What Caused the Tragic Georgia Shootings?
A multi-factorial perspective on the abhorrent shooting rampage in Georgia.
Posted March 19, 2021 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
In his recent talk on sexual violence given for our campus, renowned behavioral scientist David Buss talked openly about a chilling and profound fact of our world. He said this:
This talk, which was filled with data from decades of research conducted by Dr. Buss and his colleagues, made a strong case that research in the evolutionary behavioral sciences is absolutely critical to our gaining a full understanding of this major societal issue.
Eight days after Dr. Buss gave this talk, our nation was foisted into a state of sadness and outrage in light of the killings of eight people by 21-year-old Robert Long who went on a senseless shooting rampage at multiple massage parlors in Georgia, leaving eight people (nearly all of them Asian women) dead.
This chilling set of acts on the part of Mr. Long underscored not only the issue of violence toward women, but also highlighted a disturbing trend regarding violence toward people of Asian descent in the same breath.
Moments like this truly make me profoundly sad at the world we live in. It all just seems so needless, avoidable, and senseless at a visceral level. Curtailing such needless violence—and addressing the factors that surround it—must be prioritized if we are going to work toward a safe and inclusive future together.
The Profoundly Important Idea of Multi-Factorial Causation
As the dust settles on this tragic situation, people naturally move into what psychologists call attributional reasoning . This essentially means that people naturally try to explain what happened. In short, we want answers.
One problem that regularly emerges with a situation like this pertains to the fact that people often become highly focused on a single explanation. Single explanations are simple and our minds tend to gravitate toward simple explanations (see Ross & Nisbett, 1991). It's easy for us to think of a mass killing as being due to a single cause (e.g., the killer being mentally unstable) as opposed to that same mass killing as being caused, concurrently, by a plurality of factors.
This said, if there is a single takeaway from the decades of scientific work conducted in the behavioral sciences, I'd say it is this: Human behavior is necessarily complex and nearly all behaviors and behavioral outcomes are caused by multiple factors . This is essentially the idea of multi-factorial causation .
In 2016, I wrote a piece designed to explicate the tragic Orlando nightclub shootings in terms of the idea of multi-factorial causation . Here, with the goal of hopefully helping people to grapple with understanding the horror that is the Georgia shootings, I use a similar approach, attempting to put the Georgia shootings in the context of multi-factorial causation.
America's Gun Problem Likely Played a Role in the Georgia Shootings
According to this news story by Atlanta's 11alive.com:
Two senior law enforcement officials briefed on the matter tell NBC News that the gun Long used in yesterday’s shooting spree was purchased legally and it was purchased yesterday prior to the shooting.
Georgia law enforcement officials said they were confident it was a 9mm handgun that was used in the shooting and that it was the only handgun they have found so far. The two senior law enforcement officials said the timing of the purchase the circumstances purchase did not run afoul of any federal gun law or procedure.
According to data collected from Gifford's Law Center, nearly 40,000 gun-related deaths occur in the U.S., from sea to shining sea, each and every year. No matter where you are politically, you should (to my mind) find these figures untenable.
Further, access to guns varies from state to state as a function of differentiated state laws. According to Gifford's Law Center data on gun laws examined by state, Georgia receives a grade of F , meaning that the laws in Georgia make it, based on the algorithms of their researchers, exceptionally easy to access guns. Twenty-one-year-old Long purchased the gun used in the killings legally. And he purchased it the day before the killings took place . These facts are not small details in understanding the likely causes of these tragic shootings.
Systemic Racism Likely Played a Role in the Georgia Shootings
I wish we could say that our nation truly embraced ethnic and racial diversity at all turns. But to think so would be, unfortunately, incredibly naïve. Our nation was built on a foundation of institutionalized racism, particularly given the history of slavery that runs so deeply in the fabric of our history.
In fact, racism against people of color broadly construed has been an entrenched problem in our nation since its inception. In light of the coronavirus and connections with its origins in China, coupled with what many see as a culture of racism, anti-Asian racism and discrimination have very much been on the rise in the past few years here in the United States. In racial violence of all kinds, there is a strong tendency for the perpetrator to see the victims as less than human (see Smith, 2008). There is a high likelihood that such racially motivated thinking played a role in the Georgia tragedy.
Systemic Sexism Likely Played a Role in the Georgia Shootings
As mentioned at the top of this piece, a strong argument can be made that violence against women is one of the world's largest social problems ( see Buss, 2021 ). In discussing this issue, Buss points out examples of systemic sexism and condoned violence against women that cut across both cultural and historical boundaries.
Based on the data that Dr. Buss presented, perpetrators of violence against women are disproportionately males. In fact, they are disproportionately young males, just like Robert Long (see Wilson & Daly, 1985). Further, extensive research on this issue suggests that sexual motivation is, in fact, quite often connected with such violence against women.
The horrific acts that took place in Georgia were clear examples of violence against women perpetrated by a man. This theme connects with the systemic sexism found in so many corners of the world. To think that systemic sexism and the issue of violence against women writ large are unrelated to the Georgia shootings would be, in my view, naïve.
Mental Health Issues May Have Played a Role in the Georgia Shootings
Whenever a gun-related tragedy emerges, many people are often quick to point out that the perpetrator was likely not of sound mind. To this point, Robert Long's mental state seems to still be under investigation, but, honestly, it would seem very strange to me if someone capable of implementing such a horrific and inhumane act might possibly be evaluated by any professional diagnostician in the field of mental health as of sound mind.
Yes, high-profile mass shootings likely are perpetrated by people with a broad array of mental health issues. And yes, this fact may well play a role in causing these abhorrent outcomes.
As renowned behavioral scientist David Buss put it in a highly thought-provoking talk for our campus recently, sexual violence against women is the single-largest human-rights problem the world over. The tragic and needless killings of eight people in Georgia at the hands of Robert Long put a disturbing face to this fact.
Human behavior is complex. And nearly all human behavioral outcomes are caused by a plurality of factors. Here, I try to make the case that the Georgia killings are likely the result of such large-scale factors as systemic racism, systemic sexism, young-male syndrome, lax gun laws, and mental health issues (along, likely, with other factors).
To say that these killings have a single cause would be nothing short of naïve. I hope that this article helps people see this American tragedy in a multi-faceted light. And I hope that these ideas get people to think about how we might, as a broader community, take systemic steps to reduce such violence into our shared future. We can do better than this.
Buss, D. M. (2021). When Men Behave Badly: The Hidden Roots of Sexual Deception, Harassment, and Assault. Little, Brown, Spark.
Ross, L., & Nisbett, R.E. (1991). The Person and the Situation: Perspectives of Social Psychology. New York: McGraw Hill.
Smith, D. L. (2008). The Most Dangerous Animal. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.
Wilson, M. and Daly, M. (1985). Competitiveness, risk taking, and violence: the young male syndrome, Ethology and Sociobiology, 6, 1, 59-73.