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What we do and don't know about mass shootings

July 5, 2018

ASU statistician focuses on discovering the factors that cause gun violence

Editor's note: This is part of a series investigating gun violence from many angles.

Any news organization could tell you that guns are almost always a timely topic. Hardly a year has gone by over the past decade when there wasn’t a mass shooting, and in 2018 alone, there have already been several major incidents.

Sherry Towers, a statistician, modeler and research professor at Arizona State University, began her academic career studying the spread of disease in populations. As mass shootings began to occur more frequently in the U.S., she wondered if contagion might have something to do with it. So she shifted her focus to discovering more about the factors that cause such events in the hopes of finding ways to prevent them.

Without government funding to support that research, it hasn’t been easy.

“After every one of these high-profile shootings, particularly ones that involve kids, people want something done, but whatever gets done should be evidence-based,” Towers said. “The way you get evidence-based solutions is you fund the science that develops those solutions.”

Despite the lack of resources, Towers and her colleagues have spent much of their spare time researching the topic. Recently, she shared with ASU Now some of what she has learned along the way.


Sherry Towers

Question: Your background is in the spread of disease in populations. How did that lead to you study mass shootings?

Answer: I was collaborating with people at Purdue University and went there to meet with them in January of 2014. There was a school shooting at the university that day, so the meeting was canceled. One student killed another student. We never did find out why he did it, and he committed suicide in jail. It occurred to me that day there had been about three school shootings in a 10-day period. Even for the U.S., that was a lot. So I started to wonder if contagion was playing a role. I talked to my colleagues about looking at school shootings from a contagion perspective, applying modeling methods of looking at disease to looking at this topic. The way it manifests is in an unusual bunching in time around the higher-profile events, the ones that get the most media coverage.

Q: Many point to Columbine as the beginning of the mass shooting phenomena in America. Would you say that’s accurate?

A: I think what was different about Columbine is that it was happening in a high school and had a high casualty count. Columbine was certainly not the beginning (of the phenomenon); there were mass shootings before. But because it was kids that got killed — and you see that with Newtown, for instance — it was very impactful on the American consciousness, and it inspired debate on gun control. Whenever there are kids involved it tends to be a particularly impactful event.

Q: Have instances of mass shootings increased exponentially since then?

A: No, they haven’t increased exponentially. What’s interesting is that in regard to mass shootings — not just in schools, but mass shootings where at least four people were killed — there were a total of six over the past 10 years: The one at Northern Illinois University in 2008; Oakland (Oikos University) and Newtown in 2012; the Elliot Rodger incident in 2014; another incident in Maryville, Washington that year; then the Roseburg, Oregon shooting (Umpqua Community College). That’s only up to the end of 2017, not including 2018. Out of those six, two were at K-12 schools: Newtown and the one in Maryville, Washington. So what’s interesting about this current year — and as a statistician, it’s dangerous to make an inference about only two events — but what’s interesting is that over the past 10 years, we had only six mass shootings, and in the first five months of 2018, we’ve had two.

Q: Do you have any idea why this might be happening?

A: It might be partially contagion playing a role. And even though analysis shows there was this approximately two-week contagion period (within which a shooting happens and someone else is inspired to copy it), some events inspire similar ones long past the dates at which they occurred. There was evidence this latest shooter (at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas) dressed like the Columbine shooter (he wore a black trench coat).

So he clearly had some inspiration from the Columbine event, even though it was long past. So then the question isn’t what event inspired them, but what was the straw that broke the camel’s back? What led them to perpetrate on the day that they did? It could be the media effect, that they were exposed to media stories about an event that happened in the relatively recent past that perhaps consciously or subconsciously influenced them to ideate this thing. We don’t know what inspired the Parkland shooter to suddenly snap on the day he did. But contagion may be playing a role. And there is an increasing access to weaponry. In the case of this latest shooting in Santa Fe, it involved a shotgun and a revolver; it certainly wasn’t an automatic weapon. But in the case of Parkland, a young teenager was able to get a hold of very high-powered weaponry, very easily. If you go back 10–15 years, that kind of weaponry was not as easily available.

Q: Are there similarities in mass shootings in terms of the type of people who perpetrate them and how they are perpetrated? Or is that a misconception?

A: One thing we do know is that there is this misconception that most mass shooters are white. They’re certainly male; the overwhelming majority are male. But there is a misconception that they are overwhelmingly white. That is not true. Their ethnic and racial mix is approximately what you find in the general public.

As far as how they’re perpetrated, there are very few people in the U.S. looking at these issues, and the reason for that is there is a real lack of federal funding for it. Since the 1990s there has been a congressional moratorium preventing federal funding from going to the CDC for any kind of study that might by default promote gun control. If you are a researcher looking at the cause and effects of these events, one of the things you’re going to look at is not just demographics but availability of types of firearms that were used. And that’s what Congress is saying researchers cannot look at. That has had a huge suppressive effect on this research. When you have this dearth of funding, there’s a whole bunch of things that need to be looked at that can't. The other problem is a lack of data on anything to do with firearms. For years there’s been pressure from gun lobbyists to suppress any data that might be able to inform what kinds of guns are out there and how they’re being used.

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Mass shootings and mental health: What can be done?

July 5, 2018

Gun-violence issue must be addressed on several levels, including mental health interventions, says ASU psychologist

Editor's note: This is part of a series investigating gun violence from many angles.

It has become routine.

Reports come in on another mass shooting. This time it’s at a school. A church. A newsroom. Politicians express their deepest sympathies and the grieving public offers their thoughts and prayers.

Then the questions begin. What was the perpetrator’s motive? Should he have had access to guns? Did he have a history of domestic violence or any mental health issues? And the question that begs to be answered most: What can we do to stop this?

Ronald O’Donnell is a clinical professor in Arizona State University’s College of Health Solutions, a psychologist and the founding director of the college’s Doctor of Behavioral Health program. He shared with ASU Now his thoughts on what public policy efforts, in the realm of mental health, could be pursued to encourage a decline in these events.

Ron O'Donnell

Ronald O'Donnell

Question: What is the scale of the mental health crisis in this nation? Where have we fallen short in our attention to mental health care?

Answer: There is a tremendous gap between the prevalence and need for mental health services and treatment resources to meet this demand. The 2018 Mental Health in America report that pools national data found that 18 percent, nearly 43 million Americans, have a mental health condition, but fewer than half have received treatment. On average, it takes 10 years between the onset of mental health symptoms and when someone begins receiving treatment.

Among young adults, the extent of the problem is getting worse — rates of severe youth depression have increased over the past five years; half of all youth screened report thinking about suicide or self-harm and over 76 percent of youth with severe depression do not receive treatment. There is a shortage of mental health providers to meet these growing needs.

Q: In your ideal world, what additional policies, laws, services, resources, programs or funding would exist to support access to mental health care, particularly for those who are compelled toward violence?

A: The American Psychological Association (APA) published a report on gun-violence prediction, prevention and policy that found gun violence is a complex, multifaceted problem that requires improvements in four broad areas:

  1. Evidence-based, in-school violence-prevention programs that include threat assessment.
  2. Greater research support to develop public health policies such as a federal advisory panel to use scientific evidence to reduce violence, increased funding for research and a national reporting system for gun violence.
  3. Enhanced access to mental health and the promotion of integrated health care, meaning a behavioral clinician is available in the primary care clinic.
  4. Community-based initiatives such as policies to reduce access to firearms by at-risk youth, community and school-based threat-assessment programs, and public health campaigns for at-risk individuals and their families. 

Q: Many of the recent mass shootings were perpetrated by young men. Does the mental health crisis disproportionately affect this demographic? What services or policies could be enacted to support youth who are struggling?

A: The mental health crisis certainly affects young adults disproportionately, so in that respect the answer is yes. However, research also shows that only 15 to 23 percent of mass shooters had a diagnosed mental health condition.

There are stronger predictors of mass shooting for men. One is domestic violence. Nearly 60 percent of mass-shooting perpetrators included a spouse or other family member among the victims. A sense of grievance by the mass shooter that he has been wronged by an individual or demographic group (women, minorities) is common. Men who commit mass shootings may have failed to achieve romantic or financial success associated with societal expectations for masculinity. A distorted view of masculinity may emphasize expression of aggression by men in response to stressors, and these same views may discourage men from seeking professional help as a sign of weakness or vulnerability. A desire for notoriety is also common among mass shooters.

In terms of services and policies to support struggling youth at risk for gun violence, the APA report recommended that psychologists develop interventions that can change distorted views of masculinity that encourage aggression and violence. There are current programs designed to promote new social perspectives on masculinity. Public health campaigns can encourage help-seeking by distressed young adults. Interventions for at-risk families and prevention require a developmental perspective and help for parents to raise emotionally healthy children and identify those at risk.

Q: What role can the government play in supporting more funding and resources for mental health care? Should the government play the largest role here, or should this be driven by some other segment of society?

A: A recent study in a journal of epidemiology summarized the evidence for firearm legislation in preventing gun violence based on a review of studies worldwide. The researchers studied different types of legislation such as laws on sales and ownership, storage, specific types of firearms and ammunition. This study concluded that laws targeting a combination of firearms restrictions is associated with reduced firearms deaths. Laws that restrict gun purchases such as background checks and limit access such as safer storage of firearms are associated with reduced intimate-partner homicides and unintentional deaths of children by firearms.

The government can play an important role in supporting research by creating a national database for reporting violent death, and additional research on causes and prevention of gun violence. However, current state and federal restrictions limit or discourage research on gun violence.

A prevention and population health approach to gun violence is recommended that includes improved school-based violence-prevention programs. A hallmark of prevention and population health approaches is to engage communities with programs to improve police-community relations, community-based services and local leadership in preventing violence.

Top photo courtesy of Pixabay

Katherine Reedy

Senior Media Relations Officer , Media Relations & Strategic Communications