To Understand Mass Shooters, Look at the Communities They Left Behind

two police officers behind crime scene tape

A workplace. A school. A place of worship. A movie theatre. A military recruiting center.

They’re so varied as to seem almost random, these places across the country where mass shootings have occurred. But mass shootings are not arbitrary events, and their venues aren’t chosen by accident.

“People aren’t randomly targeted,” says criminologist Frederic Lemieux, Ph.D., faculty director of Georgetown University’s Master's in Applied Intelligence program and an authority on mass shootings. “They are part of a community.”

This fact could help explain why certain communities were targeted, why they were more susceptible to this kind of violence, and how the threats that they and similar localities continue to face might be alleviated in the future.

Communities in Trouble

For years, researchers have focused, understandably, on the motivations and psychology of the perpetrators, Lemieux says; and while they have been able to identify some common traits—the vast majority are white men, for example—determining who among this diverse group will become a violent shooter is like predicting where lightning will strike.

Lemieux is taking a different approach.

“Mass shootings data over several decades show a geographical clustering trend,” he says, describing a new two-year research project that he expects to begin next year. “Local communities experiencing mass shootings seem to share similar characteristics such as less social interaction among their members, less support for those suffering of mental illness, and higher income inequality. The lack of social capital, social support, and the high unemployment rate in a given community are robust indicators of social alienation.”

Between 1966 and 2018, there were hundreds of mass shootings in the United States, far more prevalent in comparison to other industrialized democracies, Lemieux said. For 2019, the U.S. has experienced more than 20 additional mass shootings.

No community has been truly immune: there have been shootings all across the country, in cities, suburbs, and rural areas. Nonetheless, some patterns emerge. Lemieux has collected data on more than 600 cases since 1966 in more than 3,000 counties that make up the United States. Preliminary findings show that some areas in the South and West have experienced far more mass shootings than a random distribution would suggest.

A Rise in Social Alienation

Social alienation is at an all-time high in the United States, Lemieux says, but it is not evenly distributed across the country. This leads to his first hypothesis: “Mass shootings incidents will tend to occur in the communities exhibiting higher levels of social alienation.”

A second hypothesis asserts that active shooters will have “experienced at least one dimension of social alienation” and that researchers should be able to link “active shooters’ homicidal behavior to a social context in which they evolve….” The third posits that the shooters’ actions “will be directed at a social group, community, or institution perceived to be related to the psychological distress they are experiencing.”

The target can be physical community, like a school or an office, or a symbolic one. Lemieux points to the Las Vegas shooter who had lost $400,000 through gambling and was said to be bitter, but not in financial distress. There are plenty of outdoor concerts across the county in early fall that he could have chosen for his attack, but he picked the spot that represents the epitome of gaming culture: The Las Vegas Strip—close to where he lived.

This summer, the Applied Intelligence program hosted Marina Des Roberts, an intern from the University of Montreal to research the circumstances surrounding the more recent mass shootings in the United States, including media reports and social media posts.

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about the “echo chamber” of social media, how it can provide an alternative “community” to disturbed individuals and draw them further from the mainstream. However, despite this contention, Lemieux said there has been little research on the subject. His research project will identify the “linguistic markers of social alienation” of this virtual world, where distorted perspectives are reinforced and disseminated, and “normlessness becomes the norm.”

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