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America Can End its Mass Shootings by Treating Violent Attacks like a Contagious Virus

CJ Werleman reports on the third mass shooting in a week in America in Boulder, Colorado, and explores how the country could start to stop such events happening with alarming frequency

A woman is consoled after a shooting at a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado, on 22 March 2021. Photo: USA Today Network/SIPA USA/PA Images

America Can End its Mass Shootings By Treating Violent Attacks like a Contagious Virus

CJ Werleman reports on the third mass shooting in a week in America in Boulder, Colorado, and explores how the country could start to stop such events happening with alarming frequency

A male suspect walked into a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado, yesterday armed with an AR15 semi-automatic assault rifle, shooting and killing anyone within sight. This was the third mass shooting in a week and the 101st since the start of the year. It came just days after a white domestic terrorist shot dead six Asian Americans in Atlanta.

Put simply, the COVID-19 pandemic is ending and mass shootings in America are resuming, after 2020 saw the fewest number of mass shootings in the country in a decade – something criminologists attribute to lockdown and social distancing measures.

Whether the authorities deem the gunman’s rampage to be driven by hate, revenge, terrorism or something else, American citizens can expect a repeat of the same events that have occurred after previous violent attacks. Candle-lit vigils for the dead will be followed by widespread calls for gun control laws, which will ignite the right-wing media to loudly scream: ‘Democrats are coming for your guns!’

Paranoid by the prospect of Congress passing sensible gun control laws – including the need for federal background checks – right-wing Americans will drive to their nearest gun store in droves to stock up on their favourite battlefield armoury. This includes the AR-15 assault rifle, the weapon of choice for the gunmen who carried out mass casualty attacks at Sandy Hook, Connecticut (26 dead); Aurora, Colorado (12 dead); Parkland, Florida (17 dead); San Bernardino, California (16 dead); Las Vegas, Nevada (61 dead); Orlando, Florida (49 dead); and the Tree of Life Synagogue, Pennsylvania (11 dead).

“Today it’s a tragedy in Boulder, Colorado,” tweeted former US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in an assassination attempt in 2011. “This past weekend it was a house party in Philadelphia. And last week it was an armed attack on Asian American women in the Atlanta area. It doesn’t have to be this way. It’s beyond time for our leaders to take action.”

In this ritualisation of gun violence, however, political action never follows perfunctory “thoughts and prayers”. Instead, what follows is a flooding of the media zone with gun lobby-generated talking points and pro-gun propaganda. If we arm every teacher, priest, imam, rabbi, retail assistant, cinema usher, bus driver and barista with a gun, then there will be no more mass shootings, so the gun lobby’s logic goes. 

‘The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun’ has become the National Rifle Association’s mantra – a patently absurd claim given that there are now more guns than people in the United States. Just six days ago, the NRA tweeted praise for a judge in Colorado who blocked a ban on AR-15 sales in – well, you guessed it – Colorado.

A mere two hours after the Boulder shooting began, Republican Congresswoman Lauren Boebert, a representative of Colorado’s third district, sent her supporters an email with the subject line reading: “I told Beto ‘HELL NO’ to taking our guns. Now we need to tell Joe Biden.”

Is it any wonder that mass shootings are a uniquely American phenomenon? Is it any wonder that more people are killed in America each year by guns than in most war zones around the world? It is any wonder that more Americans have been killed by guns since 1968 than all US involved wars – combined?

Why does the US have so many shootings?

Focus On Risk Factors Over Motives

“One reason is gun violence is contagious,” argues Dr James Densley, professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University and co-founder of the Violence Project.

“One shooting can inspire another. The mass shooting disease is a non-contact, airborne pathogen. It is spread largely by fear and fascination, the blueprint laid down by past shooters, and the desire of new shooters to outdo their predecessors.

“In this sense, everyday gun violence is a blood-borne pathogen. Like an STI, it spreads when people are acculturated to violent scripts that allow for certain risky behaviours — not needle-sharing and unprotected sex but joining gangs and carrying illegal guns.”

Dr Densley rightly notes that, in the 1990s, his home city of Minneapolis was widely dubbed ‘Murderopolis’ because of its high rate of urban homicide, which he described as “so deadly, that the situation felt hopeless” – not unlike the mass shooting crisis facing the country today. Three decades later, Minneapolis has one of the lowest murder rates in the country, which Dr Densley attributes to acknowledging its “contagiousness”.

“First, law enforcement targeted the people most infected,” he said. “Then community organisations, following a public health model, began interrupting the transmission. We have faced the prospect of supposedly unpredictable and intractable violence before, only to find murder is predictable, therefore preventable.”

Similarity, psychiatry professors at the University of Syracuse have warned that the media and politicians must end the ritualisation of gun violence by focusing less on the gunman’s motive and more on the major factors that raise the risk of violence in general – including reducing the likelihood that would-be mass shooters can easily get hold of guns and identifying and reporting observable ‘red flag’ behaviours that point toward imminent, directed violence.

“Notwithstanding the legitimate role of ‘motive,’ we believe that the ritualised hunt for the shooter’s motive is usually an exercise in fruitless speculation and wasted resources,” observe Dr James Knoll and Dr Ronald Pies, both of whom have held the title of editor in chief emeritus at the Psychiatric Times. “When pursued by the media, this quest almost always lacks the necessary data to reach a sound determination. Moreover, these exercises rarely yield any useful or actionable information that would help reduce the likelihood of future mass shootings.”

Clearly, there are a number of workable ways in which the US can resolve its gun violence crisis. But first it must acknowledge that “thoughts and prayers” doesn’t cut it – and nor do Hollywood odes to “good guys with guns”.

This article was amended to correct early reports that the suspect was white.

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