Behavior

Mass Shootings in the US: Some Common Characteristics of the Men That Kill

An expert on American mass shootings says a mixture of white entitlement, economic anxiety, and male identity helps explain the gun violence epidemic.

This week’s massacre at a country music festival in downtown Las Vegas, which left at least 59 people dead and more than 500 injured, reminds us that the locations and circumstances of mass shootings in America are unpredictable. But according to one researcher, these tragedies are much less random and inexplicable than media reports and solemn speeches by public officials typically suggest.

The shooters often share three converging characteristics, according to Eric Madfis of the University of Washington, Tacoma, one of the world’s leading experts on mass murderers in the US.

In a 2014 paper published in the journal Men and Masculinities, Madfis determined that mass killers tend to share elements of white entitlement, middle-class instability and downward economic mobility, and heterosexual masculinity.  

“This is about entitlement because white people are socialized into believing that they are the dominant group in society,” Madfis told Seeker, “and so they have the highest expectations for their own success, and are less able to cope with loss when they fail to achieve that success.”

“The American middle class has shrunk, the economy has been de-industrialized, and wages have not increased in decades,” he continued. As a result, “many more Americans are experiencing downward mobility.”

While alleged Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock’s finances remain unclear, and convicted Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof, to take another recent example, may seem too young to have had major financial concerns, Madfis argues that financial anxiety can be “particularly threatening for many men who, as the traditional breadwinners, feel a great sense of shame when they aren't able to provide the sort of life for their families that they anticipated.”

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Prior research cited by Madfis has found that whites commit mass murder at a slightly higher rate relative to their share of the population, with 69.9 percent of American mass killers being non-Hispanic whites. A more recent dataset from Mother Jones covering 1982 to 2017 shows that 54 percent of mass shootings involving three or more deaths were committed by white men. Black people ranked second, but made up only 16 percent of the total.

Madfis's analysis suggests that this white disproportionality is exclusive to this type of killer. Whether or not Paddock fully fits Madfis’s profile remains an open question.

“It is hard to tell based on the available information, but certainly he was a straight white male,” he said. “He had no prior history of criminal behavior, which is actually quite typical of mass killers. He was also divorced twice, and that is the type of life stressor which mass killers often experience many times.”

Paddock's father was a serial bank robber who was arrested by the FBI when Paddock was seven years old. He later escaped from prison and landed on the FBI's Most Wanted list. It's uncertain what effect this might have had on Paddock, the eldest of four sons.

Early news reports suggest Paddock owned several homes and could potentially be quite wealthy, which Madfis acknowledged is atypical of the general mass shooter profile.

“But he was also a prolific gambler, so it would not surprise me at all to learn that he recently suffered a significant financial loss,” he noted. “That said, mass killers do not just ‘snap.’”

Paddock had reportedly been involved in some high-stakes bets in the weeks ahead of the shooting, according to NBC News, wagering anywhere between $10,000 to $30,000 a day on several occasions. Investigators have not yet determined whether he was winning or losing money.

Madfis’s analysis of mass murderers goes back to 1999, his junior year of high school. Following the Columbine High School massacre that year, he noted copycat shootings. At his own school, someone wrote in the boys’ bathroom, “Columbine Could Happen Here,” along with a particular date. Many people skipped school that day, but Madfis attended as usual.

At the end of the day, after nothing had happened, a friend turned to him at their lockers and said sarcastically, “Boy, today sure was disappointing.” The vice-principal of the school overheard the statement, interpreted it as a threat, and suspended his friend.

This sparked Madfis's interest in the responses to shootings.

“I wanted to know more, not only about what causes these types of events, but also about evidence-based solutions to actually prevent them,” he said.

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Studies repeatedly show that upwards of 90 percent of mass killers are male, with the vast majority identifying as straight.

“Violence often operates as a signifier of masculinity, and so someone who has failed to achieve a manly, macho identity in other realms — such as in work, love, or sports — can be seen as powerful and masculine simply by engaging in violence,” Madfis said.

Violence, he added, seems to be a solution for certain men not only because of the association of violence with masculinity, but also because of cultural cues that establish aggression as an appropriate masculine reaction to shame.

"Some men respond to perceived emasculation in the socially approved manner for men — with violence,” he said. 

Madfis emphasizes that his argument is based on the performance of masculinity and gender, "rather than one about biological sex differences.” A transgender male should therefore be vulnerable to such behaviors, but Madfis said that since “trans people are forced to face myriad challenges throughout their lives” they “do not have the same privileges or lack of coping mechanisms as cisgender males.”

Mass murders are very different from homicide because the latter typically involves single-victim events. According to FBI crime statistics, interracial homicides in the US do not seem to exhibit the crisis in white identity that Madfis sees among many mass murderers in America. Last year, for example, it was reported that about 8.6 percent of black victims were killed by whites, while 15.8 percent of white victims were killed by blacks.

“The vast majority of homicide is intraracial, with blacks killing blacks, and whites killing whites,” Madfis said.

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Robert Hanlon of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine pointed out that in addition to cultural and societal influences, neurobiology and personality facets should be considered when attempting to analyze killers.

Certain genetic mutations mostly affecting males have been shown to increase a person’s risk for violent behavior 13-fold.

"All of our behavior has both a genetic and environmental component — they cannot be separated," neuroscientist Jeremy Richman of the Avielle Foundation — named after Avielle Rose Richman, who was killed during the 2012 mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut — told Seeker.

Madfis rejects a strong genetic connection between violence committed by non-human male primates and violence committed by men.  

“If that were the case,” he said, “one would see more stable and constant rates of mass murder all across the world and throughout history. However, we are seeing more instances of mass murder now in the United States for a reason.”

A 2016 cross-national study that looked at 171 countries confirmed that there are more public mass shootings in the US than in any other country in the world.

Madfis argues that political and cultural responses are necessary for diminishing gun violence in America.

“We need to work against our problematic culture, which associates violence with masculinity and glorifies gun culture and violence as a way to attain a sense of masculine power and lasting fame,” he said. “We also could do a lot more to prevent these attacks with a far more robust mental health system, and especially with mental health care that focuses on addressing toxic forms of masculinity.”

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