While the circumstances of every mass shooting are unique, the perpetrators of the recent shootings in Ohio and Texas fit into a consistent storyline: white men with access to guns committing violence in the name of real or perceived grievances.
The shooter suspected of killing 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, is a 21-year-old white man who reportedly uploaded a racist internet post before the attack.
The Justice Department is considering federal hate crime and federal firearms charges, which carry a possible death penalty.
That night, a shooter killed nine people in Dayton, Ohio. The 24-year-old suspect is again young, white, and male. The FBI told reporters that the investigation has "uncovered evidence that the shooter was exploring violent ideologies." Federal investigators told the New York Times that they are looking at whether the gunman may have been associated with the misogynistic incel movement, short for involuntary celibates.
While the motives of the shooters in El Paso and Dayton are not yet completely clear, in many cases, perpetrators’ personal grievances like racial hatred or misogyny appear to have spurred shooters to act out violently against masses of people.
Kami Chavis, a hate crimes expert and director of the Criminal Justice Program at Wake Forest University School of Law, says the shootings bear hallmarks similar to many recent mass shootings.
“We’re seeing the confluence of violence, easy access to guns,” Chavis said, “and the political rhetoric that does not condemn and often supports violence against minorities.”
Angry, Young, White Men With Access To Guns
An FBI study of pre-attack behaviors in active shooters between 2000 and 2013 found that 63% of shooters were white and the majority are young or middle-aged. The shooters were typically experiencing multiple stressors in the years before they attacked, often related to mental health, finances and work.
Similarly, a U.S. Secret Service analysis of mass attacks in public spaces in 2018 indicates that just over half of the 27 attacks were motivated by a grievance, like a domestic situation or workplace dispute, and that nearly all shooters had experienced at least one significant stressor such as financial instability within the last five years.
The Intersection Of Identity And Grievance
Eric Madfis is a Criminal Justice professor at the University of Washington Tacoma who has studied the intersection of white entitlement, middle-class instability and heterosexual masculinity. He says that the two men suspected of carrying out the recent shootings in El Paso and Dayton appear to have quite different political ideologies but, as with other shooters, seem to be highly motivated by what he calls white male grievance culture, a way of thinking that can originate from circumstances both real and imagined.
“Mass murderers tend to be people who have failed throughout their lives in myriad ways. People who were bullied or picked on in school. People who didn’t get to date as many people as they wanted or the people that they wanted to,” Madfis explained. “It is true that they are often people who haven’t performed their masculinity in ways that we traditionally value … it’s an alternative route to achieve your masculinity by committing a mass act of violence.”
In a 2009 paper, Madfis and co-author Jack Levin studied mass murders committed by students at their schools. They suggest that perpetrators were often pushed to plan a killing spree by a short-term negative event after suffering long-term frustrations for years. In their model, the authors suggest that the “acute strain” initiates a planning stage “wherein a mass killing is fantasized about as a masculine solution to regain lost feelings of control, and actions are taken to ensure the fantasy can become reality.”
Recent shootings are littered with examples of men acting after a grievance. The man who killed five people at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, in June of last year was in a years-long legal dispute with the paper. In November of last year, a man who man opened fire in a Florida yoga studio, killing two and injuring five, had shown lifelong anger towards women, according to police. That same month, a gunman shot and killed three people at a Chicago hospital. He had recently gone through a break-up with one of the victims and had confronted her at the hospital that day.
When Grievances Turn Into Violence
People experience many types of stressors and trauma, but react differently. Belonging to a privileged group can affect that reaction, Madfis says.
“Whether you’re talking about male entitlement, or white entitlement or Christian entitlement,” Madfis said, “if you don’t get the American dream, that seems like a more profound or unexpected loss than for other communities that have lived with entrenched poverty or things like that.”
Still, few people actually ever become violent after experiencing a setback in life. What triggers violence is likely a complicated, toxic mix of factors.
The FBI and U.S. Secret Service reports say grievances often play a role. A 2001 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry noted a precipitating event in most cases “usually a perceived failure in love or school.”
In some cases, perpetrators may not have a support network to help them deal with a precipitating event. Or their network may be actively harmful.
For example, one of the two students who killed 13 people at Columbine High School 20 years ago may have influenced the other, who was suicidal and depressed, in planning and carrying out the killings, experts say.
Turning To Solutions
“We’re very concerned about radicalized Islam but there’s been less attention to domestic terrorism. We’ve let this problem go...We haven’t focused our resources on monitoring it, learning more about it, halting it,” said Chavis, the Wake Forest hate crimes expert. “Now we’re seeing the impact of this neglect.”
The FBI has labeled the shooting in El Paso and another recent incident in Gilroy, California, as domestic terrorism although there is no federal domestic terrorism law. Some experts, like Chavis, believe the U.S. needs federal legislation to address domestic terrorism.
“It’s important to call attention to these types of crimes because it’s not just about those victims… it’s everyone,” Chavis said. “As a person of color, I am more on guard when I go to public places. In a democratic nation, it is frightening that there are people who are scared. That’s what hate crimes do. They’re meant to intimidate.”
According to the FBI active shooter report, nearly all of the individuals made threatening or concerning communications prior to carrying out their attacks.
Because of this, Madfis says it’s important to increase “positive bystander behavior,” by creating a culture where people feel comfortable coming forward with information about threats.
For example, after the Columbine shooting, Colorado launched Safe2Tell, a phone number, website and app on which anyone can anonymously report a concern or threat. Wyoming has since adopted it and similar programs are in place in several states, including Pennsylvania, Maryland and Nevada.
In Colorado, during the 2017-2018 school year, 16,000 tips came in statewide, through Safe2Tell. The most common are suicide threats, followed by drugs and bullying. Over the course of that school year, 692 Safe2Tell messages were classified as “Planned School Attack,” according to Safe2Tell documentation.
In the days since the attacks in Dayton and El Paso, some lawmakers have suggested a federal “red flag” law could be a tool to disarm potential shooters. These laws, currently on the books in 17 states and the District of Columbia, allow guns to be temporarily removed from people in crisis. Sen. Lindsay Graham says that the federal proposal would provide grants to states to fund their own programs.
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.