Point of View

Seeing the patterns, planning interventions

December 18, 2012 

On the day of the tragic school shooting that claimed 28 lives in Newtown, Conn., President Barack Obama called for “meaningful action” to prevent such violence in the future. He said, “As a country, we have been through this too many times.” Of course, even one senseless tragedy like this is too many times, but the “meaningful action” needed is difficult to identify.

Discussions about increasing violence and what to do about it have permeated news media, social media and everyday conversations in the days after Dec. 14, when a 20-year-old man killed his mother in their home and then opened fire inside Sandy Hook Elementary School, killing 20 children and six adults before taking his own life.

Fear leads some to conclude that such violence is increasing and our nation is growing more and more unsafe. This is simply not the case. The truth is that most of us are extremely unlikely to become victims of violent crime, especially random acts of violence, and the U.S. violent crime rate continues to fall.

Grant Duwe, a criminologist with the Minnesota Department of Corrections and an expert on U.S. mass murder, recently told the Associated Press that our chances of being killed in a mass shooting are comparable to our chances of being struck by lightning. Schools in general are safe places. Despite widespread alarm in the late 1990s and early 2000s concerning a supposed increase in school violence, violent crime in schools dropped substantially from 1992 to 2002, and there has been no increase in school violence since then.

Fear also leads some of us to jump to conclusions about what should be done to stop such senseless acts of violence. But there is no easy solution. We cannot make all schools, office buildings and public places completely safe. Banning firearms or increasing regulation is unlikely to reduce acts of mass murder.

Let’s remember that the worst school violence in U.S. history, in terms of loss of life, was enacted by one man with explosives: The bombing of the Bath Consolidated School in Bath Township, Mich., in 1927 killed 45 people, including 38 elementary schoolchildren, six adults and the bomber himself, and injured many more.

Before we can determine the needed steps to reduce these extreme acts of violence, we need to identify and understand patterns in their commission. Examining an individual’s motivations or brain waves tells us little about the next individual, but identifying and developing explanations for patterned behaviors allows for the possibility of intervention.


Many school shooters are white males who exhibit a desire for fame and/or recognition, as well as a need for power and control, have little or no history of violent offending and would not meet the legal standard for insanity.

In addition, they tend to target victims and/or situations that they can rather easily control.

Patterned behavior like this suggests the presence of influences outside the individual. We analyze every detail of the lives, personalities and motivations of individual school shooters, but we do not spend nearly as much time on the potential cultural and social influences on their actions.

Some gender scholars suggest links between these acts and traditionally masculine characteristics, like power, control, strength, independence and aggression. Others point out the interaction of race, gender and power in these acts: White males have enjoyed more power and success than other groups in the U.S. and might have come to expect a privileged status. The perceived denial of rightful privileges may lead to feelings of injustice and then retaliation, sometimes in the form of violence. These and other sociological explanations must be considered.

We also should examine the ways in which extreme acts of violence are portrayed in the mass media. Widespread coverage of these cases – including in-depth analyses of the killers but limited attention paid to victims – often grants celebrity status to these killers and sends a dangerous message to other would-be offenders.

Julie B. Wiest, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of communication at High Point University whose recent book is “Creating Cultural Monsters: Serial Murder in America.”

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