by William Skink
In a post titled Not Guns Again, Pete an anecdotal story from a shooting Pete Talbot covered as a journalist 16 years ago seems to indicate a background check at the Spokane gun show the Glock was purchased at could have stopped the mentally ill felon from buying the gun. I’m sure the crazy ex-con would have been so deterred at that point to not try and buy a gun elsewhere, right?
In that post I mentioned in the comments the sensationalizing media attention being a factor in perpetuating mass-shootings, and (not seriously) asked if we should pass an ordinance limiting media coverage of these horrific tragedies. To dismiss this sentiment, another comment said this: yeah these shooter gunnuts enjoy basking in their posthumous infamy.
That dismissive comment misses the point. Luckily we have Malcolm Gladwell at the New Yorker taking a closer look at How School Shootings Spread. I recommend reading the whole article. Here is one excerpt to start us off:
School shootings are a modern phenomenon. There were scattered instances of gunmen or bombers attacking schools in the years before Barry Loukaitis, but they were lower profile. School shootings mostly involve young white men. And, not surprisingly, given the ready availability of firearms in the United States, the phenomenon is overwhelmingly American. But, beyond those facts, the great puzzle is how little school shooters fit any kind of pattern.
To try and put the pieces of this puzzle together, Gladwell examines the group dynamics of riots. More from the link:
In a famous essay published four decades ago, the Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter set out to explain a paradox: “situations where outcomes do not seem intuitively consistent with the underlying individual preferences.” What explains a person or a group of people doing things that seem at odds with who they are or what they think is right? Granovetter took riots as one of his main examples, because a riot is a case of destructive violence that involves a great number of otherwise quite normal people who would not usually be disposed to violence.
Most previous explanations had focussed on explaining how someone’s beliefs might be altered in the moment. An early theory was that a crowd cast a kind of intoxicating spell over its participants. Then the argument shifted to the idea that rioters might be rational actors: maybe at the moment a riot was beginning people changed their beliefs. They saw what was at stake and recalculated their estimations of the costs and benefits of taking part.
But Granovetter thought it was a mistake to focus on the decision-making processes of each rioter in isolation. In his view, a riot was not a collection of individuals, each of whom arrived independently at the decision to break windows. A riot was a social process, in which people did things in reaction to and in combination with those around them. Social processes are driven by our thresholds—which he defined as the number of people who need to be doing some activity before we agree to join them. In the elegant theoretical model Granovetter proposed, riots were started by people with a threshold of zero—instigators willing to throw a rock through a window at the slightest provocation. Then comes the person who will throw a rock if someone else goes first. He has a threshold of one. Next in is the person with the threshold of two. His qualms are overcome when he sees the instigator and the instigator’s accomplice. Next to him is someone with a threshold of three, who would never break windows and loot stores unless there were three people right in front of him who were already doing that—and so on up to the hundredth person, a righteous upstanding citizen who nonetheless could set his beliefs aside and grab a camera from the broken window of the electronics store if everyone around him was grabbing cameras from the electronics store.
Gladwell has an interesting argument here about how contagious behavior spreads. For those who want to actually understand this phenomena instead of making symbolic gestures that will have little impact on stopping the next mass-casualty, it’s a must read.
The Columbine tragedy gets especially close attention paid to it by Gladwell because it has been the template over which others have added their own twisted death tolls:
The first seven major shooting cases—Loukaitis, Ramsey, Woodham, Carneal, Johnson and Golden, Wurst, and Kinkel—were disconnected and idiosyncratic. Loukaitis was obsessed with Stephen King’s novel “Rage” (written under King’s pseudonym Richard Bachman), about a high-school student who kills his algebra teacher with a handgun. Kip Kinkel, on the morning of his attack, played Wagner’s “Liebestod” aria over and over. Evan Ramsey’s father thought his son was under the influence of the video game Doom. The parents of several of Michael Carneal’s victims sued the makers and distributors of the movie “The Basketball Diaries.”
Then came Columbine. The sociologist Ralph Larkin argues that Harris and Klebold laid down the “cultural script” for the next generation of shooters. They had a Web site. They made home movies starring themselves as hit men. They wrote lengthy manifestos. They recorded their “basement tapes.” Their motivations were spelled out with grandiose specificity: Harris said he wanted to “kick-start a revolution.” Larkin looked at the twelve major school shootings in the United States in the eight years after Columbine, and he found that in eight of those subsequent cases the shooters made explicit reference to Harris and Klebold. Of the eleven school shootings outside the United States between 1999 and 2007, Larkin says six were plainly versions of Columbine; of the eleven cases of thwarted shootings in the same period, Larkin says all were Columbine-inspired.
While the article is fascinating and in many ways deeply disturbing, there is nothing in terms of a solution offered by the author. The script established by Eric Harris is being revised by a new generation of young men. The riot is spreading.