There are Different Kinds of Mass Shooters - and it Matters

How do ideologically motivated shooters differ from those with other issues?

Posted Aug 08, 2019

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Following the most recent mass shootings in Odessa, El Paso, and Dayton, politicians and the media are trotting out all of the usual suspects to explain the tragedies, whether it’s the lack of attention paid to mental illness or the easy availability of guns.

But these explanations dance around other big questions: Why is there always a man behind these shootings? And why is almost always a young man?

Sadly, I have written about this before.

Winners and Losers

You may have noticed than when we look into the past of a mass shooter, we rarely find out that he was the captain of the football team or the president of the student body. In fact, it is usually exactly the opposite, as the individual is often described by people who knew him when he was younger with words such as “loner,” “unpopular,” and “bullied.”

And this is precisely what sets the stage for the trouble that follows.

Historically, dominant, high-status men have always enjoyed greater access to mates, powerful allies, and resources; in short, everything necessary for social success. And in early human societies, competitive success or failure in early adulthood typically determined a man’s standing in a social group for the rest of his life. It wasn’t possible to simply hit the “reset” button and join another group, so what happened during the teen years mattered a lot.

Consequently, the achievement of status and dominance over other men became a highly satisfying, almost intoxicating experience for young men. On the other hand, losing out in this competition and feeling disrespected could lead to a life of wallowing in negative emotions such as envy and anger.

Much of this is fueled by the man’s biological response to his status. Many studies have shown that testosterone levels in males rise and fall according to whether the individual wins or loses in competitions ranging from chess to wrestling. Winners get a highly satisfying “testosterone rush”; losers feel despondent as their testosterone levels plummet.

As a rule, mass shooters perceive themselves as losers. They are haunted by feelings of envy toward the men who have respect and prestige and they desperately yearn to be thought of as a person of consequence–as someone to be taken seriously. When taken to the extreme, these feelings may lead the young man to a dark place where he sees the perpetration of mass murder as his only avenue to becoming a person to be reckoned with.

Guns can accelerate the process. Research that I have done with students and colleagues at Knox College have conclusively demonstrated that merely handling a gun increases testosterone levels, especially for males who do not handle guns on a daily basis.  Elliot Rodger, the disturbed college student who was responsible for a deadly 2014 rampage through Santa Barbara, California, clearly experienced a testosterone surge upon purchasing his first handgun:

“After I picked up the handgun,” he explained, “I brought it back to my room and felt a new sense of power. Who’s the alpha male now, bitches?”

So, for the right guys, guns may empower feelings of dominance and in effect give them the guts to follow through with the carnage that may previously have been nothing more than a fantasy.

There are Different Types of Mass Shooters

So, how does ideology figure into the mix?

While I believe that most mass shootings by young men are prompted by feelings of being marginalized, the way violence plays out can be different if ideology is involved.

Ideology provides many things for disenfranchised young men.  First of all, it provides a community, and perhaps for the first time the individual feels a true sense of belonging and a bond with similar others.  This community also provides an audience–people who will notice what the shooter does and applaud his actions.  And finally, ideology gives the man a sense of doing something important–something that other people care about.  And in a perverse way, he probably feels as if he is doing something “good.”

Consequently, the ideologically driven shooter actively hunts for people who his ideology holds in contempt and travels to places where they can be found.  The El Paso shooter who drove ten hours to find a shopping mall full of Mexicans, the Christchurch, New Zealand shooter who went to a mosque and murdered 51 Muslims, the Pittsburgh gunman who murdered Jews in a synagogue, and white supremacist Dylann Roof who found his African American victims in their church are classic examples of this type of shooter.

Islamic Jihadists who seek out “infidel” and “Western” targets are cut from the very same cloth.  In all cases, the ideology organizes and channels the rage of disaffected young men.

What of those shooters who seem rudderless and show no affiliation with any recognizable ideology? While the outcome of their rampages may look the same, the process is somewhat different.  These shooters tend to stay put in their own communities and revisit the settings–workplaces, bars, and schools–where they may have felt humiliated and rejected, choosing to make a last stand in an attempt to prove to those who have dismissed them as losers that they are indeed someone who matters.  Their targets are more likely to be personally known to them or chosen at random because they are associated with a place rather than with a race or religion. The Parkland high school shooter who attacked his own school and the aforementioned Elliot Rodger who wreaked his vengeance on the very streets and campuses where he had felt so invisible are good examples of this type of shooter.

There will certainly be exceptions to the distinctions that I am drawing between different types of mass shooters, but understanding the variety of forces that trigger these catastrophic events is important if we hope to make any progress in dealing with this peculiarly American dilemma.

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