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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Mass Shooting: Psychosocial Dynamics

This author covers mass shooting factors, including mental health and media influence, and suggests five prevention steps.

As of October 26, 566 mass shootings (defined as four or more fatalities) have taken place in the United States in 2023 (Abrams, 2023). A database of the National Institute of Justice shows of 172 individuals who engaged in mass shootings, 97.7% were male, 52.3% were White, 20.9% were Black, 8.1% Latino, 6.4%  Asian, and 4.2% Middle Eastern. Most of the male mass shooters tend to be unmarried, unemployed and not significantly different from the general population on prior felony conviction or preexisting firearm ownership (Lankford, et al., 2021). Apart from these demographics and correlates, research about mass shootings is challenging and always ex-post-facto—exploring the cause of actions already taken place.

Mass shooting is a complex and extreme form of human behaviour. Many traits and states contribute to this behaviour. These traits and states are in the early stages of empirical investigation. Hence, it is critical not to assume that there is a core set of traits or states which generate this extreme behaviour. Based on available and emerging evidence, in this article, six insights associated with potential causes and consequences of mass shootings are discussed, followed by five strategies and suggestions to tackle and potentially prevent future mass shootings.   


1. Mental Illness:

Mental illness is perhaps the most cited reason for mass shootings. Psychological disorders, including psychosis, schizophrenia, delusional disorder, major depressive disorder, and bipolar disorder, are not associated with violent Behaviour. However, substance abuse, in combination with other psychological conditions, tends to increase violent behaviour. Personality disorders, which generally involve enduring maladaptive patterns of personality, excluding antisocial personality disorder, are not associated with violence. Research indicates that people with severe mental illness are responsible for less than 1% of all gun-related homicides that occur each year (Knoll & Annas, 2018). More specifically, approximately 5% of mass shootings are related to severe mental illness. However, a much larger number of mass shootings (about 25%) are associated with non-psychotic psychiatric or neurological illnesses and an estimated 23% with substance use. In most cases, these conditions were found to play a causal role in mass shootings (Brucato et al., 2022). The same study identified 1315 mass murders identified. Of these, only 11% reported lifetime psychotic symptoms. Therefore, the association between mental illness and mass shootings is not straightforward and conclusive. At the same time, associating mass shootings with mental illness perceptualizes the stigma about mental health. It diverts attention from other important factors such as access to guns, media reporting and a host of adverse socio-economic conditions. Furthermore, such linking also deters people with mental illness to seek treatment (Edwards & Kotera, 2023)

Read More: Cost of Conscience: How Moral Injuries Have Amputated the Soul of a Nation?

Evidence shows that motivation for more than half the mass shootings in 2017 and 2018 was related to personal and professional grievances or other life stressors. Indeed, some of these grievances were related to mental illness. However, mental illness was not the primary cause of mass shootings (Alathari et al., 2020). Another report examining the data in the US, 2000-2013, found that 25% of active shooters had ever been diagnosed with a mental illness. Of those diagnosed, only three had been diagnosed with a psychotic disorder (Silver, Simon & Craun, 2018).

2. Trauma-Crisis Link: 

42% of mass shooters report childhood trauma such as physical and/or sexual violence, witnessing domestic violence, parental suicidal behaviour or completed suicides, and bullying. Nearly one-fourth had lost a strong romantic relationship shortly before the shooting. 80% of shooters reach a crisis point in hours, weeks, or months, leading to shooting incidents. These crises usually trigger noticeable changes in behaviour in most shooters, such as increased agitation and isolation (Peterson & Denseley, 2021).

3. Leakage: 

There is usually a long pathway to mass shootings and many missed points along the way. One of the most important is leakage. Research indicates that more than half of mass shooters leak information, intentionally or unintentionally, about their intentions to family, friends, teachers, and work colleagues on social media in some way. More than 62% of mass shooters engage in some research and planning 1-2 months before shooting, and 54% are in the preparing phase (acquiring supplies and weapons) for seven days or less (Silver, Simon, & Craun, 2018). Hence, it is crucial to intervene appropriately when someone’s behaviour shows these signs.

Read More: The US has a mass shooting “virus”; no one knows why

4. Resentment & Rage: 

Individuals, especially lower-middle-class males, are fed with the promise of the American Dream; wealth and social status are achievable through legitimate work. This might have been true a few decades ago. However, those unable to achieve the American dream in a competitive, digital and globalized economy might harbour resentment to see jobs moving offshore or taken by immigrants. Moreover, the disappearance of patriarchal society and increasing social isolation may be brewing a “perfect storm” for most vulnerable minds.

5. American Dream: 

North American males are brought up on autonomy and self-reliance. When they cannot achieve the American Dream, a deep-seated sense of personal failure fractures their self-image and forces them to become isolated. Lacking self-efficacy and feeling isolated could quickly breed depressive symptoms, which, along with factors aforementioned, could lead them to do something. Research indicates that one-third of mass shooters tend to be actively suicidal before shooting, and 40% plan to die in the act, as the escape of the shooter from mass shooting is rare.  Hence, shooting could be perceived as their last act of self-reliance (Lankford & Cox, 2021).

6. Media Contagion:

Americans seem to have a fascination towards violence – on their media screens (e.g., crime shows, wresting, action movies, massive popularity of games like Grand Theft Auto, coverage of crime news or criminal trials such as OJ Simpson Trial) and in real life (e.g., number of murders, violent crimes, American involvement in wars).  This exposure likely impacts impressionable minds, especially if the exposure involves dramatic incidents sensationalized by live and extensive media coverage. Mass shootings, plane hijackings, terrorist attacks and even suicides are some illustrations. Evidence shows these incidents have copycat or contagion effects (Meindl & Ivy, 2017). However, the contagion effect does not explain how any specific behaviour spreads. Most mass shooters do not imitate behaviour portrayed in the media as each situation has its unique features. However, what might be more important is the way the media reports on mass shooters, which can play a role in increasing the probability of imitation. The extensive and repeated media coverage, including the shooter’s images, manifesto, and life story, also available on websites of news channels, can steer vulnerable minds in numerous directions, including creating a pre-occupation with grandeur that comes from a performance crime, cultivation of a sense of meaning and purpose for self-perceived injustices, and desire to attain fame and glory.  


Following are five strategies and suggestions to prevent mass shootings:

1. Probe Deep Enough: 

Many mental health professionals do not probe deeply enough with clients who have risk factors (e.g., history of trauma, trauma plus recent crisis vulnerability, prolonged feelings of resentment and rage for any number of reasons, persistent lack of self-efficacy). At the heart, these individuals with known risk factors are hurting, have unmet emotional needs, and have not been able to have reasonable psychological treatment. Therefore, mental health professionals must be strategic about probing and intervening promptly. In addition to mental health professionals, people can also increase their awareness of recognizing unusual Behaviour. A sample of questions to recognize unusual Behaviour is given in Table 1.

Table 1

Indicators to Recognize Unusual Behaviour:

  •   Does the person seem preoccupied or has become recently fixated with an ideology (e.g., of perceived harm, injustices, personal or of a specific group)
  •   Has the person experienced a recent severe trauma (death, accident, relationship breakdown, being fired from a job or a significant perceived failure)
  •   Does the person seem to accept violence as a justified way to address their grievances? and/or also has a childhood history of trauma?
  •   Is the person becoming increasingly isolated or sharing less about themselves?
  •   Has the person become increasingly hopelessly cynical and also has been discussing or mentioning morbid thoughts, images or metaphors?

2. De-escalation Skills: 

Hierarchies and power differential are embedded in our social structures (e.g., boss-subordinate, parent-child, teacher-student) and, where there is a higher risk of conflict, are poorly equipped with de-escalation skills. Due to cognitive biases (making erroneous assumptions in the heat of the moment), these conflicts can escalate into strong dislike if left unprocessed. Sometimes, such conflicts are also handled superficially without intercultural communication styles. Unprocessed conflicts, in conjunction with other factors, can produce toxicity and even hate.  Bosses, supervisors, teachers, religious leaders and parents need to be taught sophisticated de-escalation skills, which include deep breathing, physical diversions (moving into a calming and safe space to either vent or divert attention), understanding and intervening with nonverbal communication (e.g., supportive gestures, open and welcoming body postures) and of course, validating, nonjudgmental active listening (without rebuttals), and with follow up with facilitated conversations between conflicting parties.

3. Prevention and Postvention Resources: 

Workplaces, schools and community centers must develop resources for prevention and crisis response. Whenever anyone’s disruptive behaviour (agitation, argumentativeness, low frustration tolerance, physical acts of violence towards self, others or property), significant changes in behaviour (increased isolation, changes in performance, appearance, emotional changes) and social media behaviour posts, pictures, shared information, as well as violent or dangerous behaviours such preoccupation with weapons or making weapons, justifying violence, or associating with a violent group, ideology, mental rehearsal described in words or through online content, taken seriously and calmly. Without becoming panicked or overwhelmed, engaging with the person in a firm yet empathic manner can go a long way. There is emerging evidence that thoughtful programs can deal with threats and risks by taking a proactive approach and avoiding violence or serious injuries.

4. In-Person Relationships:

It is essential to develop professional expertise to understand not only mass shootings but societal violence through deeper interpersonal and culturally nuanced perspectives. Increasingly, our societies across the globe have become preoccupied with screens and swipes across the screen. The quality and quantity of genuine, enduring and intimate human relationships have suffered dramatically since the dot.com revolution. Social media meets some human relational needs but cannot connect two human beings the way eye-to-eye, smile-to-smile and heart-to-heart connections are established. Without discarding social media connections, we need to use them as supplements at best, but not substitute for in-person relations. The in-person connection can facilitate communication between two human beings – especially non-verbal ones, which can easily be misconstrued on online channels.

5. Media Guidelines:

The content analysis of hundreds of New York Times articles following 91 mass shootings (2000-2012) showed that the media focused much more on the shooter than on the victims. It is crucial to develop and regularly update media reporting guidelines regarding reporting of mass shootings. Media need to be mindful of some specific issues, such as avoiding naming the usual suspects, such as mental illness, access to firearms, bullying, and social media addiction, in explaining the potential causes of the mass shooting quickly. Media and the public should avoid sharing specific information about the shooter such as name, photos, detailed histories, methods and motivations, and any written documents such as manifestos or dairies. Media contagion indicates that combined coverage of mass shooters has an aggregated effect on potential shooters, seeding the belief that they will be rewarded with fame for their performance crime (Johnston & Joy, 2016).


To prevent mass shootings, we need to scientifically examine how different factors interact to propel someone to become an active shooter. Equally important is providing timely interventions to prevent violent Behaviour.

Dr. Tayyab Rashid is a clinical psychologist and lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.