School Shootings: Searching for a “Common Profile” of Perpetrators is a Mistake, but Reducing Mass Media Coverage of Them Could Work
Despite decades of experience dealing with school shootings, neither the left nor the right can really agree on how to prevent these tragedies. On the left, gun-control advocates argue that the frequent availability of guns to those at risk of committing mass violence are to blame for most of America’s school shootings today. Barked back by pro-gun Republicans is the sentiment that, no, guns are not the problem; it’s mental illness. The consensus of the GOP is that the Democrats’ views on school shootings is overly simplistic and demonstrate a failure to look for the “real” causes of school shootings, such as mental illness. But what if I told you that this idea, relentlessly pushed by pro-gun advocates as the number-one counterargument to the idea of gun control and a reflection of “actual” research, is complete baloney? Thankfully, though the answer as to what causes school shootings looks unclear, there are overlooked preventative solutions upon which potentially both Democrats and Republicans can agree.
It is not known exactly why pro-gun advocates jump straight to mental illness as a root cause of school shootings, but the one thing is true: this sentiment is completely unsupported by evidence and based on myth. In the book Gun Violence and Mental Illness, published by the American Psychiatric Association in 2016, the notion of a school shooting being caused by people with severe mental illness “snapping” is listed, by Peter Ash, among the many misconceptions surrounding such incidents. Ash goes further to point out that “only a small proportion of school shooters have a psychotic mental illness” and that school shootings are the product of long, careful planning rather than impulsive acts.
In its 2018 report on the pre-attack behaviors of active shooters, the FBI highlights that it “could only verify that 25% (n = 16) of the active shooters in Phase II were known to have been diagnosed by a mental health professional with a mental illness of any kind prior to the offense.” It also reported that, on the other side, nearly half (46%) of the United States adult population experiences symptoms over their lifetime. Of those, 9% meet the criteria for a personality disorder.
In addition, the National Council for Behavioral Health’s 2019 report on mass violence in America concluded that “having a psychiatric diagnosis is neither necessary nor sufficient as a risk factor for committing an act of mass violence.” Knowing this, it would be dishonest and impractical to single out those with personality disorders, much less those with mental illnesses, as posing a risk to the school community. None of this is to say that mental illness does not play a role in some shootings. But the only area in which it has had any relevance is politics.
Mental illness is not the only trait to be falsely implicated as a cause of school shootings. One of the biggest misconceptions about school gun violence is that there is an accurate or useful “common profile” of school shooters at all. The Secret Service reported in 2002 that “there is no accurate or useful ‘profile’ of students who engaged in targeted school violence.” All of the attackers referenced in the report varied in demographics such as age, race, status of family, academic success, social relationships, etc. In fact, there were indications that many of the attackers were successful in school and relationships. Over two-thirds of the attackers had never been in trouble or rarely were in trouble at school. The only noticeable circumstances shared by most of the attackers were that they experienced some level of bullying (71 percent) and had a history of suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts (78 percent) prior to the attack. Though this highlights the importance of treating those with suicidal thoughts and supporting the fight against bullying, these circumstances are too common among the millions of children in the United States who don’t commit mass murders to be considered red flags.
Then what causes are there, and what preventative measures can be taken?
There is one often-overlooked cause that, if addressed properly, could drastically reduce the number of school shootings: mass media coverage. It is counterintuitive to suggest that something as seemingly harmless as reporting the names of school shooters and telling their stories—not some mental illness or bullying—might be one of the biggest causes of modern school shootings. As it turns out, the concept of a “copycat effect,” especially as related to murder-suicide, has been studied for quite some time. In his book, The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow’s Headlines, Loren Coleman describes how the phenomenon has influenced history and how tragedies are being perpetuated by mass media sensationalism today. One of the earliest instances of the copycat effect in action, Coleman described, was in Goathe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, which tells the story of a young man who shot himself after a failed romance and encouraged others to commit suicide as well. Coleman adds that mass media coverage of Marilyn Monroe’s death in 1962 caused the suicide rate in the United States to increase by over 12 percent for a brief time. Infamous murderers like Charles Manson and Jack the Ripper created many copycat killers. The incidents of suicide bombings over recent decades, he notes, were perpetuated by media sensationalism.
The copycat effect can be connected to the school shootings of today. A study, published nearly five years ago by Plos One, found “significant evidence that mass killings involving firearms are incented by similar events in the immediate past.” In other words, school shootings are contagious. It notes that the time frame of temporarily-increased probability of a copycat incident is over 13 days. A 2016 study, published by the American Psychological Association, found that “for every four to five [school shooting] incidents, a new incident is copied within 13 days.” It also reported that “when the number of tweets about a school shooting incident went beyond 10 per million, the probability of a school shooting in the next eight days went up to 50%.” It conceded that a cause for this “contagion” phenomenon was unknown, but nevertheless concluded that the connection between mass media coverage and the likelihood of a copycat incident is very real.
Even though we cannot consider mental illness or bullying solid factors in a rampage shooter’s decision to commit mass murder, we now know that external forces such as media sensationalism play a major role in pushing them on the brink of doing so. Even though no study is 100% certain on how this phenomena works or what drives it, there’s nothing to lose by dropping media coverage of the personal details of school shooters. In fact, the 2016 American Psychological Association study predicted a one third reduction in shootings if the contagion is removed. It’s worth trying and, considering the fact that it doesn’t revolve around gun control or mental illness, an idea against which neither the Democrats nor the Republicans would argue.
Gold, Liza H., and Robert I. Simon. “Gun Violence and Mental Illness.” American Psychiatric Association Publishing, American Psychiatric Association, 2016, http://www.appi.org/gun_violence_and_mental_illness.
“A Study of Pre-Attack Behaviors of Active Shooters in the United States Between 2000 and 2013.” FBI, FBI, 20 June 2018, http://www.fbi.gov/file-repository/pre-attack-behaviors-of-active-shooters-in-us-2000-2013.pdf/view.
West, Julia. “Mass Violence in America.” Homeland Security Digital Library, 13 Aug. 2019, http://www.hsdl.org/c/mass-violence-in-america/.
Vossekuil, Bryan, et al. “The Final Report and Findings of the ‘Safe School Initiative’: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States.” Govinfo, 1 May 2002, http://www.govinfo.gov/app/details/ERIC-ED466024.
Coleman, Loren. “The Copycat Effect.” Google Libros, Google, 2004, books.google.com.pa/books/about/The_Copycat_Effect.html?id=3B4lTTZE58oC.
Gomez-Lievano, Andres, et al. “Contagion in Mass Killings and School Shootings.” PLOS ONE, Public Library of Science, 2 July 2015, journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0117259.
Johnston, Jennifer, and Andrew Joy. Mass Shootings and the Media Contagion Effect. Western New Mexico University, http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2016/08/media-contagion-effect.pdf.