Every day seems to bring more tragic news of a mass killing somewhere in the country. Beyond the obvious tragedy of these situations is the question of why they keep happening and whether something can be done to stop them. To the first: There are some similarities, but no clear trend. Stopping such murder, or at least reducing it, is possible, but it would require big changes in mind-set and policy, with the improvements not likely to be seen for years.
In less than a month, 57 people have been killed in eight mass murders. Last week, a 41-year-old Vietnamese immigrant, Jiverly Wong, shot and killed 13 people before turning the gun on himself in Binghamton, N.Y.
The next day, a man in the midst of an argument with his mother in Pittsburgh shot and killed three police officers, and a father in Washington state killed his five children before shooting himself, apparently because his wife planned to leave him.
While the shocking number of deaths looks like a trend, University of Maine sociology professor Steve Barkan cautions against drawing quick conclusions. There have been periods with a lot of murders in the past, he says, and although the recent killings are tragic, they represent a small percentage of the country’s annual homicides.
The Washington Post this week reported that the rash of killings could be linked to the poor economy, although it quoted other crime experts as saying that it is hard to see patterns in the killings.
Professor Barkan does see this pattern — all the recent mass killings were committed by men with guns. This points to two long-term problems, both difficult to solve.
First, men are much more likely than women to respond to a slight or rejection with violence. Mr. Wong was apparently angry that people made fun of the way he spoke English. The Washington father was upset that his wife was leaving him. The teenage boys who killed 13 at Columbine High School in Colorado a decade ago were mad at their peers and the world for perceived mistreatment and disrespect.
“We need to change the way we raise boys,” professor Barkan says. Teaching them that aggression — in any form — is not acceptable and that there are better ways to solve problems would be a start.
The Northeast has a lower crime rate than the rest of the country, something professor Barkan attributes to the region’s culture of settling disputes through talking and other means, rather than violence.
The second issue is the availability of guns, an issue where politics often trumps serious debate. The rate of aggravated assault in the United States is not appreciably different from that in other developed countries, yet the murder rate here is much higher. That is because assaults in other countries often involve less deadly weapons, such as knives and clubs. Especially in public settings such as schools and workplaces, attacks with these types of weapons can be stopped more readily than rampages with guns.
“It is hard to commit mass murder with a knife,” professor Barkan notes.
The string of mass murders has brought shock, grief and outrage. Those emotions must be translated into action or we’ll simply grieve and be outraged by future mass shootings.