That's shocking, according to experts in human behavior, because women are violent at much lower rates than men. And mass killings, even more so than other types of violence, are overwhelmingly a male phenomenon."

Here is the link to that article: http://www.livescience.com/53047-why-female-mass-shooters-are-rare.html

"I know you will not want to read this recently presented paper, but you should:"

That's the spot where I stopped reading.

And I bet your views haven't changed.

You were not incorrect to do so.

I'm not sure that case is precisely similar. The killer in that case was an employee who had been terminated a year or so earlier who fancied he had a personal beef with two of the three people he shot. The station manager said he could not remember any specific disputes between this fellow Flanagan and the reporting crew he killed and that he'd had so many conflicts with so many people on the staff that it was difficult to figure out why he'd selected these two. The murderer appears to have been a raging narcissist.

Do people have fewer total close friends and relations on average than they did in the past? I would guess so. Not only is this probably bad for mental health, but their are fewer impediments to planning something crazy.

The connection between terrorism and the TV camera has been well known for decades. Terrorism is the inculcation of fear to achieve a political or military objective. Kill one, scare a thousand.

Social media is just the latest incarnation of mass media, adding a component of two way communication and essentially eliminating the middle man of the organized media. This enhances the effect.

There may very well be an echo chamber effect of extremism. There may be fame seeking, and this is not new.

The rise of both shootings and suicide are symptoms of increasingly marginalized young men. All of the Team Girlz cheerleading has been well intentioned but misplaced. College graduation rates of men are falling. Fatherless homes are increasing. Unemployment hits men harder than women. Men are portrayed as villains by feminists.

Marginalized young girls get fat and depressed. Marginalized young boys kill people.

Very few marginalized boys kill, but those that do are supported by the NRA.

Yes, I've seen those ads.


And they are supported by every F'ing right wing fundraiser that gave an AR as a door prize.

Do you dress up as an NRA member for Halloween? Because a lobbyist group with 5 million members scares you so much.

To you toast the shooters you see on TV, because they are your people?

"Do you dress up as an NRA member for Halloween? Because a lobbyist group with 5 million members scares you so much."

I'm starting to think it's probably best to ignore him. He's got social issues.

You just get angry, and go ah hominem first, because you know I am right.

You know you can't give ARs as political door prizes and then claim you have nothing to do with their .. political use.

In his book "My Brother Ron", Clayton Cramer argues that the release and neglect of our severely mentally ill, which begins in earnest in the late '60s/early 70s may be a possible genesis for the rise in spree shooters. Certainly, it has been common to find out that many shooters had identified mental problems before their crime. Also, I read somewhere that there is a strong correlation between states where it is hard to commit someone and the number of spree mudrders.

There is little evidence of this. See here for instance. Pointing to evidence of some mental disorders among mass shooters is an example of spotlight fallacy -- many of the same symptoms and characteristics are shared by millions of other people who never commit any acts of violence. Moreover, the interview points to a 2001 study that shows only one quarter of mass shooters had any psychiatric history. Diagnosable mental illness appears to be just of many contributing factors.

I believe that the shooters did not have any prior identified mental illness that we could have used to weed them out. But from the post-shooting evidence, it does look like all these people had some major mental problems. Even the latest guy who shot up the Planned Parenthood clinic is pretty obviously mentally ill, based on his court behavior.

"I believe that the shooters did not have any prior identified mental illness that we could have used to weed them out."

Right, and that is the most important point here. There is little evidence that a system of more aggressive diagnosis, treatment and institutionalization for the mentally ill would catch most would-be mass shooters before they have the chance to harm people.

I think if you run down the list, only a modest minority had the sort of discrete diagnosis which would have sufficed to incarcerate them in 1955. Adam Lanza, certainly, and Jared Loughner. Lanza's mother was already taking steps to have him remanded and Loughner's parents were only just realizing he was bonkers, so it's doubtful that barriers to civil committment were decisive in those cases.

Cramer's brother was given to violence, which is atypical among schizophrenics. That may color his viewpoint to a degree.

The 1970s was a chaotic, violent decade. One evidence of this is captured in the highlight film of the Yankees championship years from 1976 -1981. Each year the Yankees won a league or World Series championship at their home stadium the fans rushed the field. This happened in '76, '77, '78 and '81. Yet when the Yankees had their "dynasty" of the late 1990s there was no rushing of the field. Security made a big difference. But a change in social attitudes also mattered. I find it interesting that fans (ie students) rushing the field still happens in college but not anymore in pro-games.

Up through the early 1980s fights in my schools were common, if not expected. But my recollection is fights became increasingly uncommon as the years passed. The social norm changed and fighting and unruly behavior became unwelcome in normal society. Perhaps this change in social norms has weeded out the serial killers before they can become such. In today's society violent sociopaths can't go for long without standing out and being detected.

Those who would launch a mass shooting have a different calculus. It is near certain they will be caught so those participating in such acts are either emotionally disturbed or perceive themselves on an ideological mission, or both. Social media may very well be a factor in reinforcing ideological conviction. It may also be that the normalization of social behavior (ie the decline in general chaos and violence) allows the weak-minded to develop their craziness further, until the tipping point is a mass shooting, whereas in previous times the tipping point would be a fight or some other event that would reveal to authorities the emotional fragility of the person.

On the point about the 70s, a book of essays on the Yankees came out recently. Unfortunately I don't have it on hand, and there have been so many books written about the Yankees that its useless to look up the title on the internet. But one of the essays describes the reception that the Yankees players got when they flew into Newark Airport after returning from Kansas Series during one of their league championship series with the Royals. Its worth reading if you can find the book (essentially the players and their wives were attacked by a drunken mob, but this terse description doesn't really do justice to the essay). Norms really were very different then.

What's wrong with rushing the field?

In 1980 when the Phillies won the World Series at home, the fans did not rush the field. Before the top of the 9th inning in the 6th (and final game), in a show of force, officers of the Philadelphia PD paraded around the sides of field with their K-9s.

Relatedly, Yankees tickets cost a fortune these days.

There is no "best" theory. In fact there is no theory at all that will explain all mass shootings. This is not physics.

Agreed. I'm not sure sociologists and psychologists will ever get a handle on these sort of black swan events.

All good answers above.

I'll add female hypergamy and the delay of marriage. I suspect the absence of a loving relationship with a female as a common thread.

Exacerbated by a lack of career opportunities for the unskilled.

Rise in the use of psychiatric meds?

Probably not caused by the medicine. But, if combined with the message that it is all just biochemical, a chemical imbalance, then it could lead to increased nihilism and less use of self-control/moral inhibitions by the shooters.

IMO: Increasing rates of untreated mental illness.

Almost all of the shooters in recent years, especially the big ones, were mentally ill. Jared Loughner, James Holmes, Adam Lanza, Robert Dear, etc.

Maybe the rise of the internet allows mentally ill people to isolate themselves and escape detection for a lot longer than in the past.

Increasing rates of untreated mental illness while the rate of treating mental illness skyrockets?

Dear's former wife has reported that he was eccentric to a degree (self-employed to an art dealer), but (into his 40s) nothing menacing. Lanza was not 'untreated' and his mother was taking steps to have him remanded. 'Ere you 'treat' someone, you have to have an idea that there's something terribly wrong with them. Loughner's parents were just coming around to the idea.

Dear's former wife has reported that he was eccentric to a degree (self-employed to an art dealer), but (into his 40s) nothing menacing. Lanza was not 'untreated' and his mother was taking steps to have him remanded. 'Ere you 'treat' someone, you have to have an idea that there's something terribly wrong with them. Loughner's parents were just coming around to the idea.


I see that someone included a link to my recent piece in the New Yorker on this very topic--trying to understand the rash of school shootings. In that piece, I used Mark Granovetter's theory of riots. Granovetter's original article is well worth reading: http://vserver1.cscs.lsa.umich.edu/~spage/ONLINECOURSE/R2Granovetter.pdf

It's a good article.

Here it is:


Mass media hyping them up (and thereby inspiring copycats) in order to advance the anti-gun side in politics.

The U. Texas incident has an odd wrinkle - the shooter grew a large brain tumor and started feeling violent impulses he said he had trouble resisting. In his suicide note, he asked that his brain be examined because he was sure something was wrong with it - which was correct. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/07/the-brain-on-trial/308520/

I haven't seen any other cases like this, but I'd be interested to know how common this is.

When did the phrase "going postal" become current? In the early 90's there were several incidents in which postal service employees snapped and shot up their workplace. I don't have a good recollection of the exact date or the number of incidents, but it was definitely when the internet was in its infancy

The 1995 movie "Clueless," although it showed up in the press a few times before:


Lots of interesting hypotheses.

I wonder if an increase in the odds of living in bubbles plays some role.

Think Charles Murray, the internet allowing tribes (organized along ideologies) to be geographically dispersed, etc. Bubbles lead to groupthink which leads to amplified feedback loops w/ respect to each group's sacred norms/beliefs. There's no calibration that keeps folks in these groups in line w/ the norms of the society, country, planet, etc. that they're embedded within, and much like a mad hermit, they're soon so out of sync that they seem crazy.

This may lead to stronger in-group and out-group divides, with self-righteous in-groups sometimes wanting to go on jihad against dehumanized, evil out-group members. Members who feel marginalized, rejected, left behind, etc., at the individual and/or group level, may lash out...a kettle about to boil that finally explodes, in a targeted but misguided way.

"Bubbles lead to groupthink which leads to amplified feedback loops w/ respect to each group’s sacred norms/beliefs. There’s no calibration that keeps folks in these groups in line w/ the norms of the society, country, planet, etc. that they’re embedded within, and much like a mad hermit, they’re soon so out of sync that they seem crazy."

This comment reminds me of the recent Slate article:

"How To Pick a Fight With Your Relatives This Thanksgiving - If your family is anything like mine, then Thanksgiving is sort of like a brief military deployment after months and months of training. You've prepared all year in Internet comment sections and by yelling at Fox News on the television screen, and now you find yourself face-to-face, in close quarters, with actual Republicans, right across the table. They're not going anywhere, and neither are you. Despite what you’ve heard about avoiding holiday conflict, now is your time to fight."

That's not a bubble. But it's probably worse.

Worse? Speak for yourself. My sister and I consider political fights at the dinner table to be the pinnacle of human existence. (My wife, though she shares our political views, doesn't like fighting at dinner.) Unfortunately, Sis and I have trouble getting Democratic relatives to come and eat with us. I guess they want to stay at home reading Crooked Timber and watching MSNBC.

"Worse? Speak for yourself. My sister and I consider political fights at the dinner table to be the pinnacle of human existence."


Malcolm Gladwell's article is along those lines.

If there really has been a a rise, It would bet:

1. It is a small downside of the good main streaming of the mentally ill. In the past the family of at least one of the Columbine shooters might have kept them away from school or heavily sedated them. Also weaker families. We used to hide away our very socially inept relatives.
2. More working women may also be a factor. Fewer eyes watching over these poor souls
3. More wealth makes more guns and amo affordable and available to those same poor souls.

One more

Smaller families. Better a brother near by than a policeman far off to prevent you from committing a horrendous act.

Places where freedom of speech to express unpopular and crazy ideas, to gain support of others, is greatest may have something to do with it. USA is at the top of the list in free speech protections...and mass shootings.

"USA is at the top of the list in free speech protections": don't be absurd. Are you really blind to what's been going on on campus recently?

This Wendell Berry essay seems related, though it provides a slightly different and broader view:


The availability of rapid fire automatic weapons is something new that made it much harder to be a mass killer in earlier eras.

Few mass killer's ever use automatic weapons (at least in the US). They use semi-automatic weapons. And in either case, both types have been common since WW2. It might explain why bombs were more prevalent before WW2, though.

Rapid fire automatic weapons...otherwise known as MACHINE GUNS, and they have been illegal in the US since the '30s.

My grandfather was on his high school's shooting team, and used to bring his gun on the school bus for practice after school. Oh how the world has changed.

Really good discussion above. One factor that I didn't notice in the conversation - the parents. I've personally been quite disturbed by the media's reaction to the latest stream of mass shooters, sympathy towards the parents that undoubtedly help appease many destructive activites of their sons. Obviously, the Conneticut shooter is the best example, but I've seen other indications of parental appeasement in other shootings. The Berkeley shooter as well, his father said he had a feeling it was him up until the point he received confirmation. What was the source of this feeling? So obvious questions arise. Are we becoing more tolerant of aberrant behavior as parents? Are we losing some of our children as they "spend lots of time in their rooms, palying video games, on the internet." I can't even attempt to imagine the anguish and guilt that these parents feel, but part of me thinks, they had to know at some point. In fact, many have even stated concerns to teachers, medical staff, police that they knew something was wrong but didn't seem to go quite far enough. Then there are others who act completely surprised and unaware. Personally, I don't believe these folks for one second. The mother of one of the Columbine shooters claims she never had any indication. I just can't accept that. Like a dog that bites, there are ALWAYS signs, whether you see them or accept them is up to you. But I realize the policy responses to this problem - if it even is one - are essentially non-existent.

The other thing I refuse to do is repeat the names of these savages. I think that only fuels the fire.

Last point, I wonder if somebody can speak to psychological evlauations for these mass shooters, namely the diference between a theater shooter type - obviously mentally deranged and severely ill and disconnected, with the San bernardino shooters, carefully planned, mentally competent to those around them. Would these individuals pass a mental evaluation? Maybe that's stupid to ask, because a lot of mentally ill people can pass mental evaluations? Correct? Thanks for the discussion.

It's 1960. You want to murder someone. You invite him into your car, bang him over the head with a wrench and dump his body in a ditch 8 miles out of town. The police ask around and you say, "I don't know what you're talking about officer, I was in bed with my wife"

The conversation ends and you're let go.

There's no serious forensics, DNA testing, microscoptic fibers to analyze, etc. Unless someone saw you do it, you pretty much get away with the crime.

A man killing his wife will get caught. As will a crime of passion in a crowd. But if you're just picking off strangers at random it would be quite easy. It might take months for them to find out someone was even missing. After all, there's no centralized database tracking everyone's whereabouts. Drifters can and went undetected.

Heck, you could show up in a new town with $300 and no ID and people would generally just accept that you were who you claimed to be.

It must have been pretty easy to get away with being a serial killer.

That probably explains why hundreds of thousands of Americans have "gone missing" over the last century.

Seems to me back in the 50's, most handguns were six-shooters and often revolvers (harder to reload?). So I think technological trends have enabled more mass shootings. My impression is that most people who fire guns, whether in the military during war, police, or people committing crimes, often have to fire many times to inflict wounds and death--multiple bullets for one hit. So the increasing ability to fire a lot of bullets has likely increased the number killed and wounded in any one event. And perhaps the ability to do so has increased the likelihood of doing so?

Actually, perhaps surprisingly, fully automatic weapons were more available back in the 20's and 30's. Prohibition era gangsters and Depression era outlaws frequently used Tommy guns and Browning Automatic Rifles. Semi-automatic pistols have been commonplace since World War I (e.g., the .M1911 pistol that was the standard U.S. military handgun since before WWI until fairly recently). Any recent increase in mass shootings is not the result of increasing firepower.

Militaries have come to the conclusion that the ability to fire an assault rifle full automatic is of very limited value, especially for those with little training. Semi-automatic fire allows for greater overall accuracy and more kills per clip. Full automatic or autoburst fire can be useful when fighting armed opponents at close range, as it can allow them to be quickly killed or incapacitated before they can return fire. But this is much less important when murdering unarmed and unarmoured people, especially women and children, as their lower body mass makes them particularly vulnerable to being killed or crippled by a single round from a high power weapon.

So the one gun control law that is pretty consistent across the United States, the near complete ban on fully automatic weapons, my have actually made mass killings on average worse than they would otherwise be.

Note that I am not suggesting that fully automatic weapons be made legal in the hope that mass murderers will waste their clip killing the first one or two pre-schoolers . Instead I would go the other way and ban semi-automatic weapons. Or if that is not possible, place restrictions on them such as only allowing ownership by members of state millitias.

Magazine capacities have also increased greatly for pistols, increasing their leathality in mass shootings. In the past 7 rounds was a common magazine capacity for semi-automatic pistols, but now 15, 17, and even larger magazine capacities are common. Some may say this does not translate into a great increase in lethality as there are people who can reload a pistol in literally a fraction of a second, but there is a good chance that many people who can do this when at the gun range or practicing in their bedroom will drop their clips on the ground in a real life situation, so I would rather face someone with a smaller capacity clip if they decide to shoot up the movie theatre I am in.

Does this mean that a larger percentage of gun injuries/deaths are attributable to mass shootings?

Hi all,
My explanation of why the rate of indiscriminate mass murder increased 18-fold between 1960 and 2010 is developed in a series of blog posts. The first one is here:
and links to the rest are at the end of the first post.

I'm not sure they're actually more common as a rate of attempt per capita -- these are the first generations in a long time that haven't been drafted for war. The idea that you could walk around shooting people and they would just accept it is very new, the idea that entire areas would be proudly proclaimed freed of effective measures of self-defense is a very recent insanity.

Remember kids, it wasn't WW I, WW 2, and Europe putting Jews in ovens. The ethnic cleansing of Slavs, the Holodomor, the Rape of Nanking, the Soviet occupation of Poland... mass murder was everywhere and men were quite unable to avoid knowing that only deadly force would stop it.

To what extent does the availability of guns facilitate both self-defense against individual criminals -- including many acts of self-defense that involve no shots fired and never make the papers -- and group shootings themselves?

There has long been a quiet agreement in the media that they won’t report details on teen suicides. They do this because they know there is a socially contagious aspect to it, and they don’t want to cause more of them.

They left a loophole or two. The enormous 24/7 media frenzy after the shooting at Columbine made that obvious.

We can either stop reporting on the teen shooters, or ...

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