Making Sense of the Senseless: Rethinking the Logic of Mass Shootings

Making Sense of the Senseless: Rethinking the Logic of Mass Shootings

The circumstances have become routine—the victims faceless. The shooter infamous—the month-long response following the horrible deed standard and repetitive: pray for the victims, emphasize the senselessness of the tragedy, denounce the shooter for his awful act of violence, and interview experts and public figures on the pros and cons of gun control and mental health legislation. Then, we move on. 

These types of shootings happen so frequently that the national reaction is practically scripted, a desperate attempt to explain the senselessness of such a tragedy.

However, explaining the senseless is an oxymoron. By definition, insanity does not make sense, so the conversation concerning the supposedly senseless act is equally nonsensical and subsequently ineffective. The absurd is not meant to be explained, yet this senselessness serves as the basis for our national discourse about the way in which we should respond these shootings. We as a society set ourselves up to fail by naming these acts and their perpetrators senseless and irrational, and such labels make it nearly impossible to identify the reasons why they keep happening.

Senseless acts do not have explanations for their occurrence; mass shootings do. The pain is senseless. The loss is real. However, assuming the shooter is a sick and insane individual is a flawed theoretical starting point for explaining these tragedies. People have motives and reasons for executing actions. The case of public mass shootings is no different. Opportunities, mainly those produced by a lack of laws regulating the purchase and dispersal of firearms, incentives (public and media attention), and a variety of motives exist for each shooter. This incentive and opportunity-based framework is a much more useful explanatory foundation than senselessness, both for reasoning through mass shootings and identifying areas for policy intervention.

Shooters send messages using a horribly violent and tragic method. The shooter in the Oct. 1 tragedy at a community college in Oregon left a letter before committing his act of violence. After reading it, a law enforcement official noted, “He comes across thinking of himself as a loser. He did not like his lot in life, and it seemed like nothing was going right for him.” However horrific and twisted, it is important to understand the logic of these shooters in order to identify potential areas for intervention.

A tendency exists in national discourse to equate senselessness and violence. President Obama, in his response to the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado claimed, “Such violence, such evil is senseless. It's beyond reason…We will never know fully what causes somebody to take the life of another.” After the same shooting, Mayor Ed Lee of San Francisco stated that this “senseless violence cannot be tolerated.” The rhetoric of these public figures suggests this type of violence has no rational basis, no reason for existing.

However, mass shootings are not random acts of rage; they are methodically planned and executed with a clear intention and goal. Violence acts as a functional political tool that groups and individuals use to achieve their goals. The same holds true for mass shootings because violence has causal motives and incentives attached to its use. Elliot Rodger, for example, “had planned his deadly attack on the Isla Vista community for more than a year, spending thousands of dollars in order to arm and train himself to kill as many people as possible.” Rodger made a calculated decision based on his own cost-benefit analysis. His evaluation was undoubtedly horrifying, but for him, it was worth it to employ violence. Motivated by a variety of reasons--whether they be feelings of hatred, revenge, or neglect--and incentivized by the sheer amount of attention these shootings tend to attract, a line of thought underpins the logic of these perpetrators.

This logic has several access points, the most obvious one being tighter gun regulations. The US witnesses “far more gun violence than countries in Europe, and Canada, India and Australia, which is perhaps how it gets its bloody reputation among comparatively peaceful nations.” Not only does the US see more gun violence, but it also has one of the highest rates of gun ownership out of developed nations, hovering at around 34 percent. A Harvard study found that “in homes, cities, states and regions in the US, where there are more guns, both men and women are at higher risk for homicide, particularly firearm homicide,” and revealed a persuasive connection between rates of gun ownership and rates of homicide.

A sociological lens may be useful as well in examining the shooter’s reasoning. These shooters all tend to be young, white males. They also have a history rooted in distance and social exclusion. Social constructs regarding white masculinity prescribe that white men should be heard. Many of these perpetrators, however, tend to be quiet and aloof, silenced by their unease but tormented by their social identity.

The traditional response to these shootings is to individualize and naturalize the happening, ignoring the complexities of identity and socialization. However, viewing this individual in the context of his social identity offers a more useful framework to try to explain the causes of his behavior. Seeing the way that this individual exists in the greater context of American society shifts the discourse away from naturalization (and therefore helplessness) and towards understanding what factors produce people with such violent methods and goals. Expectations greatly influence behavior, so it is important to consider expectations of whiteness and masculinity when examining the shooter’s logic.   

Less persuasive in understanding the logic of mass shootings is the mental health argument, as it is both factually incorrect and counterproductive. It ignores the fact that, according to the American Psychiatric Association, the vast majority of people who are violent are not mentally ill. Therefore, such a perspective does not offer any real policy solution. Another consequence of this type of discourse is that it marginalizes and vilifies a population of Americans that needs more routes to inclusion, not further exclusion. A 2013 study of global depression rates found 4 percent of the world's population is diagnosed with the condition. Afghanistan, several northern African countries, and the Netherlands all held rates higher than 7 percent, while the US fell just below the 4 percent global average. Despite a slightly below-average rate of depression, the US is plagued with mass shootings. Depression is not the only form of mental illness, but the notion that the US has more mentally unstable and dangerous residents is simply false.

In his reaction to the shooting in Oregon, President Obama highlighted a discrepancy:

"When Americans are killed in mine disasters, we work to make mines safer. When Americans are killed in floods and hurricanes, we make communities safer. When roads are unsafe, we fix them to reduce auto fatalities. We have seatbelt laws because we know it saves lives. So the notion that gun violence is somehow different…doesn’t make sense."

This notion does not make sense, but that is because our conversation is based in senselessness. Making sense of the nonsensical is an impossible task. However, mass shootings and gun violence are not senseless. They are a product of a humanly constructed reason, which means there is logic to them. Reframing the conversation from how to deal with senselessness toward understanding the socio-political dynamics and incentives at play can lead to a more robust and productive conversation about ending these undoubtedly horrific tragedies.  


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