The media is now filled with various statistics quoting the factoid that in over 200 days we have had over 200 mass shootings in the United States. Mass shootings are variously defined as a shooting incident in which three, or now more commonly the definition requires four victims by a perpetrator. The victims may be all in one site like the James Holmes Colorado theater shooting, or in more than one location where a shooter will shoot usually first members of his (recalling that most mass shooters are male), a spouse or estranges spouse or intimate partner, and then shoot members of the public at another location.
This past week I had hoped that the week would pass without another widely publicized shooting in this country. I wanted emotionally a respite from shootings of youth by police, enraged spousal murders or murders suicides between estranged couples of shootings of or by police. Well my naive wishes were crushed this past week and weekend when we had two separate unrelated shootings of police. I watched the first funeral of the one policeman who was actually killed, with full dress uniforms, police from many surrounding areas and states and the bagpipes and police solidarity with more than sadness. It was sadness for the whole country and a wish stronger than ever that the media talking heads, 24 hours new shows, would show more respect, report on the story and stop repeating it for days on end. I thought of the bereaved family and friends who would have to turn off their televisions, and other means of influx of media to keep from being traumatized over and over again by the flagrantly disrespectful, invasive repetitiousness of the reports covering the same ground and footage over and over again, until it would start to lose it impact and true meaning and lessen our ability to stop and ponder seriously what is going overall again.
I was reminded of an article I had curated just a month ago by Robert Gebelhoff published July 6, 2015 in the Washington Post entitled “Study: Why some mass killing and school shootings seem to be contagious.” This study, from Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ, was published in the largely not so well know online scientific journal, “PLOS One,” which is a referreed journal with ethical review of articles submitted, It found that there may be a “period of contagion,” after school shootings and mass shootings that “lasts an average of 13 days.” The authors had constructed a mathematical model to measure and to some extend try to inject some predictability into this troublesome social phenomenon. It found for instance, that “for every three mass killings, an average of more more happens….” and “for every four or five school shootings-including those with no fatalities=another shooting takes place.”
It noted as a social precedent of sorts that studies have shown that “suicide can spread through social groups, with news [emphasis mine] of death provoking others to end their lives. The phenomenon is especially common among adolescents–and in the age of social media, widely publicized suicides can spread the effect much further than the rumor mill at a high school.”
Sherry Tower one of Arizona State University (ASU) professors and the study’s author stated: “It occurred to us that mass killings and school shootings that attract attention the national news media can potentially do the same things, but at a larger scale.”
The study further found that, “On average, mass killings involving firearms happen every two weeks in the United States….and school shootings happen once every months.”
I feel and fear that another factor is in play and not being considered enough in the hallways of thought and self observation of the profession of journalism, except in the always derided “Ivory Towers”, the schools of journalism where studies thought and studies such as this from ASU came with its sobering comment for consideration. The working media seems more driven by the old race for ratings, and by a philosophy that substitute almost Leninist repetitiousness for news reporting. A “breaking news story” on the news channels seems to have an hourly rebirth and presented at the top of each hour as if it were brand new and we the viewers are subjected to the same tragedy message all over again unfiltered and with little commentary or food for thought. Just the raw events over and over again. Mindless repetition, if I may coin a somewhat strong and critical phrase has its own destructive powers. It numbs us to the tragedy of such events and may even extend its power to making us more fatalistic and accepting of this relatively new and dangerous phenomenon of the quick and ready and impulsive use of firearms, mostly to give vent to idiosyncratic issues of the shooter, and lull us into a sense that there is not much we can do about all this or to prevent it. Repetition also when it is practiced constantly, our best current example being North Korea, “The Hermit State,” where the ‘truth’ has been distorted to social insanity on an almost unimaginable scale, that the nation’s population thinks it seems that what they hear in their own controlled media is the truth and the norm.
More thought and self examination needs to be given by the working media of its use of “mindless repetition,” which appears to be excessive, largely unneeded, and which may have more subtle destructive effect than we realize.
In this post I am not going to string out the answer to the above question, tease the reader, or toy around with the question in some manipulative literary device to hold the readers’ attentions.
The answer is YES, the number of mass shootings have dramatically increased in at least my lifetime and my memory since childhood stretches back to the 50’s some dimly but certainly to the sixties when i was a precocious kid in college very young and taking in what was going on in those turbulent times. I attended a wonderful university which was, to give the setting for the reader, one of the centers for student radicals in those times through the Nixon administrations.
I felt it was time to share my thoughts on the mass shootings phenomenon that has been occurring to the dismay and horror of all of us over the last several years. My memory on this is somewhat longer than most people’s because of my profession as a psychiatrist and because I have been following this issue for now over twenty years when the first “modern” shootings started and the first was of school shootings by minors starting nearly two decades. This does not mean mass shooting have not occurred before in history as any internet search engine entry of “history of mass shootings” will give new reports and articles on shootings going back many many decades, eclipsing by far all our current lifespans.
I have seen as a psychiatrists people who have done isolated shootings very early in my training and early in my career after residency training. All of them were shootings in the singular or in pairs or more family members or persons known and close to the shooter/murderer. The first was an estranged young high school student who shot a supposed girlfriend he had an imaginary of delusional fixation on, and who finally jilted him at school, which was the trigger for his shooting her outside of school fortunately. He fit the now current profile we hear about in many of these cases, a younger, white loner male who is known by almost no one, a marginal student, on the fringes of almost all social circles in school and who suffers a traumatic loss and which constitutes the apparent motivating “last straw” or trigger for the murderous act which seems to come out of nowhere. As with at least some of the recent young white male shooters, he had had no contact with any sphere of mental health services and his family was certainly not aware of what was going on with him. Which leads to one of the central issues with many of these shooters, they convey their intentions usually to no one clearly though some of them display very disturbed, aberrant, angry, paranoid views toward one or more social groups they rant about and blame for various and sundry personal or national ills. Since the youths who become these murderous shooters, they have lived less long and have consequently displayed or entertained these issues for shorter periods of time, though in some of them by the time they reach their later teen or young adult years, it may have really been going on in their thoughts for several years. In the cases of the adult shooters, it seems to fall into two time frames, some for many years, in some for most of their adulthood with only hints conveyed to others rarely in the form of racial or ethnic group hatreds or “odd” ideas, that they do not expand upon long or often enough to raise alarm in their work colleagues or families if they are not total loners. The other class is the impulse shooter who usually is confined to giving way and losing control of murderous anger suddenly in reaction to a sudden loss, such as a job, rejection by a spouse with separation (usually a wife who leaves). These men then stalk their estranged wives, develop or increase their previous paranoid ideas that they wives are and have been cheating on them, though many or most of them have surveilled their wives so closely for so long with such sophistication, nowadays even planting secretly GDS directional instruments in the wives’ cars to track their driving patterns and destination, being convinced they will surely catch them in an affair. Also they typically, record their wives’ cars’ mileage constantly, often follow them in their own cars, or do not permit them to drive as part of the over the top irrational jealousy and controlling behaviors toward their wives, in effect, keeping them captive, perhaps a milder subset that is related to though milder than the serial killers who capture women, torture them, but keep them in captivity as the case in Cleveland with the fellow who kept three women hostage for 10 years or so. Those men usually kill their spouses, and sometime qualify as mass shooters, which now is defined variously as killing two or three persons at once, though most authorities and experts still hold to the older threshold of at least three persons. An example would be the man in Minnesota who accosted his estranged wife in the beauty shop across from the large mall, shot and killed her, and killed one or more other women before turning his gun on himself. His shooting shows how indiscriminant the murderous rage can be as after he shot his wife which one would assume was his primary motive, intention and target, he shot, wounded and killed other women who just happened to be in shop at the time. Others of these men will not only shoot their estranged wives, but also their children, their own parents,-aut and/or their wives’ parents and thus qualify as “mass shooters.”