Looking Upstream: A Sociological Investigation of Mass Public Shootings

Looking Upstream: A Sociological Investigation of Mass Public Shootings

Joel Capellan (Rowan University, USA)
Copyright: © 2019 |Pages: 30
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-5670-1.ch005

Abstract

In the last 40 years, social scientists have provided important insights into the different characteristics of mass public shootings. Despite these efforts, we still lack a fundamental understanding of the processes that shape its incidence and spatial distribution. In this chapter, the author argues that the failure to tap into these dynamics is rooted in our inability to escape a risk-factors paradigm in which this phenomenon has been examined. The goal of this study is to step away from this paradigm and recast these shootings as a social phenomenon, shaped by social forces. This investigation is couched on two major sociological/criminological theoretical perspectives: social integration and social disorganization. A continuous-time event history model (or hazard/survival model) is used to test the influence of social integration and social disorganization forces on the prevalence of mass public shootings in the contiguous United States for the 1970-2014 period. The results paint a mixed but rather interesting picture.
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Introduction

On December 14th, 2012, Adam Lanza shot his mother four times in the head while she slept at their home in Newtown. He then headed toward the Sandy Hook Elementary School. Using his mother's Bushmasters XM15 rifle, Lanza shot his way through the front door of his former school. Wearing an all-black uniform, yellow earplugs, and additional weapons, Lanza entered the classroom of first-grade teacher Victoria Soto and immediately began firing. Lanza moved through classrooms shooting at everyone he encountered. The relentless shooting ended when the gunman shot himself in the head 11 minutes after he started the attack. By then, however, the damage was done. Adam Lanza had killed 27 people and injured two others.

In the wake of the attack, everyone struggled to come to terms with what seemed a senseless massacre. For a brief moment, before the discourse devolved into a gun control versus gun rights argument, people asked the right questions. How can such a massacre occur in a beautiful small town like Sandy Hook? What could drive Adam Lanza to commit such a massacre? Why were homicides followed by suicides? Are such “random” mass shootings becoming the new normal? Is it possible to predict or prevent these mass public shootings? Expert comments to these questions were as usual; they were as strikingly similar as they were dissatisfactory. Nothing about the attack or Adam Lanza himself reveals anything new or unique (Fox, 2013). Everything from Lanza's characteristics, social marginalization, struggles with mental health, to the way he planned, conducted, and concluded the attack, fits the typical mass public shooting profile. However, there is no possible way to predict or explain why mass public shootings occur.

A prediction involves a statement of what will happen or is likely to happen in the future, and it implies a clear understanding of the dynamics that shape the incidence and distribution of the phenomenon. Over the last 40 years, social scientists have identified some recurring patterns and factors that contribute to mass murders in general and mass public shootings in particular. However, while it appears that we are aware of all the relevant factors, we are unable to put them together. In other words, we lack a fundamental understanding of how individual risk factors contribute to the incidence and distribution of mass public shootings in the United States. If we are to obtain new insights into this phenomenon, we need to reevaluate the paradigm used to study these massacres and consider new perspectives.

This study sets aside the assumption that massacres are shaped only by proximate causes (i.e., the factors closest to the event). Instead of seeing mass public shootings as an individual-level phenomenon, I interpret these attacks as a social phenomenon subject to social forces. Accordingly, this sociological examination of mass public shootings is grounded on three theoretical frameworks linked to suicide and murder: Durkheim’s theory of social integration, and Shaw and McKay’s social disorganization theory. The observable implications of these theories are tested using the continuous-time Event History Analysis (EHA) framework with failure-time as the dependent variable.

This study makes several contributions to the mass murder literature. This is the first study to treat mass public shootings as a social phenomenon and formulate and test sociological theories to explain its incidence and distribution in the United States. This is the first to adopt a social integration, and social disorganization frameworks to account for the incidence and distribution of mass public shootings. This study employs the most comprehensive database on mass public shootings in the United States, as conceptualized here. Most importantly, this study is the first to use multivariate statistics to model the hypothesized social processes that lead to mass public shootings. Collectively, this study attempts to bring novel insights into a phenomenon that is full of myths and misconceptions.

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