This week the people of the United States bore witness to the deadliest shooting in modern U.S. history, claiming the lives of 58 and injuring over 500 more people attending an open-air music festival on the Las Vegas strip. The perpetrator was a 64-year-old retired accountant named Stephen Paddock, who acquired a number of firearms over the course of many years prior to carrying out the attack. Many young people can recall a number of events similar to this most recent mass shooting, seeing as gun violence has become an epidemic in the United States. We live in an age where mass shootings are seemingly a regular occurrence.
Even given the significant surge in gun violence in the United States since the late 1980s, these uniquely unexpected and particularly devastating events—which are nearly always carried out by a single white male shooter—seem alarmingly reminiscent of one another for a number of reasons. It could be that the man responsible always seems like “just a normal guy” to his shocked friends and relations. Nobody ever suspects the quiet man who indulges in violent movies or video games, has few close friends, likes guns and keeps to himself. His family is always caught off-guard; his friends and acquaintances had no idea of his intentions. Why are we so hesitant to condemn these men to the title of “terrorist” even though they fit the definition? Is it their skin color? Their socioeconomic status? Education level? Their family life? The answer isn’t so easily pinpointed, but through examination, we can identify a few similarities between these numerous tragedies—and through common understanding, we can begin to have an informed public discussion about how to learn from past mistakes and protect innocent lives in the future.
It seems to be a common underlying factor in a number of mass shootings that the perpetrators were able to purchase or otherwise acquire semi-automatic assault weapons with ease and in total compliance with the laws surrounding gun ownership. Because it is a common sentiment that men are socially obligated to protect a household, arms dealers readily sold to these men under the assumption that the guns were intended for either protection or sport. When 20-year-old Adam Lanza entered a Sandy Hook Elementary School classroom and gunned down six school administrators and twenty children under the age of eight years old in an eleven-minute rampage that ended in him taking his own life, it was discovered that the two pistols and the .22 caliber rifle he used in the attack and the additional semi-automatic rifle found in his car had been legally purchased by the shooter’s mother, Nancy. It was later discovered that Nancy had been Adam’s first victim when he killed her in their Sandy Hook, Connecticut, home before driving five miles to the elementary school.
In the instance of Nancy Lanza, who purchased her own murder weapon, it supports the claims that even having a firearm in your home puts you at a greater risk of falling victim to gun violence. (It also supports claims that gun ownership makes you more likely to successfully attempt suicide, as her son Adam did after committing the Sandy Hook shooting.) Despite the knowledge of her son’s mental health issues, Nancy Lanza still felt that keeping semi-automatic weapons and other firearms in her home would ensure her safety, which turned out to be the exact opposite of the case. The same study cites that mental illness does not necessarily contribute to the likelihood that someone will use the firearm in the house to commit suicide or homicide; rather, the element of impulsivity added by the available firearm is more at fault for this phenomenon. This is a huge claim because it refutes arguments that a gun in the home will keep a family safer—a common point of argument for those in favor of the 2nd Amendment, which allows Americans the right to bear arms for the purpose of protection.
Motive, particularly irrational motive, seem to be another common factor among perpetrators of mass shootings. Elliot Rodger, a 22-year-old Santa Barbara City College student with few friends and affluent parents, wrote a 140-page manifesto detailing his intentions to kill his roommates and wage a “war on women”, among other ominous, brutal threats. He detailed his experiences with rejection by his peers and seemed particularly frustrated by his unsuccessful attempts to associate with girls his age, whom he considered to have been cruel and unjust in rebuking his advances. Rodger then killed his three roommates in their shared living space, opened fire on the young women in a nearby sorority house, and continued to drive around shooting at innocent people and even at law enforcement before being discovered in his BMW with a self-inflicted bullet hole in his head. The Isla Vista Massacre in 2014 claimed the lives of six innocent people. And the widely sensationalized 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado was perpetrated by two male students who entered their high school and gunned down 26 of their classmates and school administrators, thirteen of whom died as a result of the attack. Their motive is widely considered to be a desire for payback from the bullying and ostracization they experienced at the hands of their peers.
It seems that white male shooters commonly cite social exclusion and a need for revenge as motives for gross displays of violence, as if the pressure to fit in and be accepted pushes these men to feel so inadequate that they have to make their peers suffer. This is an element of toxic masculinity—a term referring to the societal pressure perpetually pushing men to be insensitive, unemotional, confrontational and physically dominant. For someone like Elliot Rodger, rejection from potential romantic interests seemed to undercut his masculinity. Similarly, Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold may have felt emasculated by the taunting and ostracization from their peers, which may have triggered violent inclinations. Sigmund Freud, the famous neurologist credited as the founder of psychoanalysis, famously drew a comparison between firearms and penises, stating that guns and many other tools in general are often a symbol of a man’s utility. For men who have been rejected romantically and are feeling otherwise emasculated while living in a society that emphasizes sexual prowess and male dominance, responding to that emasculation and rejection with use of excessive and lethal force may be seen as a way to level the playing field in the eyes of these violent aggressors.
The media’s propensity to blame senseless acts of violence on mental illness not only hinders the justice system’s ability to hold violent aggressors accountable but stigmatizes mental illness and perpetuates the stereotypes of “crazy people” who commit violence. In a number of these cases, the gunman’s mental health was called into question in reference to his criminal defense or to excuse his actions in the eyes of a jury. The vast majority of people who suffer from assorted mental illnesses are not prone to violence, but when someone is in that frame of mind, it is the responsibility of those who know the person might be a danger to themselves or others to encourage them to get help—or, if that fails, to alert someone who might be able to avert a catastrophe. While mental health may be a factor in understanding the motives of some of these shooters, it shouldn’t be blamed for a person’s actions and the inability or unwillingness of outside parties to recognize the warning signs of someone who may be prone to violence. James Holmes, who opened fire in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado during the summer of 2012 was among the few mass shooters in recent history to be apprehended alive. He pled not guilty by reason of insanity, and his parents begged the jury not to seek the death penalty because of his illness—yet people who knew him, including the mental health professional who had been treating him, did not think it was cause for concern when he expressed homicidal ideations in the months prior to the attack.
Why, then, are we so ready to attribute acts of senseless violence perpetrated by educated, affluent and socioeconomically secure white men to mental illness when so many others who are convicted of crimes are not afforded the opportunity to cop an insanity plea to reduce their sentences? Why is it so easy to blame an invisible mental illness rather than the rage and fear of inferiority that may very well be the true catalyst for many of these violent offenders? Simply because a socially-learned ideology that criminalizes dark-skinned offenders does not allow for the possibility that white people can be senselessly violent and aggressive, too—at least not without the added scapegoat of mental illness. We have a culturally informed idea of what a violent offender looks like, an idea of what a terrorist looks like, and an idea of what a social outcast looks like. When our violent offender fails to fit the profile of a criminal or a terrorist, we let the appearance of the offender decide how we should classify him. Instead of being an angry, aggressive social delinquent, those insistent on mitigating the severity of his crimes will instead cite mental illness and social isolation as characteristics of this phenomenon that our preconceived notions fail to categorize.
When 21-year-old Dylann Roof shot nine people in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, he was apprehended alive, like James Holmes before him, despite his egregious display of violent propensities. Before the shooting, photos of Roof clearly show him burning the American flag and posing with symbols of the Confederacy. His sentiment was purely anti-black, which we know because—much like Elliot Rodger—Roof wrote a 2,000-word manifesto detailing his motives and his plans: “We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.” He drew inspiration from the noted white supremacist organizations like the KKK and felt compelled to act in accordance with his perverse beliefs, which is the definition of terrorism. And yet, despite overwhelming evidence of clear intent to invoke political fear through the threat of violence, the media was reluctant to label this young white man as a terrorist.
Anti-Islamic sentiment is regularly misappropriated when it comes to conversations about terrorism. Even violent perpetrators who are not devout followers of Islam are given the moniker of “terrorist” as long as their skin is brown enough. See, for example, the case of 29-year-old Omar Mateen, who killed fifty people and injured 53 more people at the Pulse Nightclub in 2016 with a semi-automatic weapon. Despite being a natural-born American citizen who legally acquired the weapon used in the attack, he was suspected of making terrorist threats in years prior. The threats were dismissed after inconclusive interviews, according to the FBI. Still, the media and then-presidential candidate Donald Trump almost immediately labeled him a terrorist based on his ethnic background, his name, and the magnitude of his crime. Until the Las Vegas incident, the Pulse Nightclub shooting was the deadliest mass shooting in recent U.S. history and widely regarded as an act of terrorism. At the same time, despite expressing radical belief systems, white murderers like 44-year-old Garrett Swasey—who injured eleven people when he opened fire in a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs—still manage to evade the media nomenclature of being a domestic terrorist.
This stems from society’s unwillingness to demonize the white male form the way we have long done to the bodies of black and brown men. It is socially acceptable to stop and frisk a young black man because he “fits the profile” of a criminal offender based solely upon his complection, the way he’s dressed, or what time of night it is—but nobody stopped 64-year-old Stephen Paddock from carrying ten suitcases of semi-automatic weapons up to the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay before he shot hundreds of people in Las Vegas. 24-year-old James Holmes did not arouse suspicion when he entered a crowded movie theatre in full combat armor and opened fire on innocent people in the audience. Unlike many unarmed black men who are shot dead at routine traffic stops or under suspicion of petty crimes, violent mass murderers like Dylann Roof or James Holmes are apprehended alive and brought to a trial before a jury.
The United States is a perfect storm of misplaced anger, limited regulation of firearms, privilege, and entitlement. These factors, when working in concert, enable white men to continuously catch law enforcement off-guard and commit heinous acts of violence—all without eliciting concern from the legal system or even those closest to them. The elements of toxic masculinity imposed by society, the accessibility of military-grade assault weapons, our negligence to consider the danger posed by firearms, our dramatic stigmatization of mental illness, and our unwillingness to recognize white male privilege as an oppressive force have all converged to lead us into an age where mass shootings like these are the norm.