Thursday, 22 May 2014

Mass Shootings in America: Moving Beyond Newtown

In this month's article, James Alan Fox and Monica J DeLateur present an overview of the most commonly held myths surrounding the issue of mass shootings. James Alan Fox has been speaking and researching in this area for some time, and is a well-known figure in the US, this article presents a restatement of some of his previous work in light of the school shooting at Newtown.

The authors outline some of the reasons why the issue of mass killings has not proved a popular area of research within academic criminology - suggesting that it may be more properly located within psychiatry, or perhaps that mass shootings were an aberration or could be explained using the same crimimological processes used for other killings.

The myths outlined by Fox and DeLateur are:

·        The perpetrator ‘snaps’
·        Mass shooting incidents are increasing
·        The body count is getting higher
·        Violent entertainment is often a cause
·        If greater attention were given to warning signs it could prevent many of these attacks
·        If mental health services were widened it would provide a healthy outlet
·        Enhanced background checks for firearms could prevent attacks
·        Restore the federal ban on assault weapons
·        Expand ‘right to carry’ provisions so that perpetrators are met with armed opposition
·        Enhanced physical security
·        Installing armed guards at every school would act as a deterrent and a means of stopping perpetrators

The article provides an interesting overview of many of the facts and figures on the issue, however there is little analysis of mass shooting beyond a refutation of the stated myths (the issue of US violence and gun control in the US have been tackled well elsewhere and from a variety of disciplines, for example in Garland's criminological account of the death penalty, Peculiar Institution (2012), or in a recent article by O'Brien et al (2013) on gun control issues and symbolic racism).

The authors also make contentious comments regarding violent video games. They claim that the alleged rise in the amount of solitary time spent by teenagers playing such games suggests poor parental discipline. This throwaway line carried with it a pejorative diagnosis of modern society, as simultaneously they brand the fears expressed regarding such games as over-hyped. Further, the authors look beyond violent entertainment as a possible cause and instead suggest weakening social institutions such as the church and the family. This quite conservative viewpoint perhaps unintentionally casts mass shootings as symptomatic of a deteriorating society.

The language used throughout the article is reminiscent of a feature piece for a news magazine. Indeed the content of the article has been published substantially elsewhere (see here and here), and this may go some way to explain it. Language such as ‘He may even welcome the chance to shoot it out with the principal at high noon in cafeteria’, and recurrent use of the term ‘war zone’ is somewhat jarring in an academic journal article.

In the conclusion, the authors refer to a ‘spike’, despite earlier claims that talk of a spike was misleading.

The article focuses largely on individual-level factors at the expense of structural factors. Issues such as mental health, the media effects thesis, as well as a crime prevention outlook which considers physical security and arming persons in schools, is the focus of the discussion. The absence of an appreciation of structural factors, and the cultural factors, ensures that the article cannot fully tackle the larger questions of why. Instead it is an exercise in assessing the fire-fighting measures which have been suggested in the wake of shootings. The article attracted huge interest in the US media, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, its findings have also been seized upon by some groups with pro-gun views.

This blog was written by Lynsey Black.

The views expressed herein are those of the author alone.

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