Winter - 2013 Shooting1

Published on January 4th, 2013


Why Do People Commit Mass Shootings?

By Joachim Vogt Isaksen, HiNT

The school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut on the 12th of December 2012 was one of the most deadly in American history. In the public debate there is a tendency to frame massacres in two different, and often excluding, ways: either they are seen as the result of the murderer’s psychiatric condition; or as the result of a dysfunctional social environment.

How can we understand the motives that trigger people like Adam Lanza to commit atrocities such as the one in Newtown? It is often asked whether such incidents are attributable to individual or societal factors. However, mass killings should rather be understood as the result of both individual and societal factors.

In the aftermath of the terror attacks in Oslo and Utøya on July 22 2011, there was a tendency in the Norwegian public debate, and during the trials, to portray the mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik in two separate ways: either he was perceived as totally insane and socially dysfunctional; while the other depiction was that of an extreme, but sane person, driven by a radical right wing ideology. The debate was quite polarized where it was seldom asked whether Breivik could be both insane and politically extreme. It is a logical fallacy to put all the weight exclusively to one of these two factors. Breivik´s actions may rather be seen as the result of a combination of an extreme psychological constitution, which happened to coincide with an attraction to an extremely violent ideology.

No matter what kind of perspective one uses there is not just one event that occurs before a person chooses to become a mass murderer, and the motivation builds up over time. If we look to the social sciences there are two main perspectives that try to explain crime in general. On one hand we have the individual model, which focus on individual responsibility. In this view every person is free to choose whether he will act or not to fulfill his needs. The perpetrator may also be seen as ill or disordered. On the other side of the table stands the societal model which states that the problem evolves from factors in the surroundings, that is, dysfunctions attributable to society.

Although they differ, both of the two perspectives may explain different aspects of mass shootings. They do not necessarily compete, but may rather contemplate each other. If we start with the individual model, it is common for mass murderers to carry feelings of anger and aggression. However, such feelings do not necessarily lead to violent outcomes, since every individual may freely choose whether or not to act upon destructive emotions. If we take the example of Adam Lanza, he had over time developed an impaired and dysfunctional thinking process. He suffered from paranoid delusions, where he became obsessed over the idea of revenge towards his mother that he had a poor relation with.

He may also have felt that a large amount of people were up against him. This bears resemblance with the profile of perpetrators from other mass shootings, who often feel that people are after them, or that society is evil in some form. The way a person perceives society may then work as a trigger that decides whether he develops a motivation to go to such extreme steps. No matter how delusional or aggressive a person may be in the first place, the onset of violence is most of the time due to the interaction between inner personality traits, and external factors.


A person’s lack of social bonds – a main indicator

The theories of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim may give us a deeper understanding of how certain cultural factors contribute to mental illness. In a classical study he found that suicides were much more frequent in individualistic societies, which are characterized by a lower degree of social integration, compared to more collectivistic societies. A person who is poorly socially integrated has a high risk of becoming a lone wolf, which may be a more common problem attributable to individualistic societies. Mass murderers are often isolated individuals that over time have built up aggression towards to the society they feel disconnected from.

According to Durkheim a society may find itself in a state of anomie, or normlessness, when the rules that guide people in their behavior toward each other have broken down, and people do not know what to expect from each other. This is in line with the social control theory which states that mass shootings occur when the perpetrator’s bond to society weaken. The shooter’s self-perception becomes one of being socially marginalized.

Mass shootings are more frequent in individualistic compared to collectivistic societies. The lower degree of social integration in an individualistic society may lead to a greater risk of social isolation. In extreme cases this may strengthen the mass murderers’ perception of being a loner “in a world full of enemies.” This bears resemblance with school shooters who often have low social skills, and are poorly socially integrated. Such vulnerable individuals, who are in a state of emotional chaos, may then use violence as an outlet for their built up anger toward society, which they feel has betrayed them.


Violence and the learning factor

Even if a person is attracted to the use of violence, he does not necessarily become violent. Professor Karen Sternheimer points out that violence is learned through social contexts, and personal life experiences. Her research concludes that the “meaning of violence” is made within particular social settings. Some people are more easily fascinated by destructive incidents, and may find inspiration from violence and other mass shootings. Each person also has a unique set of life experience that affects levels of aggression. Even if some people are more aggressive by nature, the learning factor is essential. Violence can be learned, and people often learn from the imitation of others.

Even if it is often pointed to psychiatric conditions as being the main cause of mass killings, mental illness does after all seldom lead to violent behavior. An unintended effect of making a too strong link between psychiatry and mass murdering is that it could lead to a negative labeling of the overwhelmingly majority of non-violent people with mental illness.

In order to get a better understanding of shooting massacres, it is important to recognize social patterns leading up to such events. Reality is complex and massacres are the result of multiple factors, simultaneously involving both psychological and sociological explanations. It is essential both to map out psychiatric ailments, and at the same time focus on risk factors in the social environment.

Further reading:

Durkheim, Emile 1997. Suicide. Free Press.

Sternheimer, Karen 2003. It’s Not the Media: The Truth About Pop Culture’s Influence on Children. Perseus Books Group.


*Cover photo by Patrick Feller, Utøya photo by Statsministerens kontor, wolf photo by Dennis Matheson


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2 Responses to Why Do People Commit Mass Shootings?

  1. Robert Boutang says:

    already sent in yesterday 1/19/13 but i could not submit it for grade. I submitted 3 scoop-its. I e-mailed Professor Duke this info.

  2. mike says:

    It was on December 14, 2012, not December 12

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