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Why Nearly All Mass Shooters Are Men

Mar 27, 2021
Originally published on March 28, 2021 10:52 am

This week, a shooting attack at a grocery store in Boulder, Colo., left 10 people dead. Just days earlier, eight people were fatally shot in a rampage targeting spas in the Atlanta area.

As with almost every mass shooter in recorded U.S. history, both of the suspects in the recent attacks are men.

A staggering 98% of these crimes have been committed by men, according to The Violence Project, a nonpartisan research group that tracks U.S. mass shooting data dating back to 1966.

"Men just are generally more violent," said the group's president, Jillian Peterson, a forensic psychologist and professor of criminology and criminal justice at Hamline University. "There are many theories as to why that is."

As NPR has reported, researchers say that men, more than women, tend to externalize their problems and look for others to blame, which can translate into anger and violence. And when women do choose violence, guns are not typically their weapon of choice.

If men vastly outnumber women as mass shooters, those perpetrators are often a model for the next male shooters, who "see themselves in them," Peterson said, a phenomenon that she noted is particularly true among young, white men. Violence Project data show that white men are disproportionately responsible for mass shootings more than any other group.

"They study the perpetrators that came before them," she said. "Many school shooters study Columbine, for example; other university shooters study the Virginia Tech shooting. And they really are kind of using those previous shootings as a blueprint for their own."

The following excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

On why mass shootings were largely nonexistent during the coronavirus pandemic

During the pandemic, we saw this type of shooting fade away for a number of reasons. The most obvious reason is places just weren't open. We weren't gathering en masse. We didn't have public spaces like schools and workplaces for this to take place.

Second of all, these mass shootings really faded from the headlines. We weren't talking about them; we weren't thinking of them. And because of that, that social contagion aspect of mass shootings really faded away.

And then the third piece is we were all kind of collectively grieving. We were all collectively going through this trauma and suffering through this global pandemic. So it's possible that individuals didn't feel as personally aggrieved during the past year.

But at the same time, as a psychologist, I've been worried about all the risk factors that we know of for mass shootings that have been exacerbated in the pandemic. So, trauma, experiencing a mental health crisis, suicidality, time online and access to firearms have all increased.

On what needs to happen to prevent mass shootings in the future

There's no one answer to the policies that we need to have in place. We can kind of work our way backwards and say, these are individuals who are in crisis, who have very easy access to firearms. And are there simple things we can do like universal background checks or safe storage that prevent that ease of access?

But we can also go further back and talk about things like, how do we make sure everybody's trained in crisis intervention and suicide prevention? How do we build trauma-informed schools and go even further back? I think there's a lot of things that we can do as a society and even as individuals to help disrupt that pathway to violence.

On encouraging signs that show future mass shootings can be prevented

I would say, in particular, the media coverage seems to have shifted. I'm not seeing as much of the perpetrator in the news cycle. I'm not seeing the perpetrator's name and face everywhere, which we know is what contributes to the social contagion.

I think we are having these conversations about gun policies that we could put in place — like red-flag laws, waiting periods — that might have prevented this type of shooting. I am hopeful that people are really done with this and really ready to make the changes that we need to make to prevent future victims.

Michael Radcliffe and Tinbete Ermyas produced and edited this interview for broadcast.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to begin today's program thinking about the mass shootings that have consumed us in recent days. I'm talking about shootings in Atlanta and Boulder that altogether killed 18 people. They're not the only ones. Another mass shooting in Phoenix earlier this month killed four people. And just last night, two people were killed and eight injured in shootings in Virginia Beach.

And often at a time like this, the conversation turns to remembering the victims, as it should. But we want to consider the accused in these crimes - specifically, what they may have in common. It turns out it is a common trait. They are overwhelmingly men.

According to The Violence Project, a nonpartisan research group, 98% of these crimes have been committed by men. That's from data going back to 1966. So why is that? Jillian Peterson has thought a lot about this and what motivates violent crime in general, so we asked her to share her thoughts. She is a forensic psychologist, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Hamline University and president of the Violence Project.

Professor Peterson, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

JILLIAN PETERSON: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: Before we jump into your research, I just wanted to ask your reaction to the recent news - especially, as we said, these very devastating events both in the Atlanta area and in Colorado. Was there something that stood out to you about these incidents?

PETERSON: You know, for the past year during the pandemic, we haven't seen this specific type of mass shooting. So we study mass shootings where four or more people die in a public space where there's no relationship between the victims and the offenders. And they basically disappeared during the year that we were in the pandemic. And then we kind of saw them come back, and we saw several of them cluster quickly.

And as a psychologist, I have been somewhat concerned about the impact that the pandemic was going to have on this phenomenon as we opened up.

MARTIN: As - you noted that there has been a pause in this kind of terrible incident over the last year. And now we've seen, as I've just said, too, that most people know about - actually, there have been more than most people know about in recent weeks. Does this say something to you? Does this foretell something to you?

PETERSON: Well, during the pandemic, we saw this type of shooting fade away for a number of reasons. So we think it's because the most obvious reason is places just weren't open. We weren't gathering in mass. We didn't have public spaces like schools and workplaces for this to take place.

Second of all, these mass shootings really faded from the headlines. We weren't talking about them. We weren't thinking of them. And because of that, that social contagion aspect of mass shootings really faded away.

And then the third piece is we were all kind of collectively grieving. We were all collectively going through this trauma and suffering through this global pandemic. So it's possible that individuals didn't feel as personally aggrieved during the past year. But at the same time, as a psychologist, I've been worried about all the risk factors that we know of for mass shootings that have been exacerbated in the pandemic. So trauma, experiencing a mental health crisis, suicidality, time online and access to firearms have all increased.

MARTIN: Why are so many of these shooters men? You have to assume that mental illness is equally distributed across the population, right? Would that be reasonable?

PETERSON: Yes.

MARTIN: So why are so many men?

PETERSON: You know, it's a hard question to answer. When you look at all forms of homicides, it's 96% men that commit them. And so men just are generally more violent, and there's many theories as to why that is.

When it comes to these specific perpetrators, what we see is they study the perpetrators that came before them. They see themselves in them. Many school shooters study Columbine, for example. Other university shooters study the Virginia Tech shooting. And they really are kind of using those previous shootings as a blueprint for their own.

MARTIN: I think, as you've noted and as you surely know, the debates that emerge after these kinds of terrible events have only gotten more politicized. And, I mean, in a way, that's reasonable, I mean, because public policy is relevant here. So people have a right to debate public policy. You know, on the other hand, it's gotten very polarized very quickly - like, almost instantaneously.

So I don't know if you can think of a way to cut through the noise here and just give us your perspective on some things that we should be thinking about here because I don't know that anybody, no matter what political position you take, thinks that this is an acceptable state of affairs.

PETERSON: Absolutely.

MARTIN: I would hope not. So are there some data points that you think people should focus on to help presumably people who actually have good faith here could think about in terms of addressing this?

PETERSON: There's no one answer to the policies that we need to have in place. We can kind of work our way backwards and say individuals - these are individuals who are in crisis, who have very easy access to firearms. And are there simple things we can do, like universal background checks or safe storage that prevent that ease of access?

But we can also go further back and talk about things like, how do we make sure everybody's trained in crisis intervention and suicide prevention? How do we build trauma-informed schools and go even further back? And so I think there's a lot of things that we can do as a society and even as individuals to help disrupt that pathway to violence. And I think the more that we're able to be open to, there are multiple ways to prevent this - and they're all necessary - the better.

MARTIN: Are you hearing anything in the current conversation that encourages you?

PETERSON: I am. I would say in particular, the media coverage seems to have shifted. So these crimes, I'm not seeing as much of the perpetrator in the news cycle. I'm not seeing the perpetrator's name and face everywhere, which we know is what contributes to the social contagion. I think we are having these conversations about gun policies that we could put in place, like red flag laws, waiting periods that might have prevented this specific type of shooting.

So I think we are starting the conversations and thinking also about things like crisis intervention and suicide prevention and what we can learn from that to prevent other forms of violence. So I am hopeful that people are really done with this and really ready to make the changes that we need to make to prevent future victims.

MARTIN: That's Jillian Peterson, president of the Violence Project and a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Hamline University. She's a forensic psychologist.

Professor Peterson, thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us.

PETERSON: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.