Another terrible mass shooting took place Sunday night at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas – the worst one yet, until the next even worse one.
As we try to process this newest variation of murder-suicide, we recall with agony the June 1, 2016 murder-suicide at UCLA where two men were killed in the engineering building, and, also close to home, the mass killings about six months earlier in San Bernardino, California. Such events are likely to raise our anxieties about being in large groups, whether on a university campus or a concert.
At such times, we’re prone to seek simple explanations and quickly revert to arguing for our “pet” single-factor causal explanation: gun laws, mental illness, violence in media, America’s fascination with fame and so on.
The arguments on different sides never change. Focusing on a particular causal factor is right to a limited degree but completely wrong in oversimplifying the debate to one “pet” reason while excluding other interlinking factors behind these tragedies.
Let’s consider mental illness, for example. Numerous studies have found that the vast majority of mentally ill people are not violent. Conversely, the vast majority of those who commit mass killings are not “mentally ill” in a psychiatric way. What the research doesreveal is mental illness mixed with other factors, such as alcohol or drugs, may increase the likelihood of violence.
Moreover, such a combination in the context of an environment that makes collecting lethal weapons like playthings and often glorifies violence in its media creates an ideal breeding ground for mass killings to become a sad routine. The United States exceeds every other comparable nation by magnitudes when it comes to gun violence. For example, between 2000 and 2014 there were 133 mass shooting events in this country, and no more than six in any other developed nation, as stated in the 2016 book “Mass Shootings: Media, Myths And Realities.”
Violence is not explained by any one single factor, but by a confluence of multiple risk factors – a “cocktail mix.” This concept is not foreign to us when considering other types of risk. Take heart disease, for example. We know that genetics, smoking, a sedentary lifestyle and high cholesterol, each taken alone, may yield a weak prediction, but the interactive combination of several of these risk factors improves predictive accuracy tremendously.
Let’s consider the availability of guns. Murder rates depend more on who uses the guns than the absolute number of guns. Switzerland has one of the highest gun-ownership rates in the world , and yet murders there are rare. Japan has almost no privately owned guns and its murder rate is almost identical to that of Switzerland. England is similar to Japan in this regard. But all of these countries, and other comparable nations, have much stricter gun control laws than we do.
Also, there are other cultural differences that are important. Swiss culture, for example, generally places a greater emphasis on collective responsibility and consciousness and, of particular relevance, a much greater emphasis on responsibility in the use of firearms.
Certainly, this raises the question of what can be done to temper the impact of the multitude of factors contributing to violence and mass shootings specifically in our society. It would be a folly to propose a simple remedy. But plenty can be done if we are willing to address each and every factor that contributes to the terrible situations we face.
Identifying and changing multiple risk factors – even to some degree – can make a big difference. Potential risk factors often work together to increase risk, and similarly, potential protective factors can work together to mitigate said risks.
However, incessant intertribal fighting over what is “the cause” of mass killings has produced and will produce nothing. When we have finally reached a “tipping point” – the point where we decide enough is enough when it comes to mass shootings – we will finally know it is time to sit together and talk.
Imagine that you had just survived your second heart attack. You wouldn’t fret about which risk factors are to blame, but rather worry about how to avoid the next attack. You would likely be willing to make dramatic changes in various aspects of your life – diet, exercise, medication and so on.
Likewise, when we finally sit down to discuss how we can stop ingesting our deadly “cocktail,” we may have a fighting chance.
Malamuth is a professor of Communication and Psychology at UCLA and a former chair of UCLA’s Department of Communication. Prentky is a professor and Director of Forensic Training Programs at Farleigh Dickinson University.