I am not a psychologist. I am not in Law Enforcement. I am not a health researcher.
But, if you have been following this blog, you might have noticed that we as a group have an opinion about addressing the root causes of violence, and have even posted occasionally on the subject (here, here, here, oh yeah here as well as others). But I was thinking, as folks knee-jerk reacted to recent tragedies, that we haven’t spent much time talking about why we think there may be different causes, therefore different solutions, beyond “ban, ban, ban.” So, here goes, your mileage may vary, but anecdotally I think it falls into a couple categories. Plenty of examples of bad actors not fitting neatly into these boxes, but I see broad enough patterns to think about it in these terms, previous disclaimer fully in force.
People who are done fighting, who are tired, who see no way out of their current problems. Roughly two-thirds of firearm deaths in the United States are suicides. In 2013, 41,149 Americans sadly decided to end their lives; 21,175 of those used a firearm.
Who commits suicide?
Women are more likely to attempt suicide, but men are more likely to be “successful.” People of color, particularly Native Americans, are particularly at risk. Men over age 50 are also at increased risk. Sadly, preteens, teenagers, and people in their early 20s are also at increased risk. (Source)
Why do people commit suicide?
A host of reasons. Depression. Spite. Fear. Defiance. Hatred. Confusion. Loneliness. Disgust with oneself. Chagrin. Loneliness. Loss of self. Religious martyrdom. Attention. A misguided attempt to “get out of the way.” And, sometimes, a decision to end it all before a horrible, terminal disease degrades one’s quality of life in one’s last weeks.
What can we do about it?
The drug deal gone bad, the liquor store robbery, the bar fight, the insurance scam, the lovers’ quarrel, the abusive spouse. The stuff of TV crime drama and daily life in America, the stuff that sometimes goes very badly. In 2013, there were 16,121 homicides in the United States; a gun was used in 11,208 of those.
Who are the aggressors and the victims?
- African-Americans are disproportionately represented in the numbers of both the killer and the killed. From 1980 to 2008, the victimization rate for blacks (27.8 per 100,000) was 6 times higher than the rate for whites (4.5 per 100,000). The offending rate for blacks (34.4 per 100,000) was almost 8 times higher than the rate for whites (4.5 per 100,000).
- Men and boys. Males represented 77% of homicide victims and nearly 90% of offenders. The victimization rate for males (11.6 per 100,000) was 3 times higher than the rate for females (3.4 per 100,000). The offending rate for males (15.1 per 100,000) was almost 9 times higher than the rate for females (1.7 per 100,000).
- Age: Approximately a third (34%) of murder victims and almost half (49%) of the offenders were under age 25. For both victims and offenders, the rate per 100,000 peaked in the 18 to 24 year-old age group at 17.1 victims per 100,000 and 29.3 offenders per 100,000.
What are the root causes of homicide?
This is something that appears to require more study. One study, released in 2010, posits that most homicides stem from “personal conflicts.” Domestic violence, mental illness, and substance abuse stand out, according to one of the authors of that study. Drilling down, we can find a number of factors. The New York Times recently looked at homicide in Chicago in an effort to ask why homicide rates in Chicago are worse than in New York City. Predictably, the NYT blames guns as part of the problem – access to guns in neighboring states, relatively lenient gun possession laws in Illinois, McDonald v. Chicago – but it notes societal factors as well: less strict policing in Chicago than in NYC, gang wars, poverty, racial segregation. Quoting a Harvard professor who has studied crime in Chicago, the NYT writes:
Racially segregated minority neighborhoods have a long history of multiple adversities, such as poverty, joblessness, environmental toxins and inadequate housing, Professor Sampson said. In these places, people tend to be more cynical about the law and distrust police, “heightening the risk that conflictual encounters will erupt in violence.”
“The major underlying causes of crime are similar across cities, but the intensity of the connection between social ills and violence seems to be more persistent in Chicago,” Professor Sampson said. “You don’t get that kind of extensive social and economic segregation in many other cities.”
What can we do about it?
The causes may seem too multifarious – and too entrenched – to deal with. But violence interrupters such as Project Ceasefire have shown promise. There needs to be widespread societal will to change the underlying causes.
After all, as we noted in a blog post in October 2014, awareness of, and a concentrated societal attack on, domestic violence has drastically reduced domestic violence homicides.
The guy who just lost his job, or feels wronged, maybe at an employer or girlfriend, maybe at society or women, and wants to go out with a bang. The spree killer who wants attention. The eponymous “postal worker” that we all feared in the 80’s, the guy that killed people in the restaurant in Texas, the fast food joint, the bottling plant in CT, the software company in MA, the kids who killed their classmates at Columbine High School, the kid that killed the kids in Newtown, the guy who drove over, bludgeoned, and shot people in CA. Bad people, broken people, but not, strictly speaking, politically motivated people.
Who does this?
Mostly men. (#notallmen, however) In the case of domestic violence murder-suicides, the offender is usually a white male, usually with a history of domestic violence and a possessively jealous personality. Indeed, most murder-suicides involve a man killing an intimate partner (and, often, his children) and then killing himself.
As for rampage killings? Again, mostly men. White men commit nearly 2/3 of rampage shootings. CNN notes that the racial makeup of rampage killers roughly matches the racial makeup of the U.S. – with two exceptions: Latin@s are underrepresented, while Asians are overrepresented. As for gender? Overwhelmingly male. Only three female rampage kiillers come to mind: a workplace shooter in 2006, a shooter at a Native American tribal office in 2014, and one of the two December 2015 shooters in San Bernardino.
What are the root causes?
For domestic violence murder-suicide: the same root causes as domestic violence. Usually, a possessive, jealous partner.
For rampage shootings? Who knows. For all the publicity rampage shootings get, they still remain relatively rare. Most rampage shooters either kill themselves or die in a shootout with police, and the few who survive and are arrested are protected by the Fifth Amendment (as they should be), so insights into the mind of a rampage killer are few and far between. We do have glimpses into a few shootings – workplace shootings seem fairly self-evident with regard to motive; the Charleston shooting last year appears to have been racially motivated; the Isla Vista bludgeoner-shooter-runner-over-with-car appears to have been motivated by his lack of success with women – but other rampage shootings seem to have no apparent motive. However, as we observed a few months back, overwhelming news coverage of rampage shootings appears to have a copycat effect.
What can we do about it?
Domestic violence murder-suicide: the same things we’re doing about domestic violence in general. Better awareness, better support for domestic violence victims, better protection for victims who are preparing to leave their abusers.
Rampage shooters: In the case of workplace shootings, better security when an employee is let go. For other rampage shooters? STOP. TELLING. US. THEIR. NAMES. STOP. PUTTING. THEIR. PICTURES. ON. THE. NEWS. STOP. GIVING. THEM. THE. FAME. THEY. SEEK. Oh, and maybe, just maybe, STOP WITTERING ON ABOUT HOW SEMIAUTOMATIC RIFLES WITH 30-ROUND MAGS ARE EBIL DEATH MACHINES???? Maybe, just maybe, the next rampage shooter is watching the teevee and thinking, “man, that SIG Sauer MCX is just what I need”???
A broad term, a terrible term, an abused term. The abortion clinic bombers, the church arsonists, the shooter who couldn’t tell the difference between Sikh and Muslim. San Bernardino, Oklahoma City, Orlando, Boston, Charlotte, The World Trade Center. People who are so mad or righteous, but target specific groups for specific reasons, often political or religious.
Who are these people?
In Europe, over half of terror attacks are predicated on ethno-nationalist or separatist beliefs. In parts of Asia, such as Myanmar and Sri Lanka, terrorists are Buddhists run amok. (Yes, you read that right.) In the Middle East? Jewish settlers terrorizing Palestinians. (Source) How about in the good ol’ U.S. of A.? Mostly white right-wingers. The kind of people who bomb abortion clinics and take over National Wildlife Refuges.
What are the root causes?
What can we do about it?
Well, if I had the answer, I’d be a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. Unfortunately I don’t, and I’m not. All we can do, on a local level, is love our neighbor as ourselves and work to be the change we seek.
The Bottom Line
Read those words. Sometimes it’s guns, sometimes it’s bombs, sometimes it’s fire. Sometimes it’s knives or baseball bats or poison. Sometimes it’s fists and feet.
When you lump all these things into a single label of “Gun Violence,” you not only minimize the victims, you lose the ability to do ANYTHING constructive about fixing the problems that led to those deaths, because each set of circumstances requires different solutions.
As we said in a previous blog post: Poof, guns are gone, now what?