Reviews | In shootouts like Buffalo, hate isn’t the root cause

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James Densley is a professor of criminal justice at Metro State University. Jillian Peterson is an associate professor of criminology at Hamline University. Together they run the project on violence and are the authors of “The Violence Project: How to Stop an Epidemic of Mass Shootings.”

With another young white man in custody and charged with first degree murder after a mass shooting – this time at a Buffalo supermarket on Saturday – police and the public are again asking: Why?

Law enforcement officials quickly labeled the massacre, which left 10 people dead, a hate crime. The suspect, who pleaded not guilty, is said to have posted a manifesto articulating fascist hatred and far-right ideas. He would also have drove for more than three hours in the predominantly black neighborhood where he unleashed his terror.

This is all eerily reminiscent of the August 2019 mass shooting in El Paso, in which the shooter posted a racist screed full of white supremacist talking points on social media, then drove more than 10 hours to a border community from his hometown near Dallas to pull in shoppers inside a Walmart. Most 23 people killed were Latinx. The shooter confessed that he was targeting “Mexicans”.

It’s easy to focus on the hateful ideology behind these shootings. But our research has shown that hate and “terrorism”, as they are commonly understood, are not what motivate most mass shooters.

These authors are not subject matter experts in politics, ideology, or religion. Their understanding of the “cause” supposedly motivating their actions is usually superficial and contradictory – and is merely practical.

Our dozens of interviews with the perpetrators and people who knew them, however, reveal that the shooters often had the same motivation: to cause as much death and destruction as possible so that a world that had otherwise ignored them would be forced to notice them and feel their anguish. Thus, the Buffalo shooter broadcast his actions live.

Our research shows that mass shooters take a common path to violence through early childhood trauma. If they fail to achieve what they have been socialized to believe is their destiny – material wealth, success, power, happiness – as they age, they reach a point of existential crisis.

When they no longer feel connected to the people and places around them, it becomes a suicidal crisis – except the thought of simply killing themselves leaves them dissatisfied. As one abuser’s sister told us, her brother started asking, “What’s wrong with me? to ask, “What’s wrong with them?”

Hatred comes late along this path. In search of answers, angry men comb through the words and deeds of other angry men who came before them, including former mass shooters. In the darkest corners of the internet, they end up finding someone or something other to blame for their desperation.

Abusers often choose scapegoats who represent their grievance to the world – people at their school, workplace, place of worship. In Buffalo’s case, it was a grocery store frequented by black people.

Unfortunately, patterns often become labels used to explain a way the problem of mass shootings. Mental illness, for example, is not a motive. If a mass shooter has a mental health diagnosis, it doesn’t mean that their every action is related to that diagnosis or that their symptoms caused them to pull the trigger. In our research, only about 10% of mass shootings were directly motivated by psychotic hallucinations and delusions.

The hunt for the pattern is ultimately fruitless. In our complete database of the mass shooters of the last 50 years, one of the most common motives is “unknown”. All we can say with some degree of certainty is that no one living a fulfilling life commits a mass shooting. These gunfights are designed to be the perpetrator’s final act, and that’s perhaps the most important point when it comes to preventing them.

Most mass shooters are actively suicidal. Whether they commit suicide, are killed by the police, face the death penalty, or spend the rest of their lives in prison, they have no plan for what comes next.

This is what differentiates mass shootings from other crimes committed with firearms, such as robberies gone wrong or domestic homicides. This is also why traditional deterrents, such as armed security or harsh criminal penalties, do little to prevent them.

This does not mean that mass shootings cannot be avoided. Rather, we need a different approach. There are many strategies to anticipate mass shootings, none perfect by themselves. These include improving access to mental health care and crisis support in schools and workplaces, expanding suicide prevention programs, keeping the media and social media responsible for hateful rhetoric on their platforms and limiting access to firearms for those at high risk.

We are able to act. Rather than looking for a motive, let’s stop the next tragedy by investing in solutions that will reach the next potential shooter. before they decide their only option is to pick up a gun.

About Mark A. Tomlin

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