In the comments section to Betty Cracker’s original post on the Oregon college shooting several questions were asked about just what exactly makes a mass shooting a mass shooting. While I provided some quick responses in those comment threads, I also said I’d put something more about about it later this evening. Below you’ll find the conceptual review from the preliminary report I was asked to do in 2014 on Soldiers who commit mass shootings. I’ve included the citations, which can now be found at the bottom of the post – and I apologize that I can’t find a way to superscript them. I am not including the sections dealing with the specific cases of Soldiers who have committed mass shootings or attempted them or other types of mass murder. Please remember/keep in mind that this is just the conceptual material that set up what at the time was supposed to be the first, preliminary portion of a much longer research project.
Multiple Homicide, Mass Murder, or Mass Shooting?
There is significant academic debate over exactly what an event, especially a criminal event, is. For instance, there has long been some confusion over whether Ted Kaczynksi, the Unabomber, is a terrorist or a serial killer. Terrorism is “the unlawful use of violence or threat of violence to instill fear and coerce governments or societies. Terrorism is often motivated by religious, political, or other ideological beliefs and committed in the pursuit of goals that are usually political.”3 Serial homicide, however, is defined as a multiple form of murder conducted over an extended period of time.4 Given that his actions were the result of untreated mental illness and psychosis a good case can be made for placing him in the serial killer category, rather than within the terrorist one.
A similar question exists for MAJ Nidal Hasan, the first mass shooter at Ft. Hood who killed twelve Soldiers and one civilian on November 5, 2009.5 Hasan, in the most specific sense, committed an act of mass murder, specifically a mass shooting. However, because of his pre-trial statements, information uncovered in the investigation of the attack, and domestic political and media pressure, his crime has been designated to be an act of terrorism according to FBI Director James Comey.6
Another area of debate, largely spurred by the increase in media and its availability in general, and social media in specific, is whether there has been a significant increase in mass shooting multiple homicides or mass murders over time. This is usually due to confusion over the label active shooter as opposed to mass shooting. The former describes an ongoing tactical situation in which an individual both uses a gun in the commission of his or her crime and who attempts to kill multiple people in the commission of said crime and directs law enforcement to neutralize the threat. It can, however, also refer to someone who only shoots and kills one person, which is a single homicide or murder.
As a result it conflates the categories and this conflation is largely a product of media coverage and popular reference. The answer to whether there has been an increase in mass shooting incidents, however, is very straightforward: the number of mass murders by shooter per year is relatively stable at about .18% of all homicides per year.7 Criminologists James Alan Fox and Monica J. DeLauter8, using FBI data from the Supplementary Homicide Reports, have demonstrated that there are approximately twenty to twenty-five mass shootings a year and that this figure is stable over time from 1976 through 2011.
The key theoretical and conceptual issue is to actually define a mass shooting. As South Texas College of Law Assistant Professor Josh Blackman and his co-author Shelby Baird note9 shooting is not a recognized criminological term. Rather, it is a reference to how an act or offense is committed. In the case of attacks committed by firing a gun, depending on the number of victims and the type of attack, it could be a single homicide, a multiple homicide, which encompasses double and triple homicides, as well as serial and mass murder. The last category, mass murder, occurs when a minimum of four victims are killed, by one or a few assailants, within a single event, which can range in time from a few minutes at a single location to several hours at multiple ones and involves the indiscriminate slaughter of strangers.10
Criminologists James Alan Fox and Jack Levin are careful to differentiate mass murder from serial murder, as well as caution that a distinction has to be made between mass murder, to include mass shootings, and similar events that occur during war and would be better categorized as a war crime, crime against humanity, or a mass atrocity. Finally, the minimum of four victims cannot include the murderer himself or herself, should the perpetrator be killed in the commission of the act or commit suicide as part of it.
This largely mirrors the FBI’s definition of the phenomenon.11 Fox and Levin make it clear that these types of events are not simply the indiscriminate killing of strangers. Almost 40% are murders of families by a member of the family (familicide) and mass shootings not involving families, but involving victims and offenders who are acquainted account for almost another 40% of this type of crime.12
The theoretical discussion of what constitutes a mass murder, whether committed by shooting or other means, is a discussion driven by tactical considerations. Another potential way to conceptualize mass murders is to consider these crimes in regards to effects; specifically the effect the perpetrator was trying to achieve. Applying the shorthand military strategy construct of ends, ways, and means to mass murder or attempted mass murder may be useful and help to break down some of the conceptual distinctions that matter to criminologists, but do not significantly impact whether an attacker is an insider threat or not.
The ends, ways, and means model is typically applied to military strategy. The ends are the strategic outcomes or desired effects. The ways are the methods used to achieve the objectives and ends. Means are the resources needed to attain the strategic effect. In short, ends equals ways plus means. By using this strategic construct it may be possible to get past the theoretical discussion focused on tactics – how many killed, how they were killed, where they were killed, and engage the phenomenon in regards to effects – what was the killer trying to achieve (ends), how was he trying to achieve it (ways), and what resources did he use to do so (means).
Conceptual Explanations for Mass Shooters: Towards a Typology of the Mass Shooter
Psychologist Peter Langman13, through case examination of ten mass shooters who targeted schools, has developed a typology of the mass shooter. He was able to identify three broad types: the traumatized, the psychotic, and the psychopathic. Langman describes the traumatized, which encompassed three of the shooters, as coming from broken homes, with parental abuse and criminal behavior. They all suffered physical abuse and two were also sexually abused outside of the home.
Five of the ten shooters were psychotic, falling somewhere on the schizophrenia spectrum and demonstrating schizophrenic and schizotypal personality disorders. Psychotic disorders are defined as “severe mental disorders that cause abnormal thinking and perception”.14 T hose suffering from this condition, also referred to as psychosis, lose touch with reality and can suffer delusions and hallucinations. There was no history of abuse, nor were they from broken homes.
The two remaining shooters were psychopathic. Psychopathy is a difficult to identify personality disorder. Psychopaths “lack conscience and empathy, making them manipulative, volatile, and often (but by no means always) criminal”.15 Moreover, these two shooters had coopted two of the other types. In the case of the Columbine shooters, Eric Harris, the psychopath, coopted Dylan Klebold, who exhibited schizotypal disorder, which was not fully known until his journals were released years after the attack. Andrew Golden, also a psychopath, seems to have brought Mitchell Golden, who had been traumatized, into his plans that left five dead and ten wounded in Jonesboro, AR.
Langman makes it very clear that his typology is NOT meant to explain the attacks, their nature, or the reasons for them. Rather it is intended to help better understand the shooters, but other factors must also be considered to understand the criminogenesis of the mass shooting. Given Langman’s focus on the psychology, and the psychological factors at play in mass shootings, indicates that social – socio-cultural and social behavioral factors must still be considered.
Sociologists Cybelle Fox and David Harding16 posit that mass shootings, for the purposes of their study specifically in schools, are an example of organizational deviance. Essentially, they are a response to the failure, intentional or otherwise, of organizations to live up to their own goals and expectations thereby creating unintentional consequence. Cybelle Fox and David Harding are basically presenting a strain explanation for mass shootings.
Agnew developed a General Theory of Strain, or more commonly Strain Theory, as an update and revision to Merton’s understanding of classic anomie theory. Classic anomie theory, rooted in the work of French sociologist Emile Durkheim, refers to a state of normlessness or the lack of social regulation. For Durkheim this was a key empirical explanation for suicide. Robert Merton, of the Chicago School of Criminology, adapted Durkheim’s theory to explain the concentration of crime in urban areas and among minority groups in general and the overall high(er) crime rates in American society.17 Merton’s work was part of the well known Chicago Neighborhood Studies into crime, deviance, and delinquency conducted by sociologists at the University of Chicago in the 1930s.
Agnew’s18 reformulation suggests that strain, the separation of an individual from a society, group, sub-culture, etc and its norms, values, and mores, occurs under three conditions. The first is when society sets goals to be achieved, but there is no provision of the means to achieve the goals and reap the rewards. The second type of strain occurs when society sets the goal, an individual or group labors and appears to achieve the goal, but the rewards are withheld. The third type of strain occurs when society sets the goal, an individual or group labors and appears to achieve the goal, but rather than getting the reward, they receive a negative or noxious response, such as a punishment.
Strain exists should any of these three conditions be met. At this point when strain has occurred there are only three possible responses. The first is a devaluation of the strain, by devaluing the goal that was supposed to be achieved, but could not be. The second is to direct the strain inward, usually leading to self-destructive behavior. The final response is to direct the strain outward, which can often lead to externally destructive behavior.
It is this last type of strain response that Cybelle Fox and David Harding posit as at the heart of the organizational deviance of mass shootings. Criminologists Jack Levin and Eric Mafdis19, also focusing on school shooters, have proposed a cumulative strain model of mass shootings that also incorporates elements of other criminological theories. They posit that as strain builds up over time, unless outlets to mitigate or devalue it exist, that it can lead to a mass shooting event.
Both Cybelle Fox and David Harding’s and Levin and Mafdis’s conceptualization of a response that occurs because of a buildup of frustration, which is then directed outwards, provides some clues in regards to potential structural drivers of mass murder as an insider threat. These include bullying; exposure to toxic leadership/workplace/educational environments; perceived negative interactions with peers and superiors, as well as an inability to meet or exceed standards in professional, educational, social, or familial settings all have the potential to contribute to an increase in strain and potentially to violent responses to these conditions and situations.
3 Joint Publication 1-02, 15 MAR 2014.
4 James Alan Fox and Jack Levin, “Multiple Homicide: Patterns of Serial and Mass Murder”, Crime and Justice, VOL 23, 1998.
5 “Army Colonel Recommends Trial in Ft. Hood Rampage”, CBS-DFW, 17 NOV 2010, http://dfw.cbslocal.com/2010/11/17/army-colonel-recommends-trial-in-fort-hood-rampage/.
6 Siobhan O’Grady, “FBI Director: al Qaida Inspired Hasan’s Ft. Hood Attack”, The Houston Chronicle, 21 MAY 2014, http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/FBI-director-al- Qaida-inspired-Hasan-s-Fort-Hood-5496546.php.
7 Josh Blackman, “No the Number of Mass Shootings has not Tripled since 2008”, Josh Blackman’s Blog, 9 JAN 2014, http://joshblackman.com/blog/2014/01/09/no-the-number-of-mass-shootings-has-not- tripled-since-2008/.
8 James Alan Fox & Monica J. DeLateur, Mass Shootings in America: Moving Beyond Newtown,
Homicide Studies, 18 DEC 2013, http://hsx.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/11/27/1088767913510297. 9 Josh Blackman and Shelby Baird, “The Shooting Cycle”, Connecticut Law Review, VOL 46, JAN 2014.
10 Fox and Levin, 1998.
11 “Serial Murder: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives for Investigators”, Federal Bureau of Investigation National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, 2005.
12 Blackman and Baird, 2014.
13 Peter Langman, “Rampage School Shooters: A Typology”, Aggression and Violent Behavior, VOL 14, 2009.
14 “Psychotic Disorders”, National Institutes of Health: Medline Plus, http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/psychoticdisorders.html.
15 “What is Psychopathy?” Psychology Today, http://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/psychopathy.
16 Cybelle Fox and David J. Harding, “School Shootings as Organizational Deviance”, Sociology of Education, VOL 78, JAN 2005.
17 Robert K. Merton, “Social Structure and Anomie”, American Sociological Review, VOL 3, 1938.
18 Robert Agnew, “A Revised Strain Theory of Delinquency.” Social Forces, VOL 64, 1985.
19 Jack Levin and Eric Mafdis, “Mass Murder at School and Cumulative Strain: A Sequential Model”, American Behavioral Scientist, VOL 52, NO 9, MAY 2009.