Suicide

The Shocking and Unexplored Mass Shooting-Suicide Connection

Identical factors drive both tragic phenomena.

Posted Feb 22, 2018

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Tragically, both suicide and mass public shootings are on the rise in the U.S. There is an insidious but unexplored linkage between these phenomena, as demonstrated by the fact that mass public shootings such as the October 1, 2017, Las Vegas massacre often end with the perpetrator taking his own life at the scene.

Let’s examine these interconnected phenomena by starting with suicide. The reality of suicide is shrouded in mystery in our society. Unknown to most Americans is the fact that suicide is sharply on the rise, particularly among the middle-aged. Suicide used to be concentrated primarily among the elderly. The dramatic rise in suicide among the middle-aged is a disturbing new trend over the last ten years.

See a related article on the changing patterns and dramatic rise in suicide in the U.S. Click

Suicides rarely make the news headlines unless they involve someone famous such as rock vocalist Chris Cornell or comedian Robin Williams.

The suicide of the beloved but troubled Robin Williams received massive media attention and it shocked the public consciousness. For those of us who have a more nuanced understanding of the two-headed monster known as addiction and depression, however, the news of Williams’ suicide was very sad but not so shocking. The late comedian had struggled with addiction and depression for many years, and he had left a rehab facility just prior to his suicide.  

Absent from public discussion is the fact that the steady rise in suicide is contrasted by a steady decline in homicide in the U.S. These unusual and conflicting patterns have co-existed for a number of years. Incredibly, there are now nearly three suicides for every murder committed in the U.S.

The only category of homicide that has been increasing over the last ten years is mass murder, specifically mass public shootings, which includes tragic events such as the Virginia Tech college campus massacre in 2007.

The findings of an FBI study published in 2014 reveal an increasing frequency of mass public shootings in the U.S. annually (1). See a related article on the history and rise of mass shootings in America, including the massacre perpetrated by Stephen Paddock at the Mandalay Bay hotel on the Las Vegas strip in 2017 and the mass murder-suicide committed by Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. Click

Mass murder is frequently a form of suicide in that the perpetrator of such atrocities is often an enraged and fatalistic individual who intends to die at the scene of the massacre. From this perspective, the increase in mass public shootings over the last ten years is very consistent with the increase in suicide.

The legendary nineteenth century social scientist Emile Durkheim argued that suicide is a social fact rather than an individual pathology. Using a vast amount of data from official records on suicides in different parts of Europe, Durkheim documented significant variations between countries in their rates of suicide that he found were correlated or linked to environmental conditions.

This evidence, Durkheim argued back in 1897, shows that “each society has a definite aptitude for suicide” which is a social fact that is external to the individual members of a given society. Such revolutionary and original thinking in the nineteenth century has given Emile Durkheim widespread recognition as the founding father of sociology.

I have spent considerable time analyzing recent suicide patterns in the U.S. I have concluded that, consistent with the work of Emile Durkheim, suicide is a social fact—that is, a predictable pattern based on social forces. I contend that there are powerful factors in contemporary society that help to explain the sharply rising suicide rate.

These factors include financial uncertainty, health and caregiving fears, a declining belief in the American dream, distrust of the government, racial, political and religious strife, global terrorism and constant war since 2001 that have all led to alienation, anger and a feeling of powerlessness for many people.

I contend that alienating social forces have made suicide the new murder as frustrated and fearful Americans increasingly turn their anger onto themselves and take their own lives in unprecedented numbers.

I further argue that the same negative social forces that explain suicide can also explain the current rise in mass public shootings, as fatalistic individuals increasingly kill others, and in many instances themselves, in catastrophic acts of rage and violence.

There is a mass public shooting-suicide connection in the U.S. which is a sociological fact, and it warrants our attention and consideration, as both tragic phenomena are on the rise.

In a separate sociological inquiry, I examine the public’s fascination with serial killers in fact and fiction in my best-selling book Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Murderers. To read the reviews and order it now, click

Dr. Scott Bonn is a criminologist, author, TV analyst and public speaker. He is available for consultation and media commentary. Follow him @DocBonn on Twitter and visit his website docbonn.com

References

1) Blair, J. P. and Schweit, K.W. 2014. A Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States Between 2000 and 2013. Washington, DC: Texas State University and Federal Bureau of Investigation (U.S. Department of Justice).