Mass Shootings and American Society


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Gun ownership is not the leading cause of mass shootings. Image by mconnors.

Gun ownership may not be the leading cause of mass shootings – could it be our unraveling society? Image by mconnors.

Recent incidents of mass shootings in public places have pivoted our attention toward an unfortunate trend.

According to a CNN data, and a Decoded Science breakdown, the frequency of mass shootings has risen in the past 8.5 years.

These frightening shooting melees are happening with more regularity, leading policy makers to draw conclusions about the cause of the problem.

Often, a lack of mental health treatment or the high rate of gun ownership are marked as culprits. Some experts disagree, however, saying that our unraveling society is at the heart of the matter.

Loose Societal Ties

Peter Squires, PhD, a British professor of Criminology and Public Policy who works at the University of Brighton, has written extensively about gun control. He concurs with  opponents to gun ownership that in general, when there are more guns within a society, gun violence increases in frequency.


At the same time, he stresses the consequences of social values on gun violence. When a society is trusting, unified, and responsible, gun ownership does not pose as great a risk for violence. In contrast, societies that lack positive social values are more likely to see gun ownership increase gun violence.

Dr. Squires notes that societies that are rife with conflict are likely to become more dangerous as firearms grow in prevalence. As proof, he cites the high gun ownership rates of Switzerland, Norway, Sweden and Finland, and their contrastingly low rates of gun homicide. These societies have certainly experienced mass shooting incidents, but the rate of gun ownership has not corresponded with higher levels of gun violence.

Dr. Squires postulates that those European countries have tight-knit societies where most people have strong social ties to support them through crises. While those societies offer less privacy and individualism, they also offer greater informal social control. If someone starts to behave bizarrely, another member of the society is likely to notice and intervene.

Suicide and Murder

Dr. Squires’ comments about the relationship between society and individual behavior rest on the theories of Durkheim, a 19th century French sociologist. Durkheim is well-known for his research on suicide, in which he found that suicides are more prevalent in individualistic societies than in collectivistic societies. In individualistic societies, levels of social integration are lower, while in collectivistic societies, people are more involved with one another.

Often, mass murderers are loners who have few social interactions. In every nation, mass murderers are likely to lack social support, and their feelings of disconnection lead them to strike out at society. That’s why they frequently target social institutions, such as schools or their own family members. Dr. Squires theorizes that if the mass murderers had been living in collectivistic societies, others would have noticed their downward trajectory and intervened before they reached the breaking point.

Who are the Murderers?

James Alan Fox, PhD, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University, co-wrote a report that was published in the December 2013 issue of the “Homicide Studies” journal. The report reviewed common misconceptions about mass shooters and explains why it’s so difficult to mitigate the problem.

Dr. Fox noted some facts about mass murderers. They are typically motivated by a desire for revenge, power, loyalty, terror or profit. They usually plan their assaults well in advance. The typical profile of a mass murderer is a white man over age 30 who is depressed, resentful, socially isolated, and keenly interested in weaponry. These characteristics can apply to many people, however, so the profile is not sufficiently useful to notice and stop potential mass murderers.

Violent Games and Shows and Our Violent Society

According to Dr. Fox, watching violent television and video games is not statistically linked to murderous behavior. Instead, the sheer volume of exposure to violent entertainment speaks heaps about our society. The fact that children endlessly observe violence on the screen reveals a lack of parental supervision. Our social institutions, such as family, school, and religion have weakened, so media has a greater influence on how our children are socialized.

In this, Dr. Fox’s theory agrees with Dr. Squires. The loosening ties  of society, and not the availability of guns, is contributing to the escalating tragedy of mass murders. As Dr. Fox says, “Mass murder just may be a price we must pay for living in a society where personal freedom is so highly valued.”

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