We debate the reason for mass shootings after each tragedy occurs and those reasons vary depending on one’s personal and political beliefs. Arguments about gun violence, mental health and how firearms should be regulated are the main discussions following a tragedy. The fact is, there is no single reason for why someone goes on a rampage, yet the rate of occurrences has continued to increase in the United States. There is significant research on mass shootings, both profiling the shooter and evaluating events to create an evolving toolbox. One difficulty in assessing the research is how a mass shooting is defined and the methodologies of the group collecting the data. There isn’t one widely accepted definition of mass shooting as people tend to restrict or broaden definitions to reinforce their position, usually based on gun control. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service definition of a mass public shooting is “a multiple homicide incident in which four or more victims are murdered with firearms in at least one or more public locations, including schools.”

Since the August 1st, 1966 shooting at the University of Texas tower shooting in Austin with 17 killed and 30 injured, there has been an additional 151 public shootings in which four or more were killed. There has been an unwavering 1,091 persons killed, 184 were children and thousands of survivors left with devastating injuries – both physically and emotionally. People who lost their lives in the 152 shootings came from nearly every race, religion, socioeconomic status and age. A common type of weapon used in mass shootings are semi-automatic rifles such as the AR-15. AR refers to ArmaLite rifle often misinterpreted as an assault rifle. There is somewhere between 6 million and 10 million semi-automatic rifles in circulation in the United States.

Reasons the United States has Mass Shootings

About five percent of the world’s population resides in the U.S. however, 31 percent of mass shootings occur in the State’s. Here a list of reasons that potentially answer the question of why.

The Copycat Phenomenon: Mass shootings have the potential to spawn others, almost like mass killings are contagious. When an incident occurs, it increases the odds that another incident will occur within the next couple of weeks following. The next murderer will attempt to outdo the last by obtaining a larger head count or creating something that will cause more of a stir.

The Media: When a mass shooting occurs, the media is quick to report – saturating television, the airways and print, potentially causing numbness to the events when constantly seeing and hearing about the catastrophe’s. The media frenzies play a role in the copycat theory. When an individual wants to mimic what they see other people do is known as an ‘imitation crime.’ The youngest form of media is said to be video games and studies link those who play violent games for several hours each day are more likely to experience aggressive thoughts.

Gun Laws: One of the most discussed reasons following a mass shooting, especially politically, is a person’s ability to access firearms. Despite conversations for decades and more so recently, the laws have not significantly changed.

Access to Guns:When purchasing a gun at a store, a background check is conducted requiring the purchaser to provide personal information and answer questions including if they have been admitted into a mental facility. The store clerk, rather at a gun shop or Walmart will call the FBI and run the background check through NCIS. Denials occur less than one-percent of the time. Some claim, it’s easier to purchase a gun in the United States than to adopt a dog.

Assault Weapon Band: Congress passed a law in 1994 implementing a ten-year ban on manufacturing 19 different military-style assault weapons. In September of 2004, Congress did not renew the ban when it expired. It’s interesting to evaluate how this federal law affected mass shootings. Former President Bill Clinton stated to the Washington Post in 2013, "Half of all mass killings in the United States have occurred since the assault weapons ban expired in 2005, half of all of them in the history of the country." From 2013 when Former President Clinton made this statement until now, the attacks have only increased and become deadlier. It’s important to consider population growth when determining if the ban decreased mass shootings and if more occurred when the ban wasn’t renewed by Congress. If you have an increase in events but also a higher population both the numerator and denominator increases and therefore the outcome could be the same when evaluating by capital. Nevertheless, public mass shootings have become deadlier as the number of victims has increase since the expiration of the assault weapon ban. Of course, the effect on the ban wouldn’t be instantaneous as it would take time for manufactures to begin producing the weapons suddenly legal.

National Rifle Association:The NRA holds a part in dissecting the reasons of mass shootings as they greatly influence congress through fiscal contributions and strong lobbyist. Since 1998, the NRA has spent a total of $203.2 million on political activities. According to the Center for Responsive Politics’ database, the NRA contributed $13 million to political candidates, parties and leadership between 1998 and 2016. However, direct contributions are a small part of their spending on influencing policy. The NRA spending largely consists of independent expenditures which often takes the form of campaign ads carried out without directly coordinating with the candidate they are supporting. During the same time, it is said the NRA spent $144.3 million on outside spending. An additional $45.9 million was spent on federal lobbying. Policy is greatly influenced by the NRA financial contributions. The Desire for Fame: There is a connection between mass shootings and the desire for fame. Often, the shooter posts actions to social media leading up to the main event.

Masculinity:Almost all mass shootings are committed by men. Sociologist claim there are two explanations of why American men almost universally commit these acts of terror – a social psychological explanation as well as a cultural explanation.

  • A Social Psychological Explanation:When someone’s identity they care about is challenged by another, they are likely to respond by over-demonstrating characteristics associated with that identity. This often occurs when someone’s manhood is questioned, they react by proving they are manly based on societies standards, such as flexing their muscles. Sociologist have coined this “masculinity threat.
  • A Cultural Explanation:Historically, men have benefited from privilege, especially Caucasian, educated, ambulatory, heterosexual men. Inequality remains abundant in America but over time, social movements have begun to erode those unsaid privileges.

From a worldly standpoint, it seems American culture influences young men to participate in higher rates of violent activities. If mass shootings are enactments of proving masculinity, and one’s masculinity is questioned, combined with losing the grip on privileged birthrights, could cause a young man to feel unjustified, resulting in overacting. Psychologists Joseph Vandello and Jennifer Bosson argue that 'manhood' is a status that must be continually earned, and one's self-worth is tied to being perceived as a 'real man.'

Psychiatric Medications: The list of side effect of any medication seems to be longer than the cures they offer. With many psychiatric medications, specifically selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRI) drugs often include violent behaviors and suicide. Many of the mass shooters over the past several decades were taking some kind of psychotropic drug at the time of the event or shorty before.

Mental Illness: While we are quick to assume mental illness is the underlying cause for mass shooters, the data doesn’t prove the assumption, although it is a likely factor. When analyzing the numbers, most mass shooters in the U.S. are found to be sane and not have any signs of a significant mental illness. On the contrary, mental health is still stigmatized causing many people to go undiagnosed until it’s too late. Additionally, it has been illegal for the Centers for Disease Control to try and determine the underlying cause of mass shootings making it ultimately difficult to say for sure.

The Social Security Administration, under Former President Barack Obama, issued a rule to share the names of those who lack the mental capacity to ‘manage his or her own affairs’ to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System in efforts to step-up gun sales monitoring. President Donald Trump with the support of Congress claimed it was too broad and rescinded the rule.

Summation: There are an abundance of reasons why people implement mass shootings which is why it is difficult to place blame on one single reason. The best way to narrow down the underlying cause of these attacks is by looking at all the facts objectively. Firearm availability and weak gun laws, media coverage and the need to prove masculinity combined with mental instability largely explain why mass shootings in the United States have become more frequent and deadlier.

Medical & Psychological Explanations

While it seems logical that mental illness plays a role in mass shootings, even if the shooter has not been diagnosed or have a long-term illness, we need to believe there must be some instability to follow through with the premeditated attack. With that said, mental instability is not a good predictor of attacks. 

  • Young Male Syndrome: High levels of risk, competitiveness and violence.

Psychologist Frank McAndrew from Knox College in Illinois has thoroughly studied and researched what is known as ‘young male syndrome’ linking the evolutionary need to compete paired with the effects of guns on testosterone. 'Young male violence is most likely to be initiated by young men who don't command respect from others,' explained Professor McAndrew. 'They'll often feel like slighted outcasts, deprived of what they want or feel they deserve.' Looking back at the 2014 attack in Santa Barbara, college student Elliot Rodger posted a YouTube video holding a gun and saying, “who’s the alpha now, bitches?” is a prime example of McAndrew’s work.

The Experiment: Males showed a greater level of testosterone and exhibited aggressive behavior when presented with a gun than those playing a board game, as proven in a study performed by McAndrew. Separated in two groups, half the men were given a gun to play with and half played a board game. All the men were then asked to put hot sauce into drinking water that another person would be drinking. As you may assume, those who played with the gun put more sauce in the water. Additionally, when told no one would be drinking the contaminated water, those who played with the gun showed greater disappointment.

Profiling a Shooter Psychologist Peter Langman, who studied mass shooters stated, "In most cases, there's a long trail leading up to the actual act of violence.” When evaluating shooters after the event, it seems easy to pick out the red flags leading up to the incident, but hindsight is 20-20. The red flags are not as bright and visual before the attack is executed. "There are certainly a lot of people who have a lot of things go wrong, and they're not committing mass murders," said Mary Muscari, a forensic nurse who has researched mass killers at Binghamton University in New York. Because mass shootings are rare, there is a small pool of people and evidence to evaluate. What we can speculate from the research done thus far is that a mass shooting is generally committed by a male, often young and feels powerless, rejected or subpar socially with low self-esteem. “Many mass shootings are motivated by revenge or envy. That's why many take place at a school or a workplace where shooters felt rejected,” said Tony Farrenkopf, a forensic psychologist in Portland. He goes on to say, “there is usually a triggering event such as a lost job or a falling out with a girlfriend that finally makes them snap.” At the end of the day, it is nearly impossible to single out the next shooter, separating them from millions of others who are similar and may never kill.

Preventing the Next Event

There isn’t a crystal ball to reveal the next attack. Research and experts have identified many ways to potentially prevent mass shootings but none of the answers are simple, or cheap. From gun control, school marshal program, metal detectors to increased mental health programs – not one will achieve preventing the next event. Therefore, we must all be aware, knowledgeable and train to be ready when a situation arises.


First Responders across the Country must be ready to respond to a mass shooting call - it can happen anywhere. The public has a high expectation that emergency responders will respond quickly and effectively. Previous Events: The best way to train for future events is to review and analyze previous events. In April 2018, the FBI released a report titled “Active Shooter Incidents in the United States in 2016 and 2017” analyzing 50 events. The report reveals all 50 shooters were male and acted alone. They were responsible for 221 people killed and 722 wounded. The three highest casualty events during this time include Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas (58 killed, 489 wounded), First Baptist Church in Texas (26 killed, 20 wounded) and Pulse Nightclub in Orland (49 killed, 53 wounded). These three attacks account for 60% of persons killed and nearly 78% of the wounded. This report supplements previous reports including “Active Shooter Incidents in the United States in 2014 and 2015” and “A Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States Between 2000 and 2013.” Police and fire chiefs, fire and EMS leaders, training officers, exercise planners, educators and field personnel are encouraged to read all three FBI reports.

Parkland, Florida: The rescue attempts at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School can be a great learning tool. The lack of communication, coordination and leadership in Parkland may have had an immediate impact on the delivery of care. Deputy Chief Michael McNally’s request to send in Rescue Task Forces comprised of teams of EMTs escorted by police officers was denied a total of six time, including after the shooter had been arrested, according to his written incident report. McNally wrote, "The [Broward County Sheriff's Office] incident commander advised me, ‘She would have to check.’ After several minutes, I requested once again the need to deploy RTF elements into the scene to initiate treatment as soon as possible. Once again, the incident commander expressed that she ‘would have to check before approving this request.’" Failure to allow the Task Force into the high school is potentially a life-threatening reminder that more pre-planning, training and on-scene coordination is needed to ensure that victims receive care as soon as possible.

Collaborating with Police, Fire and EMS: Multi-jurisdiction plans must be created, regularly reviewed and issued to all levels of emergency service personnel. The best time to ensure a Rescue Task Force will be allowed into a building with an active shooter is before the incident happens. The FBI report provides an inter-agency training for active shooter events for multiple environments. While schools are often at the top of the list, emergency personnel should have adaptable protocols for community buildings, churches, businesses and large outdoor gatherings.

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