Friday, February 15, 2008

Making sense of the senseless...

The shootings at NIU yesterday seem to be part of a larger trend. They are disturbing and disconcerting to all of us. But they require a careful examination to help us move forward and understand the tragedy. The larger trend seems to be large shootings (4 in the last week) that the media generalizes and sensationalizes. While it is true that there have been a few large shootings recently, they must be kept in perspective. Each one has a specific set of factors - a robbery gone bad, a targeted individual for a personal dispute, or in the case of NIU, what appears to be a random mass school shooting. The media will talk about all of these as a "rash of shootings" but according to the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health,
Question: Mass shootings, like the incident at Virginia Tech, are rare. However, we hear reports of murders and of shootings in the United States every day. How serious an issue is gun violence in the United States?

Answer: In 2004, there were 29,569 gun-related deaths in the United States, including almost 12,000 homicides, more than 16,750 suicides and approximately 650 unintentional deaths. This adds up to about 80 gun-related deaths in the United States every day—or almost 2.5 times of the number of persons killed at Virginia Tech each day.

There were also approximately 70,000 non-fatal gun shot injuries in 2005 serious enough to require at least an emergency room visit. In addition, there were 477,040 victims of gun-related crimes in the United States in 2005

So, though there are more than 10,000 gun homicides per year in America, these few will be sensationalized in the media.

What the media misses is an understanding of how the different types of shootings occur. In the case of NIU (and VA Tech, and Columbine), I am talking about random, mass school shootings. Katherine Newman studies this type of shooting in her book, Rampage; The Social Roots of School Shootings. Scott Davies summarizes Newman's findings here:
Newman and her research team investigated the Kentucky and Arkansas incidents, visiting those communities, and conducting 163 interviews with families, students, teachers, administrators, journalists, and professionals. The book devotes detailed chapters to each case, and then several more to construct a sociological theory for the 25 rampage shootings that occurred in the USA between 1974 and 2002. In contrast to most popular explanations, no shooter suddenly 'snapped' in a psychotic rage. Rather, each perpetuator carefully planned their assault well in advance. Further, while American inner cities may be global symbols of violence and mayhem, almost all rampages occurred in small communities, those idealized by many as tight-knit, family-oriented, and relatively peaceable. Most shooters had histories of strained family lives, but few were products of single-parent homes. Newman thus set out to situate these facts in broad sociological context.

Her theory has several premises. First, school shootings are rare events. Millions of American teens endure all sorts of problems without resorting to violence. The key is to recognize that shootings occur only when several factors converge, all being necessary but none sufficient. Next, theories of violence derived from studies of impoverished inner cities do not apply well to school rampages, since only 2 of 25 incidents erupted in urban settings, and only a few involved racial minorities. Instead, rampages mostly erupted in relatively stable small towns with a variety of socioeconomic circumstances. While such locales are typically praised for their thick personal ties, Newman sees a dark side to this social capital. Densely interconnected networks of friends and family can be suffocating for youthful misfits, especially when school-based pecking orders are the only status game in town. When unpopular youth lack refuges from homogeneous peer groups, they experience an unbearable social claustrophobia. Finally, the gendered dimensions of these crimes must be recognized. All of the shooters were males who struggled to live up to masculine ideals, and in almost all cases, they acted to defy being labelled as ineffectual nerds or geeks. Since schools are one of the few public stages in small towns, they are natural symbolic targets of rage

Michael Kimmel and Matthew Mahler take Newman's ideas further in their article Adolescent masculinity, homophobia, and violence: Random school shootings, 1982-2001 published in The American Behavioral Scientist in June of 2003. Kimmel and Mahler summarize their findings here:
being constantly threatened and bullied as if you are gay as well as the homophobic desire to make sure that others know that you are a "real man"-plays a pivotal and understudied role in these school shootings. But more than just taking gender performance and its connections to homosexuality seriously, we argue that we must also carefully investigate the dynamics of gender within these local cultures, especially local school cultures and the typically hegemonic position of jock culture and its influence on normative assumptions of masculinity, to begin to understand what pushes some boys toward such horrific events, what sorts of pressures keep most boys cowed in silence, and what resources enable some boys to resist.

So these mass school shootings are often (not always) hyper-masculine responses to a feelings of being put-down, unaccepted and unsatisfactorily masculine. But there are still far more things that will harm you if you are an older teen - 51% of older teen deaths are caused by unintentional accidents, while only 13% of these deaths are due to homicide.

Hope this keeps things in perspective and helps you make sense of all of the sensationalized reports you will hear in the aftermath of yet another tragedy. With Schwalbe's sociological mindfulness, maybe we can see how our culture creates some of this tragedy and how we can do a small part to reverse this.


  1. So the media seems to have decided to really play up this idea that the shooter was on meds and he recently stopped taking them. I spoke with a doctor who said that neither depression nor the meds (Paxil) he was on would cause someone to react that way. Possibly, he was an undiagnosed schizophrenic who had an episode. However, this doesn't explain all the other random school shootings. They were not on Paxil. We live in an individualized culture and so we want to explain these events from an individual explanation, but what are the social causes that create these individuals?

  2. I keep seeing the fact of his being off the medicine over and over and over again. It's really harmful, overall. Because atleast some people will say, in a half-joking way/half-serious way that annoys me so much, "Take your meds, or you'll go shoot up a school." How great for one's self-esteem.

    And yeah, that one group, Westboro Church, protests alot. I heard of one time where they protested, and a counter-protest group set up around them, all dressed up in angel costumes. They blocked the cameras from seeing their protest. =)

  3. You know the meds issue sounds really good when you hear it - "Oh he was on medication and then came off? Oh, well that explains it." But think about how many people go off meds everyday in America. How many of them shoot up a school? Few. And how many of those previous school shooters came off meds? Any? It is not a good focus, at least not for the sociologist.

  4. It's a double misfortune. Both the med issue, and what they represent. The meds, and being off them, and then the fact that to be ON the meds, he must be crazy.

    So the fact that he wasn't on the meds anymore, so he's now obviously crazy seems like a plausible explanation for such an event. It's like when you hear an argument that sounds intelligent, but when you look in to it, you realize how little it actually meant.