A Sociological Reason for Mass Shootings

Straight from an essay by Malcolm Gladwell, this reason isn't very comforting, but it doesn't have anything to do with firearms.

Malcolm Gladwell during a speaking engagement. He believes mass shootings follow the same pattern as a riot, just on a longer timeline and a grander scale.
Malcolm Gladwell during a speaking engagement. He believes mass shootings follow the same pattern as a riot, just on a longer timeline and a grander scale.photo from Youtube

Malcolm Gladwell is an is an English-born Canadian journalist, author, and speaker who has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1996. He is by no means considered a conservative, yet he has identified what he believes is responsible for the increasing rate of school shootings and mass shootings in the U.S.—and it has nothing to do with guns.

Gladwell likens the prevalence and increase in school shootings to the way a riot occurs, but on a much larger scale over a correspondingly longer timeline, based on the work of Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter:

Most previous explanations had focussed on explaining how someone’s beliefs might be altered in the moment. An early theory was that a crowd cast a kind of intoxicating spell over its participants. Then the argument shifted to the idea that rioters might be rational actors: maybe at the moment a riot was beginning people changed their beliefs. They saw what was at stake and recalculated their estimations of the costs and benefits of taking part. But Granovetter thought it was a mistake to focus on the decision-making processes of each rioter in isolation. In his view, a riot was not a collection of individuals, each of whom arrived independently at the decision to break windows. A riot was a social process, in which people did things in reaction to and in combination with those around them. Social processes are driven by our thresholds—which he defined as the number of people who need to be doing some activity before we agree to join them. In the elegant theoretical model Granovetter proposed, riots were started by people with a threshold of zero—instigators willing to throw a rock through a window at the slightest provocation. Then comes the person who will throw a rock if someone else goes first. He has a threshold of one. Next in is the person with the threshold of two. His qualms are overcome when he sees the instigator and the instigator’s accomplice. Next to him is someone with a threshold of three, who would never break windows and loot stores unless there were three people right in front of him who were already doing that—and so on up to the hundredth person, a righteous upstanding citizen who nonetheless could set his beliefs aside and grab a camera from the broken window of the electronics store if everyone around him was grabbing cameras from the electronics store.

Granovetter was most taken by the situations in which people did things for social reasons that went against everything they believed as individuals. “Most did not think it ‘right’ to commit illegal acts or even particularly want to do so,” he wrote, about the findings of a study of delinquent boys. “But group interaction was such that none could admit this without loss of status; in our terms, their threshold for stealing cars is low because daring masculine acts bring status, and reluctance to join, once others have, carries the high cost of being labeled a sissy.” You can’t just look at an individual’s norms and motives. You need to look at the group.

Gladwell then talks about how sociologist Ralph Larkin argues that Dylan Harris and Eric Klebod, the bad actors in the Columbine Shooting, "laid down the 'cultural script' for the next generation of shooters. They had a Web site. They made home movies starring themselves as hitmen. They wrote lengthy manifestos. They recorded their 'basement tapes.' Their motivations were spelled out with grandiose specificity: Harris said he wanted to 'kick-start a revolution.' Larkin looked at the twelve major school shootings in the United States in the eight years after Columbine, and he found that in eight of those subsequent cases the shooters made explicit reference to Harris and Klebold. Of the eleven school shootings outside the United States between 1999 and 2007, Larkin says six were plainly versions of Columbine; of the eleven cases of thwarted shootings in the same period, Larkin says all were Columbine-inspired."

“That’s what Paton and Larkin mean: the effect of Harris and Klebold’s example was to make it possible for people with far higher thresholds—boys who would ordinarily never think of firing a weapon at their classmates—to join in the riot.”

What results of this spreading of the riot as he calls it, is that individuals who don’t have the outward social prerequisites for deviant behavior are committing heinous acts of violence.

“In the day of Eric Harris, we could try to console ourselves with the thought that there was nothing we could do, that no law or intervention or restrictions on guns could make a difference in the face of someone so evil. But the riot has now engulfed the boys who were once content to play with chemistry sets in the basement. The problem is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men who are willing to contemplate horrific acts. It’s worse. It’s that young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts.”

So what do we do?

On that, Gladwell is not so sure, but in the interview below from “CBS This Morning,” Gladwell said, “Let’s not kid ourselves that if we passed the strictest gun control in the world that we would end this particular kind of behavior.”