Mass shootings are nothing new in the U.S., but there’s been a recent remarkable shift in the profile of the men committing them: They’re getting younger.
Of the 30 deadliest shootings between 1949 and 2017, only two involved gunmen under the age of 21, according to research cited by the New York Times. In just the past two months, however, there have been three major attacks — in Buffalo, N.Y., Uvalde, Texas, and Highland Park, Ill. — in which the accused shooters were men between the ages of 18 and 21. In Parkland, Fla., the attacker was 19. In Santa Fe, Texas, he was 17. In El Paso, he was 21.
These recent shooters also tend to share some other characteristics, other than the AR-style rifles that are used in nearly every attack. They are often described as disconnected from those around them and frequently spend a lot of their time in online spaces populated by similarly disassociated youth. In some cases, as in Buffalo and El Paso, the shooters were allegedly motivated by extreme racist views that echoed or directly cited the writings of previous mass murderers. In others, like Uvalde, the killers appear to hold a more generalized anger about their place in the world.
While most experts say comprehensive gun control is still the best solution to mass shootings, they argue that there are a number of ways to counter the forces that push young men toward violence in the first place.
As common as it is to describe mass shooters as “monsters,” some psychologists say this view undermines efforts to understand the root causes of extreme violence. Research shows that shooters frequently are going through some sort emotional crisis and are sometimes even suicidal prior to their attacks — feelings often rooted in past trauma. Experts say this shows the need for a major expansion of mental health access specifically designed for young men. Many also advocate for crisis intervention strategies targeted at those who show troubling signs they may pose an imminent danger to themselves or others.
Others say new mental health efforts must be complemented by a campaign to root out the extreme ideologies that radicalize young men into killers. They argue that that will require cracking down on fringe internet forums where racism and misogyny run rampant, as well as holding mainstream social media companies accountable for their failure to keep extremism off their platforms.
Some add that the media can play a role as well. They say many recent mass shooters are motivated by a desire for notoriety, a goal news outlets often help them achieve by drawing intense attention to their personal biographies and sharing details of the so-called manifestos they sometimes post online before they attack. Ending those practices, critics say, could decrease the chances that one killer may inspire another through their actions.
The bipartisan gun control bill signed by President Biden last month contained some measures that could help address this problem in the coming years, including funds to expand mental health access, enhanced background checks for young gun buyers and financial incentives for states to create so-called red flag laws that permit authorities to takes someone’s gun away if they’re ruled to be an imminent threat.
The prevention of mass shootings starts with recognizing the reasons people commit them
“People tend to think the people who do this, they’re just evil and they’re insane. But that really prevents us from being able to engage in the type of prevention work we need to do. We need to be able to recognize that people in our lives can go down this pathway.” — Jillian Peterson, gun violence researcher, to the Boston Globe
More needs to be done to block access to extremist online communities
“The internet and, apparently, assault rifles clearly aren’t going anywhere. As long as they exist, we should call into question how platforms like Discord, Twitch, Reddit, and 4chan have become breeding grounds for teenage boys to become indoctrinated into white supremacy and violent misogyny, and to boast about, amplify, and even livestream violent acts.” — Kylie Cheung, Jezebel
Racism, both online and in the real world, inspires some of the deadliest shootings
“The racism of these young White men can no longer be dismissed as an Internet phenomenon, a joke, or a phase: It’s criminal behavior, a near unchallenged radicalization pathway for domestic terrorism, and a threat to national security.” — Chukwudi Ilozue, Harvard Political Review
Young men and boys need more access to programs to help them deal with past trauma
“An overwhelming majority of mass murderers have a significant history of early trauma and violence, which likely influenced their proclivity toward violence. And in all instances, early signals that the perpetrators were severely distressed, angry, and socially isolated were either missed or ignored and effective interventions were not offered.” — Anthony Biglan, Diana Fishbein and Michael B. Greene, The Hill
Threat assessment strategies will allow intervention in the most extreme cases
“Threat management doesn’t focus on any particular ideology such as Islamism or White nationalism, but rather on the actions of suspects who often follow a predictable ‘pathway to violence.’ That pathway begins from nursing a grievance, such as believing in the Great Replacement conspiracy theory, and can eventually end up with a militant taking violent action.
This is a sound approach, since holding radical ideas in the United States is not a crime.” — Peter Bergen, CNN
Authorities need more power to intervene when warning signs arise
“Society may have to adapt by rethinking our hands-off attitudes to antisocial behavior and mental illness. Security at schools and churches will need to be enhanced. Big Data may help law enforcement identify potential risks, and we may need to give them freer rein to intervene in borderline cases. A return to more social sanction and intervention for antisocial behavior would also help the vulnerable and lost who most need help.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal
We need stronger families and community support for boys
“Children need fathers, and they need to be a part of a community that will protect and care for them and, most importantly, hold them accountable — whether that’s a church, a soccer team, or a close-knit neighborhood. They need to be surrounded by adults who will teach them the importance of individual responsibility and who will step in when necessary. ” — Kaylee McGhee White, Washington Examiner
The scourge of angry young men needs to be treated as the crisis it is
“We have to conquer this. America needs a concerted effort, a multi-pronged task force of specialists whose only job is to study this sickness, as unique as a novel virus, and find a way, if not to eradicate it, to contain and prevent it.” — Maureen Callahan, New York Post
Cultural ideas about masculinity predispose young men to violence
“Monsters are not born, they are created. … While there are many root causes to this complex issue, to my mind, the most crucial element are toxic masculinity ideologies that create toxic masculinity men.” — Reagan Ross, Common Dreams
A more equitable, supportive society would create fewer mass shooters
“The pathway to a young man becoming a killer involves schools ill-equipped to deal with children’s mental health needs, along with easy access to lethal weapons. It consists of boys being told not to seek help even when they need it. It is often the result of families with economic hardship, frequently compounded by substance use, and the lack of publicly provided social services.” — Gary Barker, New York Daily News