Do you remember the movie Fisher King? It tells the story of two men’s tragically converging lives. An arrogant talk radio DJ, Jack’s insensitive on-air comments involuntarily prompt a depressed caller to commit a mass shooting at a popular Manhattan bar. Later on Jack meets Parry, a schizophrenic homeless man, whose condition is a result of witnessing his wife’s horrific murder at the hands of Jack’s psychotic caller. The movie is a brilliant snapshot of the effect of a mass killing in one man’s life. On the other hand, the latest attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Connecticut reminds us that mass killing is far from being merely an individual problem but a public issue. To understand the motives behind mass killings, the socio-psychological approach and policy may be involved.
Although behavioral science does not have a certain explanation on the drives of mass killings, most research highlights psychological, political and ideological motives as the major reasons. Moreover, a contagion effect which motivates killers underlines the role of media presentation in mass killings. Christopher Cantor explains in his study on media and mass homicide that giving mass killers significant media publicity can have a contagious effect on possible aggressors. Interviews with mass killers or serial murderers show that most are prone to talk about their killings since they believe their attacks are what make them noteworthy in the public eye. We can say that people with psychotic tendencies mostly try to create an unforgettable effect on the society of which they consider themselves outcast. Suicidal shooters try to make their master contribution to life by turning their death into such a horrible “show.”
Beyond personal anomalies, the U.S.’ outlier status among countries in terms of mass shootings is a clear sign that we should consider the phenomenon as a “public issue.” As sociologist C. W. Mills differentiates, if one is unemployed in a city of 100,000 people, it is probably this individual’s personal trouble. However, if large masses of people suffer from the same problem, it should be considered a “public issue,” calling attention to the large-scale problems of society. In this sense, skipping political aspects of the mass killing and reducing it to the “personal trouble” of the murderers would be misleading.
In the United States, there have been at least 62 mass shootings in the past three decades in 30 states. The UCLA Public Health Report confirms that the U.S. gun-related homicide rate is around 20 times higher than those of 22 other high-income countries. There are nearly 300 million guns legally owned in the U.S.
Even though the data attract notice to the dreadful picture of the country in terms of gun-related crimes, the power of the gun lobby has not changed in 20 years in the U.S. As Jill Lepore, professor of American
history, accentuates, 44 states have passed laws that allow gun owners to carry concealed weapons outside their homes for personal protection since 1980. Five states had these laws before 1980, leaving only Illinois. Although the U.S. policies on gun ownership are debated after every attack of the same kind, no effective steps have been taken yet.
Lepore names the U.S. as “one nation under gun” – a dreadful fate for a state that has long been considered to be the cradle of liberties and equality. The U.S. is now facing a hard test whether to eliminate some of these liberties for the sake of protecting others’ right to live or wait to witness worse massacres.
Dilek Karal is a researcher at the International Strategic Research Organization (or USAK) in Ankara.