There are multiple definitions of what a mass shooting is. The one most frequently used was introduced by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) back in the 80s, and it includes a casualty threshold of 4 people or more fatally injured (excluding the shooter). Throughout the years, some authors have included shootings with no fatal injuries as well, and others have considered the motivation of the shooter, excluding events related to armed robbery, gang violence, drug issues, and domestic violence .
Depending on the concept we use, the numbers of mass shootings around the world will vary dramatically, which is why it is important to verify the definition used every time we analyze mass shootings from a statistical point of view. Although the lack of a standard definition affects and complicates the statistic analysis of mass shootings, a cause and effects analysis may help us to find solutions to mitigate the problem. Mass shootings are evidently a problem in our society, not only because of the grievous loss of human lives but also because it causes fear and distrust on the bystanders, either those who were physically there or those who were informed by any type of media .
In my opinion, the origin of mass shootings lies in two root causes and is complemented by several contributing factors. The first cause is inside the mind of the shooter, and the second one is the ease with which a person, with the intent to kill someone, can gain access to firearms. Using and analogy, we can compare a mass shooting with a computer program that needs both software and hardware to be executed. Thus, in one hand, the shooter’s mind is the “software” where the idea of killing or injuring people is “programmed”. It is a tremendously broad area and it is not related just to mental illnesses such as dementia, paranoia or depression but also those which are not associated with permanent conditions, such as episodes of anger, revenge, and disillusionment. Some of the contributing factors which trigger these thoughts might be ideologies, politics, religion, personal problems, and bullying. On the other hand, the easy access to firearms is the “hardware” to execute the “software”. It does not mean that all the people who own a gun will eventually commit a mass shooting; instead, this cause relates to the criteria and requirements for purchasing a gun.
To support my opinion, I will cite the statement made by Rosie Phillips Davis, PhD, President of the American Psychological Association (APA): “Routinely blaming mass shootings on mental illness is unfounded and stigmatizing. Research has shown that only a very small percentage of violent acts are committed by people who are diagnosed with, or in treatment for, mental illness. The rates of mental illness are roughly the same around the world, yet other countries are not experiencing these traumatic events as often as we face them. One critical factor is access to, and the lethality of, the weapons that are being used in these crimes. Adding racism, intolerance and bigotry to the mix is a recipe for disaster… If we want to address the gun violence that is tearing our country apart, we must keep our focus on finding evidence-based solutions. This includes restricting access to guns for people who are at risk for violence and working with psychologists and other experts to find solutions to the intolerance that is infecting our nation and the public dialogue” . These statements were published on the APA website on August 4, 2019, after the shootings in El Paso, Texas, and in Dayton, Ohio.
In terms of effects, the main and most undesirable aftermath of mass shootings is death. Additionally, people may get wounded and there might be damages to property. Those are the tangible consequences of this crime and that affect people and property present where the shooting took place. Unfortunately, the damage does not stop there. Besides the victims, their loved ones, and the bystanders, other people exposed to these events may suffer psychological damage. Conditions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), paranoia, distrust, and fear are some of the intangible effects after a mass shooting3. Among other intangible consequences we can list: impact on the local economy where the mass shooting took place, increase on firearms sales for self-defense , and political issues, if there were foreign citizens among the victims .
Several solutions have been debated by the countries which have experienced mass shootings . Some of them are reactive instead of proactive. For instance, some people propose arming personnel in public spaces. In fact, Ellen Cranley, journalist at bussinesInsider.com published on August 5, 2019 that, “A Washington Post-ABC News poll from earlier this year found that 42% of Americans said allowing teachers to carry guns could have deterred the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida” . Nevertheless, in the same article she cited David Hemenway, director of Harvard School of Public Health’s Injury Control Research Center, who wrote in his book Private Guns, Public Health: ‘Within the United States, a wide array of empirical evidence indicates that more guns in a community leads to more homicide’ .
Other suggestion is hardening schools, related to that, Cranley stated, “Research has shown that boosting security at schools with armed security, metal detectors, and reducing access to buildings has little to no effect on the likelihood of a school shooting when compared to more preventative and early intervention measures. Though security companies have lunged at the opportunity to outfit schools, educators worry the effort and money diverted to additional security measures would take away from proven methods of preventing mass shootings, including mental health counseling”8.
Another reactive solution could be training people in active shooter drills8, but in my opinion, although it would prepare people to protecting themselves during a mass shooting, it would not attack the root of the problem. I think that the solutions must be proactive and directly aimed towards the two root causes. Continuing with the analogy, in the first place the focus should be on the “software”. Background checks, psychological and psychiatric examinations should be mandatory for all people who have and want to have firearms. This “software” discrimination automatically would limit the acquisition of “hardware” for those who could be prone to commit a mass shooting. Related to that, Cranley mentioned a research from the nonpartisan Rand Corporation which estimates that “universal background checks could prevent 1,100 homicides per year”. Additionally, she cited Professor John J. Donohue III, a lead researcher on mass shootings at Stanford University who said. ‘Much more effort needs to be made to ensure that these individuals are recorded into the background check system to prevent future purchases and their current weapons are taken away.’8
In second place, severe controls and higher penalties for illegal arms trafficking, and a strict ban on assault weapons and high capacity weapon chargers should result in less hardware available for perpetrators. As a matter of fact, Ellen Cranley cited Professor John J. Donohue III, who claimed that, ‘Bans on assault weapons can both reduce the mayhem from and perhaps even reduce the frequency of these lethal crimes”8. It should be noted that the odds of being successful increase if we attack both causes. That is why the solution proposed must attack both the “software” and the “hardware”, in order to avoid the execution of the “program”.
In summary, the problem of mass shooting is insidious in terms of definitions and statistics; nonetheless, it is a problem whose immediate effect is death. Moreover, it has secondary tangible effects such as wounded people and damaged property. Mass shootings also have intangible effects on the populations such as PTSD, an impact on the local economy and even eventual diplomatic consequences. Mass shootings are caused essentially by two root causes. The first one is extremely broad and it is related to the thoughts and feelings of the shooter and the second one is associated with the ease of the acquisition of firearms.
The first step to mitigate the occurrence of this kind of crimes should be performing background, psychological and psychiatric checks for all people who have a gun and all those who are planning to buy one. By doing that, we would strengthen the requirements to posses carry and store a gun. Finally, the second step should be increase the search and confiscation of illegal weapons, and banning commercial sales of assault weapons and high capacity chargers.
Mass shootings are a serious problem and their main and most undesirable effect is death. Hopefully, we will never reach that point where mass shootings are considered “just another crime”. In order to avoid that, we have to be informed and aware about the causes and effects of mass shootings, and if we can, we have to contribute and support solutions against this problem, since the faster these solutions are applied, the faster we will be able to save lives.