The Mythology of 'The Lone Wolf'

In the wake of public shootings, deflections abound

Posted Feb 15, 2018

I have had the privilege to speak to the law enforcement communities in the past regarding the prevention of acts of mass violence, such as public shootings. One of the challenges in prevention is that the causes behind acts of public violence are oftentimes complex and myriad. Moreover, as a psychologist, my expertise in particular is in helping to de-stigmatize mental illness, as it is not an effective predictor of whether or not a person will become violent.

In the wake of yet another mass shooting in our schools, I am here to advise readers: do not be fooled by the rhetoric of this administration or those in power. Lawmakers bemoaning that this shooter was a ‘lone wolf’ who was ‘deranged’ are deflecting from the very real truth that access to firearms in an increasingly polarized society with a lack of resources or support for marginalized—or entitled—males is a recipe for catastrophe.

In fact, at conferences with experts who are trying to identify the profiles for mass shooters, here are the predictors that we all agree on and is substantiated by the research: being white, and being male. And access to guns. Those are better predictors for whether a person will become a mass shooter than a host of all the other variables that politicians will be touting in the wake of this most recent tragedy.

And for those of you ready to argue that now isn’t the time for politics, get real: it is absolutely political when our schools are no longer safe for our children. No parent should ever have to receive a text message from their child as they are hiding in a school where there is an active shooter, wondering whether or not their message is the last they will ever hear from their loved one. The fact that these atrocities continue to happen—yes, I deliberately use the word atrocity—is a massive failure of political will.

Access to weapons does not only heighten the risk for mass violence among individuals who are already unstable or have the potential to pose a risk to themselves or the larger society. Social scientific research going back decades has identified a “weapons effect” where the mere presence of a firearm enhances the likelihood of an individual becoming aggressive. In fact, people who reportedly have access to firearms are more likely to die by homicide or suicide, let alone become a perpetrator of gun violence (Center for Injury Research & Prevention, 2017).

What has been revealed about the shooter—I will not identify him by name so as to further enhance his notoriety—is that in addition to a reportedly disturbing social media presence and some concerns about his behavior before he was expelled from the school was that he was steeped in gun culture. Perhaps most telling, a spokesperson for a white supremacist group in Florida has confirmed that he was affiliated with their group. The bottom line is the motive doesn’t matter to the dead or their loved ones left to mourn their loss—if he didn’t have access to an AR-15, he could never have perpetrated one of the bloodiest school shootings in the history of our nation.

The pervasive level of gun violence in America is a fact that we should be ashamed of as Americans. Rates of death by guns in our nation are far greater than virtually everywhere across the globe, as if we were a nation at war. For an administration that has had searing and divisive rhetoric about “terrorism” there is an epic failure to acknowledge the role that gun violence perpetrated by our own citizens against us meets the textbook definition of terrorism. Moreover, this is what happens when disaster capitalism takes hold in a nation: profits are given priority over the sanctity of life or the safety of our citizens. On average, there is more than one mass shooting for each day in America—war torn nations like Iraq may be dealing with explosives and bombs on their streets on a regular basis, but this is our battlefield (e.g. Lopez, 2018). Here, however, the enemy is from within. Further, it is no surprise that a host of shootings have occurred in Florida, as states with greater restrictions regarding firearms tend to have less gun-related deaths (Lopez, 2018).

In fact, despite the false rhetoric in our media about mental illness, the “threat” immigrants pose in our nation, higher populations or reportedly higher stress among individuals, the greatest indicator within a state regarding how many gun-related deaths they would have was found by researchers, quite simply, to be based on how tight their gun control laws were (Lopez, 2018).

The mantra of “thoughts and prayers” in the aftermath of these atrocities, that “guns don’t kill people, people do” or that the perpetrator was a “lone wolf” or otherwise mentally unstable, are all deflections intended to create the illusion that there is no way to stop or prevent these public acts of violence from occurring. The truth is that political action is needed, that while it is always a person behind the trigger that is deliberately aiming and killing another fellow human being the gun is the vessel that enables their act of violence, and that mental illness is just one of a host of other red herrings politicians will focus on because they have strong incentives to not stand up to the very powerful gun lobbies.

As social scientists, we look at the numbers, we follow a scientific method, and we search for truth. This time, the truth is ugly, and it will remain unchanged: until our lawmakers pass sensible restrictions on access to firearms, our nation will continue to be a war zone, and no public space will ever be entirely safe.

Not even our children’s schools.

Copyright Azadeh Aalai 2018

References

Lopez, G. (2018, updated February 15). America’s unique gun problem, explained in 17 maps and charts. Vox. Retrieved on February 15, 2018 from: https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/10/2/16399418/us-gun-violence-statistics-maps-charts

Gun Violence: Facts & Statistics (2017). Center for Injury Research & Prevention. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia: Research Institute. Retrieved on February 15, 2018 from: https://injury.research.chop.edu/violence-prevention-initiative/types-violence-involving-youth/gun-violence/gun-violence-facts-and#.WoX91iXwapo

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