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Mass Shooters: A Unique Criminological Explanation

What are we missing and what can be done to address mass shootings in the U.S.?

On November 8, 2018, Ian Long, age 28 at the time, entered the Borderline Bar and Grill, a popular country bar in Thousand Oaks, California. Without saying a word or hesitating, he opened fire, spraying a barrage of bullets into the crowd of mostly college-aged, young adults in yet another American mass shooting. Thirteen people were left dead, including the shooter, who died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. It should be noted that Thousand Oaks, California was recently rated as the third safest city in the United States prior to the mass shooting.

Since investigators are still in the early stages of the investigation, the case is still evolving. I can only report on what is known and has been shared with the public over the past two days since the shooting.

The shooter in this latest tragedy (I have purposely stopped using his name out of respect for the victims) served as a Marine for nearly five years, including being deployed to Afghanistan. While some news media outlets suggest that the shooter suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it is too early in the investigation to make that assumption with any degree of certainty. However, in my opinion, it is likely true.

What has been confirmed is that there was a prior incident in which police officers were summoned to the shooter’s home. Although PTSD was suspected at that time, the shooter was psychiatrically cleared by the responding crisis team. That decision is likely to come under heavy scrutiny as investigators try to determine a motive.

Sadly, many U.S citizens are becoming desensitized to such acts of mass violence. After each horrific incident, we, as a nation, bring about emotionally heated national discussions focusing predominately on the two main variables thought to be correlated with the increase in mass shootings in America—gun-control and mental illness.

There is no denying that American society is heavily divided when it comes to any discussion pertaining to gun control. Some advocate for stringent gun control measures and others oppose it, citing the US Constitution’s 2nd Amendment clause safeguarding the people’s rights to keep and bear arms. When it comes to mental illness and mass shootings, there is more of a consensus among Americans who direct their anger and frustration toward the supposed systemic loopholes and cracks within the mental health system.

My goal today is not to debate either of those important issues, but rather to consider a third possible explanation that I believe contributes to the increase in mass shootings. Like most, I am constantly asking myself: What causes a person to literally “snap” and resort to such extreme violence in which he (since mass shooters are overwhelmingly Caucasian males) targets innocent victims, especially when the motive is unclear? There has to be more to this societal issue other than the accessibility and availability of guns—and a possible, yet unsubstantiated, increase in undiagnosed or misdiagnosed mental illness.

Police Officer
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In March of 2018, I published a similar article focusing on school shooters in response to the February 14th mass school shooting in which 17 individuals were killed by Nikolas Cruz, age 19, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Much of what I wrote in response to explaining school shooters from a criminological perspective would apply here as well. As a social scientist, I tend to gravitate toward integrated theoretical explanations rather than relying on single theories. I believe that there are powerful, yet destructive negative, biological, psychological, and sociological forces at work, and when such forces clash and become intertwined, the probability of a criminal incident increases significantly.

Applying Social Control Theory to School Shootings

Unlike most criminological theories that attempt to explain why some people engage in mass shootings and other heinous crimes, Hirschi’s theory attempts to explain why others obey societal rules and remain law-abiding. Social control theories focus primarily on how external environmental and institutional factors influence how we conform to society’s rules and expectations.

Hirschi’s theory consists of four main “social bonds.” When one or more of the following social bonds are weakened, or severed altogether, individuals are more susceptible to crime and deviance.


Attachment is expressed as compassion and empathy toward friends, family, coworkers, and even acquaintances. Mass shooters have a weakened attachment to others, at least in the moments up to and during the shooting. They tend to harbor and internalize anger, frustration, and disappointment that can stem from a number of stressful incidents, whether real or perceived. These antagonistic emotions grow in the days, weeks, or months leading up to the attack.

While some mass shooters have targeted specific people, many of them, like the Thousand Oaks shooter, have fired indiscriminately into a crowded area. The random direction of these shooters’ aim suggests that they have no regard for human life and have rationalized their actions. This is very similar to the cognitive restructuring process that terrorists use to justify the killing of innocent lives.


Commitment pertains to the time and energy an individual spends pursuing a specific social goal or activity, such as obtaining a college degree or pursuing a particular position within their desired profession. Most people know that engaging in crime will likely jeopardize their career ambitions and educational goals; therefore, they conform to society’s norms and expectations. Based on what we know so far, the shooter started to unravel, become despondent, isolate from others and became irritable and erratic. That is why many mass shooters embrace a "kill or be killed" attitude, and are willing to take their own life by suicide or suicide by cop. Based on what we know so far, Thousand Oaks’ shooter took his own life (suicide) from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.


Individuals who are engrossed in conventional and fulfilling social activities often do not have the time or interest in engaging in unlawful activities. For example, one of the main reasons parents want their children involved in athletics, extracurricular activities, or any other socially appropriate activity is that it keeps them out of trouble and gives them a sense of belonging to a team, club, or social organization. Individuals who commit mass shootings are often described as loners or outcasts, socially awkward, or have distanced themselves from friends and family, suggesting that they do not feel as if they are a meaningful part of any group or community.


The fourth and final bond is when an individual believes in the societal rules, laws, expectations, norms, and values as taught to them, and subsequently embraced, by parents, family members, and friends as well as educational and religious institutions. The stronger one’s moral beliefs in the social norms, the less likely they are to participate in criminal activities. Criminal offenders either disregard society’s shared beliefs or rationalize and justify their own distorted, deviant behavior. For example, the belief that killing is wrong is reinforced by parents, education, and religion; however, a shooter will disregard what he/she has been taught by rationalizing that their behavior is justified, so they can go through with the mass shooting.

Eye of a Male
Source: Unsplash

Weak Social Bonds Lead to Mass Shootings

In order to fully understand and appreciate the paradigm and applicability of Hirschi’s theory, it is important to recognize the historical context from which he wrote Causes of Delinquency (1969). In the 1960s, Hirschi observed a loss of social control over individuals and an accompanying rise in crime, particularly among adolescents. Social institutions such as organized religion, the family, educational institutions, and political institutions were not as prominent in the life of adolescents. As a result, these individuals started to challenge conventional social norms and expectations. Hirschi blamed this on the breakdown of the aforementioned social institutions, particularly the breakdown of the family due to increasing rates of divorce and single-parent households.

Fast forward to the present day and this shift in family structure and dynamics has continued. I feel strongly that individuals who carry out these horrific mass shootings lack both resiliency and coping skills due to the breakdown of family structures, as well as the reduced value placed on religious, societal, and educational institutions. These social institutions are important for molding and shaping us as individuals, and by doing so, they instill compassion and empathy for others, as well as respect for the law and those in authoritative positions.

More importantly, family members, friends, religious leaders, and teachers provide guidance to young people about how to adapt to—and cope with—rejection, disappointment, and frustration; however, this is where I see the breakdown. In an era where coddling and being overly sensitive have replaced coping and resiliency, we are seeing individuals struggling to deal with frustration, rejection, disappointment, sadness, and even anger in a socially appropriate manner. Learning how to be resilient should start in childhood and continue into adulthood. The American Psychological Association defines resilience as, “the process of adapting in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, and other significant sources of stress and how we "learn" to "bounce back" from difficult experiences.

Being resilient does not suggest that an individual does not experience challenges or distress. Rather, it emphasizes how one processes thoughts, behaviors, and actions when confronted with stress.

One of the primary ways to build resilience is having a trusted support system of family and friends. This support system is built on compassion and trust, and it provides individuals with unconditional encouragement and reassurance. People need to have a strong foundation of positive self-image and self-confidence to overcome low and challenging moments.

There are undoubtedly many factors that lead to mass shootings; therefore, I am not discounting or ignoring the highly-charged discussions pertaining to gun control and mental illness, but rather offering a third possible explanation that also warrants further attention. We must learn how to manage stress in a healthy way in order to control negative impulsive thoughts and behaviors that often lead to self-destructive outcomes.

Man on Sofa
Source: Unsplash

10 Strategies to Build Resilience

The American Psychological Association outlined 10 strategies to build resilience:

  1. Make connections. Individuals need to build positive relationships with family members, friends, and others who can provide support. Being active in civic groups, faith-based organizations, or other local groups provides social support. It can also be beneficial to help others in their times of need.
  2. Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable. Highly stressful events happen to everyone, but what counts is how one interprets and responds to them. Try looking beyond the present to how future circumstances may be better. Note any subtle ways in which you might already feel somewhat better as you deal with difficult situations. These are your coping mechanisms and can be consciously applied when you face future challenges.
  3. Accept that change is a part of living. As you get older, certain goals may no longer be attainable as a result of adverse situations. When you accept that some circumstances cannot be changed, it allows you to focus on other circumstances that you can influence.
  4. Move toward your goals. Develop some realistic goals. Do something regularly — even if it seems like a small accomplishment — that enables you to move toward those goals. Instead of focusing on tasks that seem unachievable, ask yourself, “What’s one thing I know I can accomplish today that helps me move in the direction I want to go?”
  5. Take decisive actions. Rather than detach completely from problems and stresses or wish they would just go away, take decisive actions to improve the situation as best you can. Avoidance is not the answer.
  6. Look for opportunities for self-discovery. People often learn something about themselves and grow in some respect as a result of struggling with loss, rejection, or disappointment. Many people who have experienced tragedies and hardship report later that they have stronger relationships, a greater sense of strength even while feeling vulnerable, an increased sense of self-worth, a more developed spirituality, and a heightened appreciation for life. As you are going through a hardship, remember that there may be benefits eventually.
  7. Nurture a positive view of yourself. Have confidence in your ability to solve problems and trust in your instincts. Believing in yourself in a positive way helps build your overall resilience.
  8. Keep things in perspective. Even when facing very painful events, try to consider the stressful situation in a broader context and keep a long-term perspective. Avoid blowing the event out of proportion.
  9. Maintain a hopeful outlook. An optimistic outlook enables you to expect good things to happen in your life. Try visualizing what you want, rather than worrying about what you fear.
  10. Take care of yourself. Pay attention to your own needs and feelings. Engage in activities that you enjoy and find relaxing. Exercise regularly. Take care of yourself to keep your mind and body primed to deal with situations that require resilience.

Applying these strategies can help build resiliency so that when stressful situations happen, which they inevitably will, we have the ability to get through them in the most positive and beneficial way possible. The more equipped people are to cope with stress and adversity, the less chance they will turn any dangerous thoughts into impulsive actions, including mass shootings.

Prayers and thoughts will not stop future incidents. We need to move beyond talking about mass shootings and start taking action steps toward preventing future incidents.

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