Fayetteville, AR -(AmmoLand.com)- Are mass shootings contagious? Which is to say, does one mass shooting produce another in the manner of a pathogen being transmitted from one infected person to new hosts?
According to New York Police Department Deputy Commissioner John Miller, interviewed on CBS This Morning, the answer is yes, though things are more complicated than a simple transmission of an idea by itself.
In the same way that epidemics require factors beyond the mere presence of a pathogenic microorganism—in many cases, weather conditions, malnutrition, movement of peoples, and the like—Miller points to the influences that the political atmosphere, the celebration—and I use that word deliberately—of mass killers on television, and various triggering stressors such as a job loss have on someone who is at risk of becoming a killer. This sounds a lot like what happens in domestic violence, and in many cases, mass shooters have a record of abusing people in their immediate lives first. I don’t find this surprising since regardless of whatever motivates mass shooters to act, they feel entitled to murder innocent people to achieve their purposes.
The term, contagion, does describe a real phenomenon. The Newtown shooter, for example, had a fascination with mass shootings, and while delving into the mind of a lunatic killer is difficult, it seems that he was building up a scorecard that he hoped to top. Another name for this is the copycat effect, an outward-directed equivalent of the influence that a suicide that gets media attention can have on people at risk.
The El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio shooters don’t fit this pattern, however, since both prepared their attacks that came within twenty-four hours of each other. The copycat explanation leaves out the factors in society that drive mass shooters independently of what influence one killer has on another. In an interview on The Jimmy Dore Show, journalist Greg Palast discusses the Las Vegas shooter with whom he attended elementary and high school. According to Palast, the disconnect between the future killer’s innate talent for mathematics and the assumption of the school that college track classes would be wasted on poor kids created psychological damage, a sense of hopelessness about who wins and loses in our society. This could sound like psychobabble were it not for the personal histories of mass shooter after mass shooter. Common elements are social isolation, family conflicts, and a sense that what boys grew up thinking masculinity meant has no place in the modern world.
And then there is politics. White nationalism is on the rise and is showing parallels with the development of ISIS, according to Max Fisher in an article for “The Interpreter” column in The New York Times. Both movements have been driven by an apocalyptic dread or glee, alternating depending on the incitement of the moment, that they are the chosen few who must stand against the hordes. And when Donald Trump expresses his amused approval of the idea that we should shoot immigrants coming to this nation, coming as it did after a campaign and more than two years of a presidency filled with veiled threats and proposed policies against minorities, opposition politicians, and the media, it is no surprise that violence against current and former Democratic officeholders and the racially motivated mass shooting in El Paso have followed. And yes, there is violence from the left as well, as the shooting of Republican members of Congress demonstrates, which to my sense of history suggests echoes of the paramilitary groups battling each other in the social collapse in Germany following the First World War.
We are not at that level of violence yet—yet being the keyword there. How much longer yet will last is anyone’s guess. But these mass shootings do demand a national response, and if better answers are not offered, advocates of gun control will gain traction for their demands.
The first thing that needs to happen is for leaders—in the media and in political office—to calm the hell down. I’m all for spirited debate, and singing Kumbaya is a tactic for summer camp, not for making policy, but when the president tells American citizens who are of a different party that they need to go back where they came from—Cincinnati, Detroit, and the Bronx, in the case of three of the four members of Congress he referred to—and jokes about violence against the opposition, we have crossed over from reasoned argument to a street brawl. And I say the same thing to all the people on social media who keep declaring that if I am against banning AR-15s, it can only be for the reason that I value my hobby over the lives of innocents. Yes, freedom of speech includes the right to spew vile opinions, so long as they are not threats of violence or the worst forms of defamation, and that means that we get the level of social discourse that we deserve. I’m not calling for censorship. I’m saying that if we care about the future of the country, we should focus on ideas over our assessment of the people offering them.
My second suggestion is in a similar vein, a request to the news media to provide only the necessary information about killers to explain their actions while refraining from giving those killers the celebratory attention that they crave. For example, we’d probably offend sensibilities to show their bloody corpses after they’ve been put down, and perp walks for killers who survive can look like a stroll down the red carpet to twisted minds, so we should adopt the smartphone emoji option. Have a set of stock cartoons of scrawny losers with a range of colors to match America’s demographics to use whenever an image of the killer is needed in news reports. The Constitution probably doesn’t allow us to impose the walk of shame that is ordered from time to time in Westeros, but news organizations are free to express disapproval of people who murder to gain attention.
Beyond that, we should pay attention to the lesson that Greg Palast is teaching us. A society that guarantees opportunity only to the few is one that is going to experience increasing resentment among the many, and some of the latter will decide that violence is the only solution. Related to this are the bullying and social isolation that are involved in many cases of school shootings. We have a culture in schools that distributes popularity based on ephemeral characteristics such as athletic prowess or physical beauty, rather than lasting merits, one that adults too often permit and sometimes encourage.
But addressing these will feel too slow in a country that is experiencing a spike in mass shootings. Terrorist attacks—and that is what a mass shooting is, an attack to terrorize the population to fulfill the killer’s sick goal—are the most difficult kind of violence to address since the terrorists operate in the shadows until the attack. But as I said above, mass shooters often commit domestic violence in the years leading up to their capital crime. Treating abuse as a serious crime—one that law enforcement will investigate and that prosecutors will take to court and that the sentences upon conviction will be long—would forestall at least some future terror attacks and would reduce an endemic form of violence that affects far more people. Another potential means of stopping mass shootings before they happen is already being used by the Secret Service. When people talk about killing politicians, polite agents in dark suits pay them a visit, not necessarily to arrest them, but to have a chat about what their intentions might actually be. The same procedure could be used with regard to threats of violence against ordinary people.
The advantage that gun control advocates have is that their proposed solutions are easy to describe and would fulfill the demand to “do something” right now. But the world is complex, and hurried answers rarely accomplish anything more than burdening people who weren’t intending to do anything wrong. Law enforcement can act as I’ve outlined for immediate effect, giving us time, if we are willing to use it, to shift the center of gravity of contemporary culture away from violence as a choice that we leap to first, whether in thought or in deed.
About Greg Camp
Greg Camp has taught English composition and literature since 1998 and is the author of six books, including a western, The Willing Spirit, and Each One, Teach One, with Ranjit Singh on gun politics in America. His books can be found on Amazon. He tweets @gregcampnc.