For most Americans gun violence is a problem for the ‘other’: the poor, ‘minorities’, the mentally ill. When gun violence veers into the mainstream it’s usually in the guise of a political assassination, a tabloid style crime of passion, a celebrity suicide, or a mass shooting.

According to the FBI, mass murder involves an individual murdering four or more persons in a relatively short time frame without a ‘cooling off period’. Mass shootings as a kind of mass murder, are subdivided by many criminologists into three separate categories: 1) family violence, 2) deaths linked to others crimes like drug deals or robberies, and 3) the category that we will be exploring, ‘public massacres’.

Of the 31,000 firearm related deaths in 2010, 62% were from suicides, 36% were homicides, and 2% were unintentional1. Public massacres are a kind of mutant strain of gun violence that, while rare, have the ingredients of every kind of gun violence. Family members and strangers are targeted. Personal hatreds along with political and social motives are often identified. The alienation that is often used to explain violence among the disadvantaged is present in the mass shooter, but to a greater and more lethal degree. The mass shooting usually begins as a homicide, that ends in a suicide of the perpetrator.

In the same way that we use the extreme case of the ‘obsessive’ to teach us about human desire or the ‘addict’ to explore human frailty, the mass shooter can teach us a great deal about gun violence in America, but it is useful to look at some of the individuals responsible. In the next post we will look at a man who is in my opinion the prototypical mass shooter: Charles Whitman.

  1. Reducing Gun Violence in America, Daniel Webster, p.3 []