Back in the day, farm kids, in particular, had easy access to firearms, but they didn’t shoot up their schools or churches. So what changed?
In a word, the culture. Adam Lankford, University of Alabama associate professor of criminology, said today’s teens and young adults are under more pressure to succeed, and they increasingly define success as being famous.
“I would first point to the desire for fame or notoriety because there is evidence that on a cultural level, today’s young people want to be famous more than previous generations did,” Mr. Lankford said. “My parents’ generation, they wanted to be successful, but they defined success more as being able to provide for your family, wealth and class.”
For those who feel depressed by their downward career trajectory, and who blame others for their failures, the desire for fame can push them toward going out in a blaze of glory.
“Unfortunately, it’s actually the only guaranteed way to become famous without exceptional talent or skill,” said Mr. Lankford, who has conducted extensive research on such massacres. “And the distinction between fame and infamy has blurred in a way that we didn’t see in the past.”
Like other mass shooters before him, the 19-year-old gunman accused of killing 17 students Wednesday at a high school in Parkland, Florida, had recently experienced failure, having been expelled from school for disciplinary reasons.
Ditto the 2017 Texas church shooter, who had been court-martialed and discharged from the military, and the 2017 Las Vegas gunman, who had suffered recent financial losses.
Of course, neither of those mass shooters lived to see himself in the headlines — such gunmen usually commit suicide shortly afterward — but that doesn’t obviate the desire for fame.
“You can almost say it amplifies it. Given that they’re going to die, they want to be remembered as someone famous, as a ‘someone’ rather than a ‘no one,’ ” said Mr. Lankford, adding, “Another way of framing it is that if you just kill yourself, nobody knows you.”
What’s more, in the 24-hour news cycle, shooters gain instant international notoriety, which may help explain why the first modern school massacre — the 1966 University of Texas tower shooting — didn’t generate a wave of copycats.
It wasn’t until the 1999 Columbine High School attack that the copycat phenomenon really took hold.
“There’s some evidence that Columbine was one of the most covered media events of the entire 1990s,” Mr. Lankford said.
What about Japan, where students are under intense pressure to perform but mass shootings are unheard of? One oft-cited explanation is Japan’s strict gun-control laws, but another theory gaining steam is the country’s long history as an “honor culture.”
Contrast that with the United States, which sociology professors Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning argue is undergoing the emergence of a “culture of victimhood” in their just-released 2018 book, The Rise of the Victimhood Culture (Palgrave MacMillan).
“In an honor culture, if you’re suffering, you’re more likely to try to hide that, and we do see a lot of suicides in Japan, with people who feel dishonored taking their own life,” Mr. Lankford said. “Whereas if you’re in more of a victim culture, which is how the U.S. has been described, then you’re more likely to blame others for your struggles and lash out at them.”
Frank Farley, former president of the American Psychological Association, said violence is typically used in three ways: to express personal feelings such as frustration or anger; manipulate others; or retaliate against perceived enemies.
In the case of the Florida shooting suspect, Nikolas Cruz, “retaliation does seem to raise its head with him,” Mr. Farley said.
Graphic video games are often cited as a factor in the rise in mass shootings carried out by teens or young men, although experts disagree on their impact.
Mr. Farley cited a recent study showing that people tend to act more aggressively after viewing violent video games, such as by turning up the volume to annoy others, but he stressed that there’s a big difference between what he described as “big V” and “small V” violence.
” ‘Big V’ violence is out in the street, hurting people, mass murders, etc.,” he said. “So clearly Big V violence is where the science has got to get to, and we’re not quite there yet. We’re still focused on what we call small V in terms of the science.”
At the same time, playing violent video games offers an adrenaline rush that can become addicting and lead to a desire for greater thrills, said Dr. Mark Goulston, author of “Talking to Crazy: How to Deal with the Irrational and Impossible People in Your Life.”
“It contributes to being driven by adrenaline and having less interest in empathy,” said Dr. Goulston, a former FBI and police hostage negotiator. “The best and the only deterrent to violence against other people is to be able to put yourself in another person’s shoes. If you can’t do that, what happens is you start to treat them almost like a thing.”
Social media can also play a role. The Sandy Hook shooter spent three years interacting in a chat room focused on school shootings before the 2012 massacre.
“I don’t think there’s any evidence that when he started becoming fascinated with these types of killers, he was planning on becoming one himself,” Mr. Lankford said. “But then he realizes there’s a whole community of people who like these people. There are girls who wish they could have had sex with them. There’s this whole community of fans and followers, and that’s something he specifically wrote about in his posts online, that mass murderers get fans and followers.”
He pointed to a 2007 Pew research study that found 64 percent of those aged 18-25 said that “getting rich and being famous are important goals for people in their age group.”
“My sense is it’s probably worse now,” Mr. Lankford said. “So that’s a big deal, in particular, because these attacks directly reward those desires.”
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