The Recipe for a Shooter

On June 14th, 2017, James T. Hodgkinson walked into a baseball field where the Republican congressional baseball team was practicing and opened fire.  In the end 6 people had been injured and the shooter was killed by law enforcement on the scene in a shootout.  It should be no surprise that this is a situation that can easily be made political.  This was not a random act of terrorism.  The intent was to attack members of the GOP, and the shooter knew who would be at the baseball diamond that day, and the political views of this shooter were that of a “liberal”.

Given the growing unreasonableness on the left, such as the suppression of free speech on university campuses and even outbreaks of violence, it might be easy to say that conservatives are under attack by liberals and that we must increasingly become concerned about liberals.  If we look at the trends of mass shootings over the past 10 years I think we can easily see that this is not a partisan problem.  This is just another of many mass shootings in this country.  Another act of terror of the many that go through our news cycle, where nothing gets done.  But if we want to look at direct response to shootings that were politically based, when Gabby Giffords was shot, nothing was done legislatively because of that incident so it doesn’t seem likely anything will change now.  However, this administration hasn’t been terribly predictable so who knows?

When the name of the shooter was identified, knowing that he shot at Republican politicians, I was immediately interested in who the man was, because I was worried that his political views would be on the democratic side and that in the face of our current administration this might spell trouble for other liberals.  I imagine it is similar to the feeling a good law abiding Muslim must feel when a shooting happens.  Hoping the shooter isn’t a follower of Islam.  My Google search brought me to his Facebook profile.  This was literally a minute after his name had been released by the news.  I immediately saw that he was a Bernie supporter and was anti-Trump and naturally I groaned.  Several posts were public as is typical on any profile that shares stories.  What happened next was something I did not expect.  People began commenting on those posts.  Within a minute, hundreds of comments had been made with the larger proportion of those comments being insults hurled at the shooter.  The ugliness of humanity laid bare before me, and it was painful to see watch some meaningless rage.  One might argue that had this rage been directed to the actual shooter, maybe we could somehow have sympathy for such actions, but the shooter was dead.  The only people that could possible see this was family.  The anger could only hurt people who were only guilty of knowing the shooter.  No information about his family supporting him had been reported.  He could have been divorced, estranged, hated by them.  Perhaps they knew the man he once was and were simply saddened by the whole situation.  They were perhaps as appalled as anyone else at what Mr. Hodgkinson had done, and were simply grieving at the death of a man they thought they knew, or once knew.  I don’t understand people.  Unless a shooter actually killed somebody that I loved, I can’t imagine myself feeling enough rage to do the equivalent of “spitting on his grave”.

But I then reflected on my initial reactions to the shooting.  They were none too virtuous either.  Worried about how my “group” might be perceived in the future.  And yes even the thought of the irony of Republicans against gun laws, paying some penance for their views floated through my brain.  I am not proud of it, but perhaps this is what we’ve become in a society full of these incidents.  Of course, it’s also natural to have such thoughts, but what actions you take are, in the end, more important.  Despite my thoughts I did not get angry and lash out at anybody.  No shame or mocking.  This is a serious and sad incident and that is the most important position we should take on this matter. And as I saw comment after comment pour out I knew there was something important to be learned here, and wanted to take a few days to collect some thoughts and see what that might be.  I am not sure I’ve completely figured it out, but unfortunately I can’t help but worry that things aren’t going to get better here in the U.S. anytime soon.

CNN laid out quite distinctly all his liberal viewpoints, and that he was anti-GOP, and frustrated by the corruption and income inequality in this country.  The entire laundry list describes most people I know in my life who would never do something like this.  And yes, of course you never know, but I can at least say that probabilistically 99% of the people I know will not do something like this.  When we say that shooters like Dylann Roof are racist and that’s why he did what he did, or that Mr. Hodgkinson was a liberal or Bernie supporter and that’s why he did what he did, is this a fair thing to say?  I don’t believe so.  It ignores the many people who share similar views but don’t do these types of things.  We know John Lennon’s shooter was inspired by Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, but we know that millions of schoolchildren have read the book and certainly had no murderous thoughts because of the book.  The first thing that we have to be honest about, if we truly hope to lessen violent crimes like this in our culture, is that people who do these kinds of things are the confluence of more than one factor.  For any one behavior or trait, or any one environmental influence that you find in the shooter, you will find no solution to what makes somebody do this.  In the population of people that represent any one behavior or influence you will find far more non-killers than killers.

I should point out that there is one trait that all these acts of terrorism have in common.  The killer is male.  Yet of course we will still find far more males who aren’t killers, but it should at least make us ponder, what is it about being male through nature or nurture that increases the odds that they will become a perpetrator of these types of mass shootings?

One of the main points to come out about the shooter is his domestic abuse charge.  Why would someone like this be able to legally own firearms?  I’d like to look at this from two perspectives.  On one hand, it’s easy for everyone to get up in arms about a domestic abuser having a gun, given how often women are the target of incidents with firearms, this should be a no-brainer.  And maybe it is, although there are apparently some loopholes as discussed in the Slate article I just linked, but here is the problem:  he was never convicted.  This matters.  It must.  If we simply start denying people rights based on charges, then the rule of law has no value.

On the other hand, women know all too well about this kind of abuse.  It is very difficult to get a conviction for domestic violence.  What happens if your abuser threatens worse if you report them?  What happens if you do report them thinking, well they will be behind bars so I’ll be okay.  But what happens if you report it, but the cop doesn’t take you seriously?  Or the justice system fails you?  In reading about Mr. Hodgkinson’s domestic abuse case (it was against a daughter and a friend of the daughter), the case seemed a bit strange.  Though charged, he was never convicted because the victims never appeared in court?  Why would this be?  Perhaps they knew his temper.  Perhaps he threatened them. These are all likely scenarios and so the question then becomes, how do we deal with this type of person.  If we believe that evidence is still necessary for conviction, how do we get more people to come forward about their abusers?  How do we protect those victims adequately during and after their case, win or lose?  This is a problem we’ve been trying to tackle for years and there has been some progress, but not enough.  The progress that has been made has been a result of the rise of feminism.  Yes you may actually have to become a feminist if you want to make the situation better for those who experience domestic abuse.  And just because I am sure somebody reading this might say men are the victims of domestic abuse too, I shall freely admit that, yes, this is true.  But that doesn’t mean believing in gender equality is going to make you forget about male victims.  In fact, fighting gender stereotypes that oppress women actually makes things better for men.  Narrow definitions of masculinity and femininity also play into why a lot of men don’t get believed when they say they are victims of abuse.

Finally, we can’t ignore the role mental health plays when it comes to these types of incidences.  In reading about the shooter, beyond the domestic violence incidences, it is clear that he has a history of anger problems.  Anger has been linked recently to gun violence (link is an article that links to the peer-reviewed study but is only the abstract).  From the article:

“Swanson believes that it could be more effective to, instead of looking at mental health history, look at a prospective gun buyer’s record of misdemeanor convictions that could indicate impulsive, explosive and violent behavior.”

The paper also has a somewhat alarming graphic about men who experience excessive anger and gun ownership.

This is only one study and hopefully more research will be done in this area.  It seems also relevant then to ask, where does the shooter’s anger stem from?  Something in his childhood?  Is it some chemical imbalance in his body?  Is too much anger a mental health issue?  I would say yes, but there are a lot of people out there who get angry.  Like many things, any emotional reaction you find exists on a spectrum among people.  We could easily find someone out there who has anger problems but not quite as much as Mr. Hodgkinson, and some people with a little more.  Where do we draw the line and say, “this amount of anger is unhealthy, this amount of anger is healthy?”  And isn’t it more on how we act on that anger?  The study points again to convictions, but if there are none what then? How else might we learn about anger issues?  There are still stigmas for receiving treatment for any type of emotional struggle we are going through are still strong, especially for men.  In our society being aggressive and angry is valued for a man.  Such stereotypes imply that if you were to get help you would be seen as weak and less masculine.  Also, many people think of mental illness as only some condition you are born with or as something serious like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or dementia.  Things like anxiety, depression, anger are things people think we should always be able to control.  Unfortunately, this is not the case and excessive bouts of these things, even if it is temporary within your lifetime can lead to some pretty unhealthy outcomes.

So far, I don’t think I’ve said much new, but I guess one of the other facets of this incidents that inspired me to write this post was to look at the political activism of Mr. Hodgkinson.  Here is a person who has been active politically for some time.  He was a local business owner, was constantly engaged in various political causes.  Signing petitions, getting others to sign.  He was wrote opinion pieces to his local paper.  He volunteered for political campaigns.  Despite his anger problems, here is a man who, at least for a solid portion of his life, tried to solve the problems in society through engagement with people and the system on a non-violent platform.  I’ll quote once again from Sam Harris, because I think these words are very poignant here “…all we have is conversation…you have conversation and violence.  That’s how we can influence one another.  When things really matter and words are insufficient, people show up with guns. That’s the way things are.”  The end of Mr. Hodgkinson’s life are indicative of a man who was suffering mentally.  He was living out of a van, he looked like he was homeless.  Had sold most of his things just to move to D.C.  These aren’t the normal decisions someone makes and at the age of 66, it seems likely that there was at least some brain deterioration going on.  But here was a man who believed strongly about the world not being right, and he wanted to make it right.  And for many years he engaged in that activity non-violently.  Maybe he wasn’t the best representative for his cause, but he also wasn’t wrong.  There has been growing income inequality, the government is corrupt and colluding with the top 1%, and poverty increases in this country.  These are good things to get angry about.  Here is a man who tried for much of his life to use words, and I couldn’t help but thinking of the Sam Harris quote.  The causes the shooter was fighting for really matter, for many of us it feels like words ARE insufficient, and here we have someone showing up with a gun.

I am not trying to make this man seem like some sort of hero, but it made me wonder, given that this was clearly an attack on a political party, what is the difference between a terrorist and a revolutionary?  Numbers and organization?  I think the collective population, regardless of their beliefs, can feel helpless as words seem ineffectual in influencing change.  There are so many people in this world and the weight of it is enormous given the rate we can receive information about all the terrible things happening in it.  It’s more weight than our evolution prepared us for, and as one person it can easily feel like the only way to make an impact in it is to really get noticed.  And violence gets you noticed.  Mr. Hodgkinson has far more people thinking about him then he ever did being involved in politics throughout his life.  So when you have anger issues, problems with gun laws, problems with domestic abuse, a patriarchal society, a corrupt government that doesn’t respond to the people, increasing poverty, how many more people like Mr. Hodgkinson will pop out of the woodwork?  Can we stop them all?  Perhaps this is a commonality among all of these types of shooters.  A desire to be impactful in a world that feels unchangeable or a world that is changing with the feeling that it’s leaving you behind.  Either way, the amount of women doing these things is so negligible that it seems worth asking the question why men seem more susceptible to this type of behavior.

There are no easy answers here, and it’s time we stopped pretending there were.  One’s politics and religion certainly play a role, but so many other things do as well.  Let’s not aim for simple correlations and blame that solve nothing.  We know there are societies where this isn’t as big of a problem.  We are NOT helpless when we work together to build something better.  Change, however, does not happen overnight.  It takes patience and perseverance.  I still hold hope that we can find that change through conversation instead of violence, but I won’t lie and say that a worry that violence will continue to rise grows in the back of my mind.  As I think about all those people hurling out rage on Mr. Hodgkinson’s Facebook page, I wonder which angry person is the next to become violent.  Which one of those angry people has a gun, and with the right confluence of factors is the next one to use it.  For all my talk about conversation, I worry that not enough people are listening anymore.

25 thoughts on “The Recipe for a Shooter

  1. “For all my talk about conversation, I worry that not enough people are listening anymore.”

    I think a lot of people are listening, but to the wrong groups.

    “Beginning in the nineteen-seventies, the N.R.A. relentlessly promoted the view that the right to own a gun is sacrosanct. Playing on fear of rising crime rates and distrust of government, it transformed the terms of the debate. [snip] A Pew survey last December found that a majority of Americans thought protecting gun rights was more important than gun control. Fifteen years before, the same poll found that sixty-six per cent of Americans thought that gun control mattered more. And last year, despite all the new money and the grassroots campaigns, states passed more laws expanding gun rights than restricting them.”

    The U.S. has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, yet it’s home to between a third and a half of the world’s civilian-owned guns. In 2007 the U.S. had an average of 88 guns per 100 people. By 2013, there were more guns than people.

    “When you look at countries with similar characteristics to the U.S. — that have similar levels of life expectancy, education and income — the relationship between high levels of gun ownership and high rates of firearm death is glaring.”

    Thanks for this thought-provoking post, Swarn. We desperately need to have this conversation, although (for now) I think the NRA propaganda reigns supreme.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks Victoria. I think guns certainly play a role, but my goal was to look at things more holistically. Interestingly I read, I’ll see if I can find the reference, that actually the number of households that have guns has decreased by about 1/3rd since the 70s… With the number of find increasing it seems that a small percentage of the population just keeps buying more. Angry people just being made angrier and more fearful getting guns. This would seem to relate to the one study I posted about people with anger issues and the number of guns they own. The sheer volume of guns I think also just makes it easier for people when they need to. I know there have been many cases of guns just being taken from a relative to commit shootings.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I did take your post as being holistically, for what it’s worth. Here’s a source regarding your comment about a drop.

        However, as noted in the article, gun purchases, as measured by FBI firearm background checks, are at historic highs. Most women, in domestic abuse cases, die from a firearm. Same with suicide. You’re right (which was my point in posting the data) that the shear volume makes it easier to do harm.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yeah. I think the stockpiling of weapons is worrying because it is sort of indicative of how at least a portion of the population is so entrenched into the gun culture that no argument can sway them. That type of fanaticism is extremely dangerous. It’s like religion. I’m sure both of you and I have been in a number of gun debates to know how similar it is talking to a Christian fundamentalist. Scarily those two categories are not mutually exclusive.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Indeed. We need to change the debate, or as George Lakoff states, reframe it. Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University studies human aggression. I know you are aware of this, but it’s worth repeating. He performed a 2013 meta-analysis of 56 “weapons effect” studies. He found that
            “The mere presence of a weapon can increase aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, hostile appraisals, aggressive behavior.” This was found to be true in both aggressive and non-aggressive people, inside and outside the lab.
            A 2006 study published in Psychological Science found that exposure to guns led to “significantly greater increases in testosterone” in men. Males who interacted with the gun not only showed significantly greater increases in testosterone, but added more hot sauce to the water they believed another subject would drink.
            L. Rowell Huesmann, director of the Research Center for Group Dynamics and head of the Aggression Research Program in the Center at the University of Michigan, stated:
            “The research is compelling that just the sight of a gun increases the risk of violent behavior by the people who see it, If they have a gun available they will be more likely to use it, but, even if they don’t have a gun available, they will be more likely to behave violently in some other way.”
            Jeffrey Swanson, a Duke University psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor, and a leading expert on U.S. gun violence stated:
            “Mass shooters are really atypical. They are atypical of people with serious mental illnesses, the vast majority of whom are never going to be violent. And they are also atypical of the perpetrators of gun violence. Most of them don’t have serious mental illness.”
            A field study found that people stuck behind a pickup truck at a green light were quicker to honk their horn if a rifle was visibly mounted to the rear window. Another study showed that people with guns in their car were more likely to drive aggressively than people without guns in their car.
            A nationally representative sample of over 2,000 American drivers found that those who had a gun in the car were significantly more likely to make obscene gestures at other motorists, aggressively follow another vehicle too closely or both, even after controlling for many other factors related to aggressive driving (e.g., gender, age, urbanization, census region, driving frequency).
            Berkowitz, L., & LePage, A. (1967). Weapons as aggression-eliciting stimuli. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 7, 202–207.
            Turner, C. W., Layton, J. F., & Simons, L. S. (1975). Naturalistic studies of aggressive behavior: Aggressive stimuli, victim visibility, and horn honking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31, 1098–1107.
            Hemenway, D., Vriniotis, M., & Miller, M. (2006). Is an armed society a polite society? Guns and road rage. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 38(4), 687–695.
            Carlson, M., Marcus-Newhall, A., & Miller, N. (1990). Effects of situational aggression cues: A quantitative review. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 622–633.
            “Does the Gun Pull the Trigger? Automatic Priming Effects of Weapon Pictures and Weapon Names”
            I’m not sharing this to counter your excellent post, but hopefully to compliment it. I think the weapons effect is rarely addressed in the debate. It’s been overlooked and/or ignored for too long.

            Liked by 2 people

            1. Wow, that’s some amazing statistics. I wasn’t familiar with that research so thanks for sharing. It makes sense that a fun acts almost as a license to be aggressive or puts you in a power trip.

              Liked by 1 person

        1. That was suppose to show up under Steve’s comment. WP has got some glitches. Also wanted to mention, Swarn, that none of the links I posted in my first comment are showing, or the fact that I put what I quoted in blockquotes, which were showing originally. Also, no paragraph spacing in my other lengthy comment (from today) but they were showing up a few hours ago.

          Liked by 1 person

    2. The sad thing is that the NRA used to be a responsible organization. Their current positions are based upon politics and money (most of their funding comes from industry corporations who have really been raking it in under the new NRA. It really should be referred to as a lobby for the guns and ammo manufacturers, not a “rights” organization.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Yes, what proportion of deaths in the US are gun related?
        I remember reading last year that the world’s murder capitals were Honduras and Venezuela. The latter had a single day in which 52 people were killed. That’s in a population of 30 million.
        I’m wondering how big the problem is in the grand scheme of things.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. You are correct. Particularly a lot of South American countries have high homicide rates with firearms. The U.S. does not compare. Interestingly almost all of those murders are drug gang/cartel related, which is a byproduct of the U.S. war on drugs. So it’s kind of our fault, but we’re over here still pretending it isn’t.

          Usually the comparison for murder rate is among other countries with similar standards of living an economies. In that grouping, the U.S. definitely stands out as having more murder and certainly even more stark difference in the number of gun homicides. For instance if you compare the U.S. to Canada, it has 9 times as many gun homicides, and 4 times as many suicides (suicide is another important statistic in gun deaths shouldn’t be forgotten), 3 times as many unintentional deaths from guns. You’ll find similar statistics when you compare it to countries like France, UK, Germany, etc. In fact Canada is even a bit high compared to those countries.

          Of course when you want to murder someone, you can find other ways, so a straight comparison of murder rate doesn’t create quite a strong of a difference, but it still ends up being 2-4 times higher of a murder rate in the U.S., and at least a portion of those can be attributed to guns.

          I would say, from an ethical point of view, murder is something you should be trying to lessen if you can, and there are certainly changes that could be made which would decrease the murder rate. One of those is making some changes to the gun laws. I don’t think it’s relevant to just say, “We don’t have to worry about murder, because country A has many more murders than we do.” Australia is an example of a country that successfully eliminated mass shootings in their country as a result of making gun laws more restrictive and general homicide rates have decreased as well.

          Ultimately, in the U.S. to get enough public support to make actual changes in the gun laws requires a cultural shift, and I don’t know that’s going to happen anytime soon, which is why I didn’t want to address gun laws by itself here, because it isn’t a gun only problem.

          Esme had said in a previous post of mine that she had a scary incident where someone tried to mug her while she was riding her back. The incident certainly left her frightened, but her first thought wasn’t “I need to go out and buy a gun to protect myself”. I think this is true for a lot of other countries. As a Canadian I know I would think similarly to her. We don’t think of having guns as the best way to stay safe. If we were living in a massively corrupt country run by drug lords, that might be the case, but it shouldn’t be the first thought here in the U.S.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I’m not defending unbridled gun use 😀 And of course I agree that where possible, harm should be reduced. That being said, I’ve just checked and the number of drunk driver related deaths per year is very close to the number of gun-related deaths- why is one so much more emotional than the other?
            Or why is being murdered because of terrorism worse than being murdered for other reasons?

            Liked by 1 person

            1. I think as Steve pointed out on this thread, the NRA is making it much more emotional. They and a lot of gun makers and politicians are reaping some pretty big rewards from massive gun sales.

              Drunk driving is a good example in that it is something we have addressed and continue to address through legislation. I am not sure that it has always helped, but such fatalities have decreased slightly over the years.

              I think regular homicides are not widely reported the way mass shootings are. Most regular homicides are gang related or you are killed by someone you know. Mass shootings are often by assailants who don’t know the victims or perhaps one of the victims but cause a lot of collateral damage, so the degree of fear is higher. I agree with you that we should be as concerned about all of these things, but I think an increased frequency in mass shootings is to some degree a measure of something getting worse in a society and in need of correction. The fact that no matter how many of these shootings happen, even at an elementary school that we can’t even have a conversation about how guns might be playing a role in these tragedies is extremely frustrating. And while gun enthusiasts will point to any other cause being the problem, they also don’t support doing anything about those things either, like mental health, poverty, income inequality, etc.

              Liked by 2 people

  2. An excellent post Swarn. I am especially pleased that you touched on TWO (of many) of my biggest rants/raves about these confluenced sociopolitical legal issues: 1) mental-illness, and 2) education. But first…

    It’s more weight than our evolution prepared us for, and as one person it can easily feel like the only way to make an impact in it is to really get noticed. And violence gets you noticed.

    Thomas Jefferson spoke and wrote plenty on this very controversial (lethal?) concept and movement. He believed that “revolution” was a natural (horrible) growing-pain for most any state, but certainly a democratic state that eventually gets too big and too unequally divided. History is littered with failed collapsed states and empires that ignore its masses. This is what utterly shocks me about America’s upper 1% — 10%; they too often don’t recognize and accept this fate until it is much too late. Then their ivory towers become mere houses of cards. Very often acute mental-illness within families become acute social problems… for EVERYBODY, directly and indirectly whether you are in the 1% or the 99%. Makes no difference.

    And I am so very pleased you said this:

    There are no easy answers here, and it’s time we stopped pretending there were.

    This gets into the dire need for easyily PUBLIC-accessible, expanded, higher-quality, higher university degrees achieved/obtained for this “pretending” to decline and go away! One of the BIGGEST benefits of this mass increase in higher education/intellect is more highly-skilled tools, methods, organization, and articulation to NON-violently address these sociopolitical-legal problems.

    Well written Swarn. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Well said Professor. When I was writing this I was also thinking about putting in a bit of a parallel to climate change. A complex problem which requires the understanding of numerous fields and at a deep level to truly know what it is happening. When we look at denialists they are fond of trying to assume it is simple, and use very basic lines of attack that demonstrate an overall ignorance of the problem. Similarly it seems the discourse is for these types of incidences, and even moreso we have the problem that just talking about guns “triggers” (no pun intended) a backlash so strong that reasonable discourse goes out the window. The one thing that I think is positive about higher education is that you do begin to understand at least somethings at a deeper level and get insight into their complexity. Of course this is not true of every degree, because after all we have degrees like professional golf management at our university, but even if we both sound like broken records, education must simply be our priority in society.

      In regards to the upper crust of society, I wonder truly if that mental illness is largely affluenza (although monarchs had a lot of inbreeding). Many people think this is a made up thing, but I think it’s psychologically very valid. I think we see evidence for how far removed the rich are from the real problems most people face. And the more money you have the more removed you are from it and the more likely that will be generational. We not only have income inequality in this country, but also a real disconnect in empathy and understanding. I wonder if this is not the source of collapse. The ability to mass propagandize is keeping such people safe from revolution…luckily we also have the ability to spread good information far and wide as well. Only education and critical thinking skills are needed to help people distinguish the trickery from the quality. Again…EDUCATION! lol

      Liked by 2 people

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