Are mass shootings an American problem?
Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora. A report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) has identified 78 public mass shootings in the United States since 1983. Over 547 people were killed and another 476 people were injured (Bjelopera et al. 2013). In addition, there are also indications that the frequency of mass shootings has increased dramatically in recent years. Since the beginning of the 20th century, a strong positive trend has been observed (Lopez/Sukumar n.d.). As a result of these developments, mass shootings have grown into a subject of major debate on new national legislation to address the problem. During the discussion about gun control, two main positions are opposing each other. In the debate, one part of Americans and the National Rifle Association (NRA) fight for the protection of the Second Amendment and are asserting that gun violence in America is mainly a problem of a violent culture (Faria 2013). They demand more situative solutions such as more weapons. The NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre said „the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.“ The other part of the debate expect stronger gun control legislation (Lunceford, 2015) with greater restriction for gun accessibility through background checks (Faria 2013). The two different views are examined in more detail in this essay. It deals with the gun culture, the different views of Republicans and Democrats as well as the psychological background of the perpetrators. The essay also discusses implications for future politics.
1. Definition of the term
In the beginning, we want to focus on how "mass shootings" are defined. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI 2014) explains explains that in a mass shooting four or more people are killed by one or more perpetrator(s). The act is carried out in one place with no cooling-off period between the murders (U.S. Department of Homeland Security 2008). There is no pattern or method for the selection of victims (ibid.), who are mostly killed in public places such as schools, restaurants, theatres, shopping malls, churches and workplaces (Newman et al. 2004).
Despite the increasing number of mass shootings it is still difficult to predict the actions because the perpetrator is often socially isolated (Lemieux 2014). Many active shooters seem to be pursuing personal motives, such as the desire for revenge, due to blocked achievement of goals (e.g. exclusion from school or fired from work) and negative social interactions (such as being bullied by fellow students or coworkers) (Lankford 2016).
Social isolation is usually associated with a serious mental illness that several offenders were diagnosed with (Metzl/MacLeish, 2013). In some cases, they even sought psychological help before committing their crimes (Lemieux 2014). The results of the cases raises the question in the debate about who should be given access to firearms (ibid.).
2. American gun culture
Gun ownership has a long historical and political tradition in America (Lemieux 2014). The United States grants the „right to bear arms“ by its Constitution, assuring gun ownership to all US citizens (ibid.). As of today, this right merely exists in Mexico. All other states have limited the privilege of unrestricted arms possession by requiring gun owners to attain a permit for their arms purchase and possession.
The American law is based on the country's historical and cultural background. Firearms were already used in the American Revolution (1775-1783), the Civil War (1861-1865) and the "Wild West" (Lemieux 2014). The inhabitants of that time (e.g. settlers, pioneers, border guards and peasants of the nation) fought daily for food and resources in order to survive (Hofstadter 1970).
Even today, many Americans insist on the right to own weapons because it is firmly anchored in their belief system (Lemieux 2014). The law provides them with the feeling of freedom and independence and serves as the basis of their argumentation that they can only defend their own lives and their residential and personal property by force of arms.
3. The National Rifle Association
The National Rifle Association (NRA) of America agrees with this opinion. Founded in the United States in 1871 as an organization for sport shooting, firearm training and shooting competitions (NRA n.d.), the organization claims to have around five million members (Korte 2013), including celebrities such as the actor Chuck Norris and the former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. According to the NRA, more than 125,000 instructors teach over one million gun owners how to use their shooting device every year (NRA n.d.). However, as an interest group, the focus is not on firearms training but on lobbying in Washington (Musa 2016). The organization tries to influence the legislation through donations and campaigns. In the election campaign of 2016, the organization has spent $50.3 million on campaigns, according to estimates made by FEC and OpenSecrets.org (Spies/Balcerzak 2016). $30.3 million of the $50.3 million benefited the future winner of the presidential election, Donald Trump (ibid.). In addition to donations and campaigns, the organization also focuses on mobilizing voters and spreading fear towards politicians concerning losing seats and votes. A large proportion of gun supporters, particularly in the southern states, choose to vote with regard to gun legislation and are therefore particularly susceptible to NRA propaganda. The organization portrays the right to own weapons as the most important US civil right, branding any attempt to restrict it as a fundamental attack on freedom of American citizens. The group maintains lists of politicians graded according to their pro or contra stance on weapons. The ratings range from A + to F -. Republicans mostly have an A + rating while Democrats are only being assessed with a F- rating - the worst possible rating in the sense of the NRA.
4. Republicans vs Democrats
One reason for the big differences in the rating are the widely spreading opinions of the two big political parties. Republicans pass more laws to ease gun control and fewer laws to tighten it, than Democrats (Luca et al. 2016). Republicans turning their attention to weapons policy, are mainly motivated by large media coverage to win new voters who are in favor of expanding gun rights and are advocating access to weapons (Parker et al. 2017).
They often argue that such political regulations would reduce gun crime in America. This statement has not yet been proven.
5. American gun ownership and rates
However, a study from Canada shows that restricted access and limited availability of firearms reduce the number of homicides and suicides committed with a firearm (Lemieux 2014), and an American report shows that high weapon ownership rates correlate with high murder rates (Frydenborg 2013). This contradicts the NRA's statement.
A study from Siegel et al. (2013) investigated the possession and murder rate of firearms in all 50 states from 1981 to 2010 and shows that there is a strong link between local gun ownership rates and firearm deaths. This may be particularly concerning for the United States with its high gun ownership rate.
A comparison with 25 countries shows that the USA ranks first globally (Lopez 2018). According to the source, there is a rate of 120.5 firearms per 100 residents in the USA. That's more than twice the rate of any other nation in the world. Yemen has a rate of 52.8 firearms per 100 residents, far behind from the USA in 2nd place (Lopez 2018).
This study could also be relevant to the United States, in terms of relative risk because American public mass shooters were 2.3 times more likely to use multiple weapons than shooters in any other countries (Lankford 2016). In comparison with the worldwide mass shooters, 1.8 times more offences were committed at public locations. 2.1 times more committed in schools, 4.9 times more committed at offices and 9.7 times more committed at factories or warehouses (ibid.). However, offenders in other countries were 10.7 times more likely to attack in military locations than perpetrator in the United States (ibid.).
6. American strains
One explanation for the higher probability of mass shootings could be the increased strain potential of Americans. Although the population of other countries also suffers from stress and strain, it seems to be a greater phenomenon in America (Lankford 2016). According to surveys, 81 percent of American high school students want a well-paid job until they are 25 years old. Almost a third of all freshmen at college expect to earn a PhD or MD, and 26 percent of students expect to be famous one day (Barna 2010; Schneider/Stevenson 1999; Twenge 2014). In general, fame is revered and sought in America and seems to be very important to Americans (Pinsky/Young 2008; Sternheimer 2011; Twenge/Campbell 2009; Twenge 2014).
Shaped by the wishes of the parents and their personal environment, the most of them will never achieve these goals (Twenge 2014) which can lead to exaggerated fears, hostility, neuroses, depression and antisocial behaviour (Merton 1938). Many of these psychological illnesses also affect the mass shooters who try to counteract their failure and the negative social interactions with large public mass shootings in order to finally gain attentation, fame and recognition through the high media coverage (Lankford 2013). The public attention seems to satisfy their unfulfilled dreams and give them a sense of power what they always longed for. When perpetrators attack, they often choose locations that are the cause of their strains and failure (Langman 2009; Lankford 2015a; Newman/Fox, 2009; Newman et al. 2004).
This could explain why schools and workplaces in the USA are often places of mass shooting. Ultimately, it seems to be a chain of circumstances for America's problem with mass shooters. It is the high demands of American society, the unrealized dreams that lead to psychological problems, no background checks and the easy access to weapons due to the lack of restrictions on how many weapons an American is allowed to own.
The simplest thing to say is that Americans should limit their gun ownership to prevent a further increase in mass shootings. However, the right to own a weapon has existed for centuries and is difficult to change quickly. After the Parkland school massacre in 2018, there were many demonstrations to tighten gun control, but they have decreased in the past two years. At the moment Americans are struggling with completely different problems such as the coronavirus, police violence and the fight against racism. So it is unlikely that a continuation of the frequent mass shootings will significantly change public opinions in favor of stricter restrictions.
Instead of completely restricting access, the number of weapons to be owned could be reduced. As one study has shown, mass shooters in the United States use 2.3 times more often multiple weapons than mass shooters in any other country. With the slight change in gun ownership, the number of murders and suicides could be reduced (Lemieux 2014; Frydenborg 2013).
Another possibility would be the introduction of background checks. In the period from 1966 to 2012, attacks on military facilities appeared to occur less often compared to the global average (Lankford 2016). The reasons for this are security procedures and mental health checks in American military facilities, which reduce the number of public shooters who kill in these specific locations. Background checks when buying weapons could therefore also be a solution to reduce the number of offenses.
The most important solution, however, is a change in the American value system. The demands of professional and personal success put too much pressure on many young Americans and lead, among other things, to psychological problems. Politicians, pastors, teachers, mentors and parents should teach children that intrinsic goals - such as personal growth, connection or well-being - are more valuable than extrinsic goals - such as fame, image and money (Lankford 2016). This in turn could help reduce the number of mass shootings in the United States.
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- Technische Universität Dresden