Sociology of American Shooters: Young, Angry, and Violent

Gen Y- this is for you. We are a criminal generation. Throughout our childhoods we were plagued by an epidemic of mass murderers and homegrown terrorists. Not that mass murderers and terrorists are necessarily a new thing, exclusive to Gen-Y. The older generations have lived through much worse. Hitler. Stalin. Chairman Mao. But what makes our generation so different from the others is that for the first time, we are the suspects. All of us. For the most part, our lives have not been overshadowed by evil dictators, invading armies, or atomic bombs. The threats that we have dealt with, the ones that have impacted our lives the most were not from foreign places, foreign people, or foreign cultures. The threats that have directly impacted our lives on a day to day basis come from each other.

In the 1940s, the everyday lives of American children were disrupted by an overseas war. We coped by constructing bomb shelters, running emergency evacuation drills, and stockpiling food and water. In the 1990s and 2000s, the everyday lives of American children are disrupted by a different sort of war. One that required emergency lockdown drills in school, routine drug and gun busts, and a crackdown of zero-tolerance policies. We are a generation that has grown up under constant surveillance, and experienced the dissolution of our basic human rights at a very young age.

In The First Year Out: Understanding American Teens after High School by Tim Clydesdale, he accurately observed that he was wrong in hypothesizing that 9/11 had the biggest impact on our generations’ lives.  Instead, an incident perpetrated by criminals much closer to home was what caused the greatest shift in both the physical and mental world of American teens.  The Columbine Massacre. Because while 9/11 cast a shadow over us through the news, in airports, and in foreign policy, the shadow of the Columbine shootings crept into our schools. Dark mutterings and cruel stereotyping followed students that dressed a certain way or played certain video games after this. Metal detectors and high chain-link fences and cameras in the hallways and on-campus police officers became prominent in our public schools after Columbine. The rules and regulations changed. The whole game changed. And in turn, it changed us.

Lets start by looking at some facts: Since the 1900s, Canada has had eleven (11) school shootings. Europe has had twenty-two (22). South America, Asia, and Austrilia combined have only had thirteen (13). And, (drumroll please) God’s favorite country, the United States of America, has had one-hundred and eighteen (118). Or, for all you visual people out there who like clean charts and percentages:

Concerning, no?

Now, I’m sure that my numbers and data are in no way, shape, or form completely accurate. I spent a couple of weeks researching online to write this thing, and it is in no way a complete sociological investigation into mass shootings. Maybe if someone finds this post particularly poignant or interesting, they can encourage me to apply for a grant to conduct a social research project on this topic. But for now, we’re going to have to deal with whatever information I managed to find online.

I collected as much information as I could on shooting rampages; meaning any incident I found where an individual planned to shoot and kill as many people as possible in a public setting. I did not count any rampages that did not involve a gun, as my focus is on gun violence in the United States. Furthermore, I focused especially on school shootings, as I find them to be especially important in gun violence from a sociological point of view.  America, land of the free and home of the brave, is rotting slowly from the inside out.

As we can see from the charts below, there seems to be zero correlation between guns per capita and homicides per country. United States, topping the chart at a whopping 88.8 guns per 100 residents, has nowhere near the gun violence of, say, Columbia, with its relatively minute <10 guns per 100 residents. However, Switzerland, 4th in the world for guns per capita at 45.7 firearms per 100 residents, had a grand total of 40 gun-related homicides in 2010.

Country

Guns per 100
residents (2007)

Rank
(2007)

 
 United States

88.8

1

 
 Serbia

58.2

2

 
 Yemen

54.8

3

 
 Switzerland

45.7

4

 
 Cyprus

36.4

5

 
 Saudi Arabia

35

6

 
 Iraq

34.2

7

 
 Finland

32

8

 
 Uruguay

31.8

9

 
 Sweden

31.6

10

 
 Norway

31.3

11

 
 France

31.2

12

 
 Canada

30.8

13

 
 Austria

30.4

14

 
 Germany

30.3

15

 
 Iceland

30.3

15

 
 Oman

25.5

17

 
 Bahrain

24.8

18

 
 Kuwait

24.8

18

 
 Macedonia

24.1

20

 

So in short, what does this mean? First of all, for all of those conservatives out there maintaining that if we made guns as readily available as Switzerland, we would have less gun violence…well… you have already been proven wrong. The United States has roughly twice the number of guns per capita than Switzerland. And our gun-related homicide rate in 2010 was (wait for it…) 9,369. Or 234.25 times more gun-related homicides than Switzerland. So I think it should be pretty apparent by now that more guns does not equal less gun violence.

So why the United States of America? Why the most educated, wealthiest, powerful nation in the modern world? Well, as it was so well put by in the documentary The War on Kids, “destructive behavior is often a reaction to an abhorrent environment”. So if it is not the number of guns per captia within a country that has a positive or negative correlation with gun violence, there must be some other environmental reason why Americans can’t stop shooting each other.

The next question that I wanted to answer was: Is it just my imagination, or has the frequency of mass shooting rampages  occuring in the United  States increased over my lifetime?

In a word, no. No it is not just my imagination, it is a very depressing reality. Through collecting data of the worst shooting rampages in the past 50 years (which, I must emphasize again, is by no means 100% accurate) eleven out of the thirty nine, or 28% of the mass shootings occured between 1965 and 1990. Beginning from my birth year, 1991, onwards, we see a sharp increase in shootings. Twenty-eight out of thirty nine, or 72% of the worst shootings in America occured within the past 22 years. Or, to put it another way, mass shootings increased 270% in the past 22 years. Eek.

Visual people may reference the chart below. The x-axis is the year in which the shooting occured, the y-axis is the number of fatalities that resulted from each shooting, with Virgina Tech’s shooting in 2007 producing our all-time high of 32 fatalities in one go.


However, as I mentioned before, I did attempt to focus more on school shootings, as I find these to be more sociologically indicative of the health of a society. The young generation is the Future, and thus, if we want to know what kind of future we are getting in to, we should be looking at what is going on in our schools.

Before 1998 there were a grand total of five school shootings occuring over a period of 26 years. After 1998 the number of school shootings doubled to ten,  in a period of 14 years. To put it another way, before 1998 the United States experienced an average of 0.2 school shootings per year. After 1998 this number shot up to 0.7 shootings per year. Uh oh.

Now, why the sudden focus on the year 1998, if before I was talking about the reverberating effects of the Columbine Massacre upon our generation? Well, because exactly one year before Eric Harris & Dylan Klebold went on their killing spree at their public high school in 1999, another shooting rampage by two young boys had shocked the nation (and maybe even inspired Harris and Klebold more than their death-metal music and first person shooter video games).

In 1998, Mitchell Jonson & Andrew Golden, aged ten and eight years old, respectively, pulled the fire alarm at their elementary school in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and then proceeded to open fire at their classmates and teachers as they exited the school. They killed five and wounded nine before attempting to flee in a relatives’ van that had been stocked with weapons, ammunition, and camping gear.

In 1998, I was only seven years old and had thus, not heard about nor could comprehend the magnitude of this occurance. In fact, this shooting was widely downplayed by the media due to the culprits status as minors. But like pieces of a puzzle slowly coming together, now, fourteen years later I am able to look back at this Jonesboro massacre, orchestrated by two extremely young boys a mere year before the Columbine massacre was orchestrated by two teenage boys of 17 and 18 years, and see a connection.

Is it a coincidence that in the years directly after Jonson and Golden, the two youngest school shooters in the history of America, shot up their school the number of school shootings per year in America nearly tripled?

I can’t answer this, I can only hypothesize. My hypothesis is yes. Yes, the 1998 Jonesboro school shooting did profoundly impact our public school systems to the core. It did inspire Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold of Columbine. It did suddenly turn the tables on schoolchildren and teachers. It did radically change the power dynamics between students and authority figures. It did reconfigur each child as a worthy suspect of violence. And, as Howard Becker’s labeling theory suggests, American schoolkids accepted this new-fangled label of ‘potential criminal’ that had been slapped on them by school officials, and adapted to fit the profile.

For anyone who read my previous blog on Newport High School, it should be pretty apparent that my opinion of public high schools is overwhelmingly negative, and has been for some time. I was actually surprised to find that, years after I originally wrote this post exposing the toxic effect zero-tolerance policies, unnessicarily harsh rules and regulations, and a jail-like  school building had on our student body, The War on Kids validated almost every single one of my observations. “Destructive behavior is often a reaction to an abhorrent environment.”

So in implementing vast reforms in public high schools to make them resemble almost prison-like conditions, and in treating students pretty darn similarly to prison inmates, is it any surprise that this generation has grown up to express increasingly violent tendencies? Is it really any surprise that we are now seeing school shootings with increased frequency by shooters of increasingly younger ages? No. Nobody should be surprised at all.

And when I say increasingly younger ages, I really do mean our mass murderers are really  getting younger. A young and angry generation. First I present to you a general breakdown of the shooters in my sample, done in percentages, to the left.

As we can see, about one-third of our shooters are under the age of 25 at the time of their gun rampage.

But the next chart, plotting our shooters ages against the year in which the rampage occurs, the effect of the Jonesboro elementary school shooting slowly becomes more telltale.

Before Jonson and Goldin shot up their elementary school, the United States had never seen a mass murderer under the age of twenty. Afterwards, however, eight of our shooters (counting Jonson and Goldin themselves), fall under the age of twenty. Or to put it simply, after the Jonesboro school shooting in 1998, eight out of the twenty-one, or 38% of our shooters were under the age of twenty. So are they getting younger and angrier? It seems like it. And why are they just so damn angry at such a young, nubile age? This, folks, is the million-dollar question. I can only repeat, “destructive behavior is often a reaction to an abhorrent environment.” This abhorrent environment being the United States of America.

The above chart graphing age against year of the crime indicates one last important point I’d like to make about the average mass shooter and how America should be adapting it’s gun laws to fit a new type of criminal. One of the pro-gun, de-regulation arguments follows the strange logic that if everybody was armed then shooters would think twice about going on a public rampage. That having lots of citizens with lots of guns will deter possible murderers. I cry false.

Look at the color-coded points above. Twenty of our thirty-nine shooters, or 51% of them, committed suicide on-location. Four of them (10%) were shot by police or civilians on-location, so their suicidal intentions remain unknown. The point of this is that over half of our shooters don’t give a damn about dying. They wanted to die. They were planning on dying. They just wanted to kill a whole bunch of people first. So to argue that having a gun-soaked environment would act as a deterrent to our shooters would in actuality deter less than half of them.

The recent Empire State Building shooting demonstrated this “more guns less gun victims” fallacy quite clearly. There was one shooter, and one victim in a public place. In come two NYPD officers, extensively trained and experienced in firearms, to save the day. The result was one fatality (the shooter, Jeffery Johnson) and nine bystanders wounded by these police officers. Now, imagine if it had not been just two trained police officers touting guns that day on the sidewalk outside of the Empire State Building, but a whole slew of civilians, less trained than law enforcement in marksmanship, who pulled out their guns and began firing at the Johnson. How many more wounded and fatalities would there have been? Most definitely more than nine. So do more guns really insure a safer environment? No, not at all. They will not deter over half of our suicidal mass shooters, and they will not ensure a safer public space in the event of a public shooting.

So what is to be done about gun regulation in America? It is quite obvious we cannot change a whole country’s cultural environment at the flick of a switch. But a good place to start would be with how our public schools treat the students they house.

Another good place to start would be to take the old NRA maxim, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” and wholeheartedly support that idea. Because regulating the types of guns or ammunition sold is not enough. But regulating the people who buy the guns and ammunition is exactly what we should be doing. So sue me if I’m speaking blasphemy, but I don’t think it should be a constitutional right for everyone to bear arms. Mentally ill people should not have the right to bear arms. People with certain criminal records should not have the right to bear arms. People who have been Google-ing how to effectively murder a large number of people in a short amount of time should not have the right to bear arms.

Much like how the TSA pisses off the American population with its racial profiling, invasive and random searches, and vast databank of personal information in the name of homeland security, gun retailers should be doing the same. Because if Americans can agree that it is ethically ok to treat every single person who boards an airplane like a potential hijacking terrorist, then we should be able to agree that it is ethically ok to treat every single person who buys a gun like a potential mass murderer.

We all agree that the purpose of an airplane is to transport people in the same way that we agree that the purpose of a gun is to kill for protection or hunting. But we all must recognize that these objects hold dual-natures. So far, we have only acknowledged that every traveler may be a potential hijacker, while we can’t seem to connect the dots and acknowledge that every gun-owner is a potential killer. This, to me, is a bit ridiculous.

At the cusp of a pivotal presidential election, I understand why both Democrats and Republicans alike have shied away from the prickly situation of gun regulation. But I hope than in the months after the election, no matter who wins, the White House will seriously begin to consider what kind of reforms they should be enacting to keep this country safe from itself. We are not a country that decides when we don’t know how to deal with something, we will just ignore the problem until it goes away. The realm of gun regulation may be a black abyss that no politician wants to commit political suicide by delving into, but at this point, I am frankly fed up with politician’s putting their own re-election before the good of the country. Because (correct me if I’m wrong) I was under the impression that politicians go into politics to make a difference in the world, change the country for the better, and serve the American people in a fair, democratic fashion. If not a single politician can stand up and say “I’d rather lose votes than continue to lose innocent lives” then America as a democratic society has failed.

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One thought on “Sociology of American Shooters: Young, Angry, and Violent

  1. I don’t mean to sound like a jerk, but the ages of the two shooters involved in the Westside School Shooting (what you call the Jonesboro shooting) are way off — Johnson was 13 and Golden was 11. I point this out not only for accuracy but also because it makes a tragic and confusing story that much more confusing to imagine the shooters as 7 and 8 years old, seeing as they were supposed to be their own getaway drivers. I wrote my senior thesis a year ago on the sociology of shootings such as these, though, and I found your entry very interesting — particularly the analogy of the TSA and air travel to gun regulation and ownership. Awesome entry!

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