Two more mass shootings, and an entirely predictable spectrum of responses and proposed remedies from the usual sources. Politicians, both from the Rahm Emanuel angle and as a general rule, leap immediately to advance the solutions that fit their ideologies.

Thoughtful solutions, however, should start with developing a deep and accurate understanding of the problem. This starts with the question: why are these mass shootings happening now? After all, we didn’t witness such behaviors back in the middle of the 20th century, despite the easy availability of guns and despite the strong racial animosities of that era.

What has changed? It’s not an increased ease in buying guns – you could buy semi-automatic rifles mail-order in the 50s. It’s not the fundamentals of politics – partisan divide and nastiness has been the norm throughout human history. The most likely place to look is at what’s new in the same time frame.

This article by Kareem Shaya ably goes to the heart of the problem: notoriety and the copycat effect. Yes, there is the matter of mental illness, and our society’s near-total abandonment of its management, but it’s almost tautological to declare mass shooters mentally ill. Is an alienated loner, as nearly all these mass shooters seem to be, mentally ill under any reasonable metric? Some are, certainly, and therein lies a stupendously difficult problem. We haven’t figured out how to deal with the mentally ill homeless, whom we can easily identify, so how do we go about managing those who’ve not shown any outward markers?

But, mental illness isn’t new either, which brings us back to the original question: What has changed? And, even in the case of the truly mentally-ill shooters, we need to look at notoriety. Writer Malcolm Gladwell discusses how each incident “normalizes” this atrocious behavior a bit more in the eyes of those people on the margins who make up the ranks of mass shooters. We see parallels in riot behavior, where people who’d normally never engage in acts of vandalism or destruction or theft are “swept up” in the crowd’s behavior.

Gladwell argues that Columbine is the inflection point, and it’s hard to disagree. “Of the eleven school shootings outside the United States between 1999 and 2007, Larkin says six were plainly versions of Columbine; of the eleven cases of thwarted shootings in the same period, Larkin says all were Columbine-inspired.” The broad and deep media coverage of Columbine has almost certainly “inspired” similarly disaffected young men to such behaviors.

Are these young men mentally ill at the outset? Or is there a combination of elements that get the idea in their heads: that they can vent their frustrations and achieve a twisted form of escape from the sadness and ennui of their marginal social status.

The affectations some of them take on, including attire, the (occasional) use of black guns (only about a third of mass shootings involve “assault weapons”), and body armor, suggest the desire to portray an image and not just inflict mass carnage. This supports the notoriety premise as well.

As the Shaya article notes, we should look to this notoriety as the problem to be solved. Don’t sensationalize the incidents, don’t publicize the shooters’ names, don’t post images or videos, and don’t endlessly caterwaul. All such feed the fantasy, and all such move Gladwell’s “threshold.”

Unfortunately, this is the very last thing that will happen. Not only does sensational coverage feed the bottom lines of the major media outlets, these events are pure gold for the agenda-driven, including those media outlets. If you have an agenda, you relish the opportunity to use public outrage to push it past the resistance that has kept it from fruition. It doesn’t matter whether an action taken accomplishes nothing other than taking rights away from good people. By the time its uselessness has been demonstrated, another crises has arisen, and another useless gesture is demanded.

Is the increased notoriety of mass shooters the sole driver? In a multivariate society, pointing at one cause to the exclusion of others is naive and simplistic. One other candidate for consideration is what some have dubbed the “war against boys.” Natural young male behavior has been systematically vilified over the past few decades, and we see “toxic masculinity” being blamed for so many societal ills. Did this notion exist in the decades before Columbine?

The existence of other drivers, however, doesn’t discount the power of this one.

It’s a challenge to blame societal behaviors for mass shootings, because each of us is a member of society, and therefore “part of the problem” if we are to accept that the problem is societal. It’s also certain to be deeply frustrating, because there’s really nothing that our elected officials can do to address it. Government cannot fix everything, and in any case government is a mirror of the society it represents.

When we, collectively, deny mass shooters the quest for notoriety that rather obviously drives them, we will have taken a positive step to reducing the probability of future ones. Will that address the entire problem? No – there’s more going on. But, it’s a first step that will actually accomplish something, regardless of other agendas.

It’s that lack of agenda, sadly, that ensures it won’t happen.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.


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