Getting Past the Mass Shooting Carousel


During a Facebook conversation with a right-wing friend of mine (yes, I do have right-wing friends), he pointed out “while we prayed for the victims, you prayed the shooter wasn’t a Muslim.”

I have to admit, he wasn’t entirely wrong. I’m not one for prayer, and clearly I had deep sympathy for the victims as I do for any victim of violence. That being said, if I’m being honest with myself, whenever I hear of these mass shootings (which is depressingly often), the first thing to come to my mind is, “I hope the shooter wasn’t a Muslim.” My inner voice reacts in this way because I know when the shooter is a Muslim I am going to be inundated with a barrage of irrational hatred, bigotry, finger pointing and Itoldyousos from the right like I saw with said right-wing friend  and, unsurprisingly from Donald Trump.

Trump sel congrats

Yeah, we’re all congratulating you, Donny! God! This guy gives me the skeeves!

When a Christian or white, American “looking” shooter is on the center stage, at least we get some discourse on mental health. We are more likely to ask, “what went wrong?” and this might actually lead to some constructive analysis. When it’s a Muslim, however, all bets are off. Any attempt to suggest anything other than Islam, or as some conservatives have learned to temper their descriptor with “radical Islam,” is met with mouth frothing anger. “Don’t you know we are at war with Radical Islam? Don’t you know that it’s because of political correctness that we are losing this war?”

The venom and froth is so predictable that it has actually impacted my visceral response to mass shootings. As a matter of my own personal predilection and training, I want to make sense of tragedy. I want to know causes. I don’t want to be caught in the vitriol. That is why I became, of all things, a sociologist. It is the mission of sociology to bring reasonable analysis to the otherwise irrational.

At the same time I feel inclined to defend the further victimization of an innocent community, Muslim Americans and even hopeful refugees, who will only be scapegoated for the acts of their most extremist few. It’s heartbreaking and such a waste of time.

My thesis is simple. Much of my career I’ve dealt with conflict cycles, when the actions of participants in a conflict only serve to perpetuate and intensify the conflict. In such cases, there are only two possible outcomes. Either there is some intervention in the conflict cycle, internally or externally, that stops the process, or the conflict escalates until one party, usually the weaker, is victimized. Most of the conflict cycles that I’ve dealt with were interpersonal, but the same analysis can be applied to larger social entities.

In this case, we see an individual perceived to represent a community, commit a violent act. His actions instigate a reaction to the community itself, condemning others to increased scrutiny, isolation, stereotyping. This loss of integration then inspires others in the community to act out violently, which furthers the scapegoating and isolation, leading to more violent reaction, ad nauseam. Sociology and the other social sciences must be a break in this violent carousel, which will otherwise spin forever.

So what are some things we know, from a sociological perspective, to explain mass shootings in the United States?

Transcendent Values

Mass shootings are unlike other forms of violence that dominate the American landscape. Most violent crime, especially gun homicides in the United States, involve interpersonal conflict that got out of hand, gang conflict or other criminal activity. In this case, the impetus of violence is either emotional, in which case the intensity of the event is limited by the diffusion of the emotion, or rationally planned toward a particular goal. In the latter case, the violence is limited to that which necessitates achieving the goal.

In mass shootings, however, the goal is to maximize violence, to rack up the body count so to speak. This is done, often, to send a message. The shooter, to a certain extent, sees himself as a messenger of some higher ideal. In this last case, the shooter, Mateen, was reportedly piqued about his son being witness to two men kissing in Miami. It’s impossible to really know Mateen’s motivations, but it appears he wasn’t just shooting homosexuals, but he was declaring war against homosexuality itself. He justified his actions by tying it to a transcendent cause, that of Islamic State.

Planned Parenthood shooter Robert Dear stated that he wanted to be a warrior for the babies, as he perceived the fetuses he was trying to save. He was reportedly inspired by the presumption that Planned Parenthood was selling the body parts of aborted fetuses. San Bernardino shooters, Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, were doubtless motivated by Radical Islam. Dylann Roof justified his shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston in terms of messianic white nationalism, “We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”

From the work of sociologists Lewis Coser and Ralf Dahrendorf (not necessarily working together) the presence of Transcendent Goals is a factor in increased violence among conflict groups. People who embrace these transcendent norms, especially those groups who see their beliefs being challenged, denied or delegitimized, may take it upon themselves to use violence to not just kill, but to send a message to any particular out-groups, religious, racial, political, sexual. The shooter or shooters may intend to start an uprising among sympathizers or to bring on some apocolyptic vision. Either way, no particular transcendent value is more or less likely to inspire violence. It’s clear that religious and political ideologies are ripe for influencing extremists all along the continuum.

I believe that this is a central, though certainly not a solitary explanation. Our age is marked by transitory social realities, rapid social change, shifting definitions of identity. Traditional concepts of self, of manhood, of what it means to be a social agent seem to be in a constant state of flux. It’s no wonder that so many individuals might be attracted to ideologies that provide meaning to otherwise nebulous lives.

Transcendent values are not merely destructive, however. Transcendence is, more commonly, a locus of great charity, selflessness and dedication to humanity. People like Gandhi and Mother Theresa were motivated by transcendent values. So there must be other variables involved in this process. How does transcendence create a Martin Luther King on one hand and a Dylann Roof on another? Coser and Dahrendorf identify other elements in their understanding of group conflict and violence, including emotional involvement in group dynamics, which appears to be a weak predictor in contemporary mass shootings, relative deprivation, which I would argue to be more predictive. Other variables include class organization, explicit goals and regulation of conflict as well as social mobility and legitimate authority and reward systems.

Anomie and Isolation

Yet one category that appears to be universal among mass shooters is their sense of isolation and lack of integration into the larger, mainstream society. This is what sociologists since Durkheim have referred to as Anomie, or a state of normlessness. Mass shooters are often defined as troubled individuals, perhaps mentally unstable. Omar Mateen was identified by his ex-wife as being abusive. One of his co-workers referred to him as angry, “he talked about killing people all the time.” The Imam at the Islamic Center Mateen attended described him as a rather solitary figure who arrived late and left early every time he showed up. Mateen may have been suffering from social isolation, perhaps even mental disorders that were not addressed

This is common among mass shooters. Eric Harris and Dyln Klebold provide the template here. Social outcasts and loners entered their school and took especial delight in targeting those who may have bullied them. At Columbine we also see some elements of psychopathy and delusions of grandure manifest in the embrace of an apocolyptic vision. Robert Dear was clearly troubled as was James Holmes, the Aurora theater shooter. In each case we see individuals who, for psychological or social reasons, believed that they were not bound by the same norms as everyone else. They may have considered themselves superior to the norms of everyday people, like Harris and Klebold, or believed that the norms were illegitimate as did Robert Dear or Timothy McVeigh.

Symptomatic of anomie, as any good read of Durkheim would tell you, is suicide. Many mass shootings, like Harris and Klebold and Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter, end with suicide. It’s almost ritualistic in its precision. Other instances, as with Omar Mateen, it was probable that theirs was a suicide mission. At the very least, extremists like Robert Dear or James Holmes appeared to have no compunction about dying, either by a police officer’s bullet or through capital punishment. Rachel Kalish and Michael Kimmel, publishing in the Health Sociology Review in 2010, refer to this as Suicide by Mass Murder.

Troubled Masculinity

One of the most overlooked variables in American mass shootings has to do with gender. In almost every single instance, mass shooters in the United States are men. In the cases cited, only Tashfeen Malik breaks this gender trend. True, there is no hard, universal rule. Plenty of women have strapped bombs to themselves and killed many people. In the United States, however, mass shooting is clearly a male dominated phenomenon. Why? Tristan Bridges and Tara Leigh Tober summarise the research with an interesting look at masculinity’s role in mass shootings. “…mass shootings is not only about masculinity; it is about American masculinity.”

Bridges and Tober identify two variables explaining why American masculinity is especially definitive when it comes to mass shootings. First is the social phsychological explanation referred to as “social identity threat.” “When a person perceives an aspect of their identity they care about called into quesiont, they respond by overdemonstrating qualities associated with that identity.” In the United States, challenges to masculinity is met by increased aggression and violence. Aggression and masculinity are culturally conjoined in the United States.

In the United States, traditional masculinity is certainly being challenged. Susan Faludi, in her almost epic breakdown of savages against American masculinity, Stiffed, is perhaps the best description of the disappointments of white malehood in the United States. This plays into relative deprivation as white American men perceive that they are lacking in the prestige, status and advantages that were vouched to their fathers and grandfathers. In accord with what Robb Willer describes as the “masculinity overcompensation thesis,” men feeling emasculated by society may be more inclined to increase aggression that they associated with male identity.

The second component is cultural. “feeling denied a position which they feel is rightfully theirs in social hierarchies is a key ingredient…” Men, specifically white men, feel especially aggrieved by their perceived loss of status, what Bridges and Tuber, referring to Michael Kimmel, identify as aggrieved entitlement. As men ramp up their aggression, they are inclined to target their ire toward those they see as challengers to their masculinity, women and homosexuals, perhaps dis-empowering workplaces. Of course, there is a racial component as well. White men are especially prone to feelings of loss and relative deprivation in this regard. So add minorities to the list of possible victims. Quoting Kimmel, “The new American anger is more than defensive; it is reactionary. It seeks to restore, to retrieve, to reclaim something that is perceived to have been lost.”

Okay. We have white men covered, but what about our Muslim perpetrators, or Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter? How do we fit non-white masculinities into the argument. Well, we must point out that all of the men, regardless of ethnicity, were American citizens raised in an American culture that encourages American definitions of masculinity, mostly a white model.

Also, it’s important to recognize that other cultural definitions of masculinity are not without their emphasis on aggression and violence. Islam also tends to emphasize a certain exclusive understanding of manhood. And, like western masculinities, Islamic masculinity is also being challenged, as author Amanullah De Sondy explains in her book The Crisis of Islamic Masculinities. This crisis must be especially acute in the United States, where Islamic men are stereotyped as pathological, misogynist and dangerous.

The Issue that Must Not be Named: Access to Guns

Omar Mateen, a man with a history of domestic abuse, reported concerns about his disposition while working at a security firm and being twice interviewed by the FBI for possible terrorist connections, was able to purchase and AR-15 legally. In fact, most of the guns used in mass shootings were legally acquired, often in the face of serious questions as to the stability of the individuals making the purchase. According to research done by Mother Jones Magazine, “IN 1995 there were an estimated 200 million guns in private hands. Today, there are around 300 million–about a 50% jump.” Sadly, in light of recent mass shootings, gun laws have made it easier to purchase and to carry firearms! As President Obama has pointed out repeatedly, there are people on the federal no-fly list who are able to purchase guns.

If more guns made us safer, the US would be the safest nation in the world

In light of this evidence, the NRA claim that more guns equates to a safer society is simply unsustainable.

Of course, as I’ve posted on earlier, gun control measures are only part of the story. Another factor is our gun culture, a culture in which so-called 2nd Amendment remedies are actually encouraged as a cure for everything from crime in general to feelings of personal inadequacy. Why is it that, though Vermont and Louisiana have similar gun laws, Louisiana has such a higher rate of gun ownership and higher gun violence?

Access to and encouragement for gun ownership are two sides of the same coin. Both must be addressed. I’m convinced that cultural xenophobia and divisive discourse are central to this phenomenon, though I’m unfamiliar with relevant research  Any attempts to address access to guns, however, is met with references to mass confiscations (nobody is suggesting that) and to Hitler taking everybody’s guns (he didn’t). Reasonable gun control policy is not politically possible in the United States at this point, and there’s no reason to believe that this latest mass shooting will do anything to change that reality.


So if the above variables are apt, what do we do? Our current discourse on gun control and access to mental health is either politically unfeasible, or falls short of what is required. The four elements listed above are linked, causative and, if left without intervention, cyclical.

Gun control should, in a rational society, be the easiest of the variables to deal with through policy. A national registry of every gun and universal background checks would go a long way in keeping guns out of the hands of possible abusers while allowing responsible gun owners to continue to exercise their presumed rights. I would also suggest that certain guns should require more hoops to jump through than others. This should be based on the killing capapcity calculated based on the number of rounds that can be fired per minute. Whereas I think it is stupid that people are allowed to own AK-47s or AR-15s, I acknowledge that banning such weapons may weaken the gun control argument. Americans don’t like bans (except bans on immigrants, but that’s another post). However, if one wants to own high capacity weapons, they should be held to a higher standard of scrutiny, including comprehensive background checks and even psycho-socials. We do this for people looking for a job. Submitting people who want to be able to fire hundreds of bullets a minute to more rigorous standards should be a no-brainer.

However, based on the observations above, the problem really starts in American communities. What is it about American communities that people are turning away from traditional norms and embracing extremism? How is it that so many Americans see other Americans as “the enemy” or a threat to their well-being and their lives? Why is it that American communities are not enough to sustain reasonable and productive identity formation?  This larger issue of American community is the more complex, and the solution more elusive.

First, relative deprivation must be addressed. People who can make ends meet and satisfy their own social needs are less likely to identify others as a threat. Policies must be put in place that redistribute wealth, provide meaningful work at living wages. Access to health care, including mental health services, must be recognized as a right and provided for everyone. Only in this way can we cut down on the conflict existing between American communities.

Secondly, a culture of tolerance must be established and steadfastly defended from detractors who sneer at such things as “political correctness.” This can be done policy wise through integration programs and multi-cultural education. But policy is woefully inadequate for building communities. It is incumbent upon all of us to make sure that every member of our community, be it our neighborhood, school or workplace, or our on-line social networks, feel a sense of inclusion. Exclusion, isolation, stereotyping and xenophobia must be confronted on the spot and remedied in the interests of the victim. People will find support, they will find acceptance within a group. It is vital that that acceptance not be among violent extremists. We must look to all people with basic human dignity.

That is the greatest challenge. It is a challenge we cannot possibly meet so long as our political discourse remains as bigoted, divisive and abusive as it is today. I believe it comes as no surprise, nor is it a coincidence that mass shootings of this intensity corresponds with the war on terror, which is very much targeted toward Muslims, and the election of one of “those people” to the White House. This also corresponds with changing demographics and evolving concepts of tolerance and equality that further erodes white, male, hetero dominance. The backlash is to sow fear of “the other” as a matter of policy and a relentless, partisan assault against the President as a matter of politics. The resulting divisiveness can only be destructive to social cohesion.


  1. New reader of your blog; have you revisited this topic since publishing this post? It seems societal anomie is rapidly escalating, based on the uptick of suicide rates (particularly high profile suicides) and mass shootings. I’m curious how your theory is evolving.


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