Are Mass Shootings “Contagious”?

Mass shootings have become such a “fact of life” in the Western world, that there are now website “trackers” of these awful events. This seems to have started with the question of whether mass shootings “have always been with us,” or whether they are indeed, becoming more frequent. Writers, observers, political figures, journalists, and others have been opinionating on this question now for several years. The positions that various public pronouncements have taken, have been all over the map on this vexing question. Persons of a traditionalist point of view have not given en masse the perhaps expected response that we should worry so much publicly about this supposedly new mass phenomenon. Persons who have been publicly sanguine about this issue have been social conservatives who often react with a “don’t rock the boat,” view and can be those from the Conservative Right, or those from the often worry-wart Socially Left. Political persuasions have interestingly enough, not seemed to have shaped persons’ opinions as much stereotypical thinking might have trained one to expect.

What this emerging question has highlighted in the last few years, is that the traditional data repositories of law enforcement whether regional or on a state basis, or the national/federal bodies of knowledge do not help us address or answer this question of frequency of incidence and the possibility of a real increase in these events. Definitions have been found to widely vary and center, for instance, on what the minimum “cut-off” value for a shooting event to qualify as a “mass shooting. The definition of a mass shooting has been found in some jurisdictions to be three persons killed in one event, while in other jurisdictions, the minimum number has been four. Also, the place in which the shootings occur has clouded the classification efforts. For instance, if an estranged, violently raging husband kills his wife in one location, and then goes miles away by car to another location such as a shopping mall, and kills a number of total strangers, is the first, more personal murderous act counted or not? Lack of uniformity in the decision to classify an event as a mass shooting at the national level, i.e., the FBI’s own annual statistics, have been called into question as perhaps being inaccurate, since it has come to public awareness, that not all states or local regions, such as counties, report any mass shooting events, whatever the actual count of victims, to any tracking body above them. So the numbers have been found to have significant deficiencies or “holes,” in them. Unreliable data helps no one in addressing the vexing questions. Research in this area has been found to be skimpy and not well organized. For instance, the postal shootings of the 1980’s, were attributed to inequities in hiring and promotion practices and policies in the US Postal Service. The social myth began to be floated in the national discussion and somewhat accepted without real “data” to assure accuracy in this attribution, that racial favoritism was to blame. This was in the era of the growing bitter debate over affirmative action and there were prominent “discussion points” around this issue such as the Bakke vs. the University of Michigan School of Law Supreme Court decision. This case arose from an applicant to that law school bringing suit out of the question and claim that he had been denied admission because he was white and other students of minority backgrounds, were admitted instead of him with lower entry test scores (the “LCATs”).

Discussion also referred to much older and largely forgotten social events in our recent contemporary national history, namely school shootings and public mass shootings that had occurred in the 1940’s and 1950’s for instance. The specter of the 1982 and 1983 Plano Texas cluster of suicides, began to be uncomfortably remembered by historical observers and social scientists as an event that took on new significance and might have still alarming lessons to teach us in light the emerging pattern of mass shootings of this era. The New Times published a seminal article in September 1983 on the Plano Texas phenomenon, “NUMBER OF TEEN-AGE SUICIDES ALARMS PARENTS IN TEXAS CITY.

As could be expected, this national frightening riddle began to attract the “blame the media” response. Human beings do not like uncertainty. This is embodied in the now very familiar refrain in these decades of modern finance, national economics and the more common participation in the former “rich man’s game” as it was viewed decades ago, to the much-utilized adage that “the market hates uncertainty.” For instance, if a large blue chip Fortune 500 company that has always been viewed as a safe investment vehicle, paying out reliable shareholder interest quarter after quarter for decades, suddenly has a succession of CEO’s being fired or leaving said company one after another, the “market,” and stock analysts and even the tiny individual investor, begin to think something is badly wrong with the company even if it still has great products, and increasing sales; and its stock begins to sink like a car whose parking brake fails and it slips from the lakeside parking lot into the water; investors flee the company and sell their stocks, sure that the whole enterprise is going “tank,” and they will lose money.

Well, human beings have an insatiable need for answers, right now, so we do not have to agonize in limbo, live with ambiguity etc. News shows for decades have offered various brands of answers from the calm commentary of the gentle, all-knowing paternalism of Walter Cronkite or the solid if stolid tone of Huntley-Brinkley of the news shows of earlier decades. Now we parade our discomfiture with uncertainty differently and argue it to death on cable news with all viewpoints represented and shouting each other down, each totally convinced, they/she/he are right and everyone else is a doh-doh bird.

But in the minds of social researchers, keen historical observers, and those able to tolerate examining slowly and at length such angst stimulating questions, a nagging worry has been percolating for several years. The growing question that has to be addressed in a factual, objective manner, has been the issue of whether our 24 hours round the clock, flog the story endlessly, “news cycle,” is unwittingly promoting the culture of mass shootings. This is no small question and one that does not need a political-socially judgmental preset bias of any political persuasion prematurely and perhaps falsely furnishing a deceiving answer. Social answers drive policy, influence lawmaking, and guide corrective national efforts. And the wrong approach could have long and damaging consequences, or “unintended consequences,” that years later tell us we have made a serious error on a widespread basis. Not good for anyone.

Slowly and quietly researchers from many different perspectives have begun to grind away at data collection and analysis of these social phenomena. And recently some of the data have started to emerge with disquieting implications. It turns out that the Plano Texas suicide contagion of decades ago, may be a replicable and predictable social phenomenon, and the media may actually be fueling the fires of occurrence with saturation reporting typical of the New Journalism since Ted Turner’s vision of 24 hour news reporting came to fruition and changed the national awareness and discussion.

My own discussion of this issue would be quite irresponsible if I did not refer the discerning reader to emerging research examination of this issue. In my view, trends are beginning to “have some legs to the story,” as journalists would say, and idle arm chair conjecture is no longer the responsible approach to this important and troubling issue that we all wish would just go away. A recent meeting of a group contained within the American Psychological Association, on “Campus Safety,: held in two locations, in July in Washington DC and this past week in Long Beach CA, began to present information pertaining tot he troubling question of the media’s possible stoking of the fires of mass shootings. I used that last somewhat provocative phrase on purpose and take responsibility for so doing, to prompt everyone to stop and think how easily this discussion can degenerate into a fruitless blame game. An article arising out of these conferences published almost immediately after the initial presentation of preliminary findings entitled, “Research Shows Mass Shootings Can be ‘Contagious‘,” is well worth a read and serve as a gateway to the reader’s following this troubling question for us all. The subtitle points toward a troubling question in this discussion: “The study’s authors argue gaining notoriety can be a major motivation for school shooters.”

Another study published only the week before in Britain, “Widespread media coverage contributing to rise in mass shootings, say psychologists,” A preliminary research paper was also presented at this APA sponsored meeting, “Mass Shootings and the Media Contagion Effect,” authored by Jennifer Johnston, Ph.D., and Andrew Joy, BS of Western New Mexico University. These articles are some of the first offerings in this growing field of social research and are worth reading and pondering.




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