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Are We Encouraging Mass Shooters?

Updated on October 4, 2015
Sherry Thornburg profile image

Sherry Thornburg writes commentaries on current events and social issues. Graduate of University of Houston-Downtown.

In Memorial

Another school shooting to mourn.
Another school shooting to mourn. | Source

The evening after the latest school shooting in Oregon, social media was covered with shares and re-shares of articles about the shooting. Only a day later, the news was full of what-might-bes, but very few facts.

President Obama made a speech that was roundly applauded and reviled depending on what side of gun control one stands on. His message was all about gun control claiming “simple gun safety laws” would have avoided the tragedy. Later a summery of his proposals were released.

But this article isn’t going to be about gun control.

Political use of Statistics to Confuse Issues

The President also made a comment that “We know that states with the most gun laws tend to have the fewest gun deaths.” My search on the subject shows that the validity of such a view depends on how you look at the data. A broad brush glance says it’s true, but other studies say that large parts of those death statistics came from cities with strict gun control laws such as Detroit, which is the deadliest city in the nation for two years in a row, Washington D.C and Chicago.

Others say the data is meaningless if one doesn’t take into consideration, demographics such as college graduation levels, poverty levels and other factors. Others decry the way just gun fatalities are used without breaking it down properly. They say talking about gun deaths is disingenuous without stating how many fatalities occurred due to self-defense and how many due to criminal action.

But this article won’t be about how statistics are used and missused.

Heroism

We learned that an Army veteran, Chris Mintz, was in the class room the shooter chose. Chris Mintz chose to act, charging the gunman to try to overpower him. His act of heroism caused him to be shot seven times as he tried to protect his classmates. He is receiving treatment and is expected to survive. We will be hearing more about him, I’m sure . . .

But this isn’t about heroism in the face of danger.

Army Veteran Chris Mintz

Chris Mintz recovering at Hospital
Chris Mintz recovering at Hospital | Source

Self-Defense and Concealed Carry Issues

In the details that were available, we learned that the Umpqua Community College campus had a no-guns policy, which would label it a gun free zone; but gun activists would be wrong to say that this rendered students without a means of self-defense. As any Oregon gun owner knows, state law prohibits any public body except the Legislature from restricting the rights of concealed weapons permit-holders. There were students on campus with weapons, but none in the classroom where the gunman was. Some of these armed students admitted later that running across campus would have confused responding police officers. Using a legally carried weapon in such instances requires close proximity to the situation . . .

But this isn’t about how to respond in such emergencies.

Media Coverage

Pundits were all over the internet, television and radio talking about different aspects of the issue. One chose to discuss the way the media reports these events. Psychiatrist Park Dietz suggested that the media not name shooters and keep such news local and national coverage to a minimum. He also suggested that the coverage be stripped of drama, fancy eye-catching graphics, fan fair and the repetition that can aggrandize the perpetrator rather than denounce the tragedy. The below video details his recommendations. In this I can only agree . . .

But this isn’t fully about how the media promotes and sensationalizes stories.

Media Coverage Effects

A Bad State of Mind

The point I would make isn’t even a new one, but it bears repeating as what we learn in the future will likely point to issues that keep coming up in these instances, but are then buried under political rhetoric.

It is about a mother going to neighbors asking for quiet because the sounds of loud children and barking dogs bothered her son. In another instance, this mother passed around a petition asking for extermination services because the bugs bothered her son. It is about a young man that was looking for a fresh start in a new place, but nothing seemed to be going right for him.

Law Enforcement Officials that have investigated his social media writings state that, “He was in a very bad state of mind.” They found a blog post about Vester Flanagan, who in August fatally shot a Virginia news reporter and a cameraman.

"I have noticed that so many people like [Flanagan] are alone and unknown, yet when they spill a little blood, the whole world knows who they are. A man who was known by no one, is now known by everyone. His face splashed across every screen, his name across the lips of every person on the planet, all in the course of one day. Seems like the more people you kill, the more you're in the limelight."

His final post was a video documentary of the Sandy Hook shooting posted Wednesday, the day before he committed his own school shooting.

Assumptions, Causes and Motivations

We know from early reports of his life that he appeared to be an avid gun owner and collector. The weapons he took to the Umpqua campus and those found at his home may well have been obtained legally. We don’t know any different, but I’m sure that will out as further details are published.

We learned that he asked the religious affiliations of his victims before shooting them. He was said to have been hostile against organized religion, but the above look into his mind doesn’t promote that animosity as a reason for the events. We again don’t know any different as of yet. We don’t know if that state of mind had ever been diagnosed by a doctor or if he was being treated for mental problems. An undiagnosed mental problem is not something the state can act on, and in this case, the shooter was a 27 year old adult. If he didn’t want to be treated, he had the right not to be.

Dr. Jeffrey Swanson, a professor of psychiatry at Duke University, authored a 2001 study of mass shooters that found three out of four had no psychiatric history. Other studies also show that mental illness and violence don’t go hand in hand. Very few mentally ill patients have violent tendencies. These findings have fueled past outcry against stigmatizing the mentally ill as potential mass murderers. So if mental illness isn’t the problem. then what can we point to?

We might consider the shooter’s own words.

“A man who was known by no one, is now known by everyone. His face splashed across every screen, his name across the lips of every person on the planet, all in the course of one day. Seems like the more people you kill, the more you're in the limelight."

Mass Shooting Timeline becoming more Frequent

Timeline of Mass Shootings
Timeline of Mass Shootings | Source

Vicious Circles

In many cases, we found that those perpetuating these events were highly depressed and lonely people. Copycats who have followed mass murder events have been found to be after the “limelight” or notoriety past shooters had gained. Even knowing that they were likely to be killed, these people still sought going out in a blaze of glory, so to speak.

After we get more information, we will likely find that this man was troubled and looking for a way to get noticed, even for just one moment. He might have been looking for a way to go out known, his name across the lips of every person on the planet,” rather than just another angry insignificant person.

Highly restrictive gun laws don't keep weapons away from people like that with no history of criminal acts or psychiatric treatment. The problem isn’t in the law. The problem is within ourselves; we who have craved every minuet detail about the shooters acts, live and psyche. We who have spurred on ratings chasing news networks who in turn have offered up every scrap of information and repeated the telling after every commercial break. We have made rock stars of lonely unstable people who think that their last chance to be ‘somebody’ was to kill others on a large enough scale to achieve notoriety, which again demanded a media circus to catch the attention of yet another who craved the limelight.

The media will tell you keeping these details away from the public would hurt public education and discourse. That may well be, and I’ve made my belief that publicizing the latest shooting will continue as prolifically and deeply detailed as past shootings. Unfortunately, this will give the shooter what he wanted, immortality. The shooter’s attitude isn’t a sane one, but neither is the way we as a society have refused to break the cycle that draws troubled souls into destroying more and more lives.

© 2015 Sherry Thornburg

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