From Buffalo, New York, to Uvalde, Texas, to Tulsa, Oklahoma, a wave of devastating mass shootings has shocked the county. Just as horrible is that mass shootings happen all the time across the U.S., and most don’t garner much attention.
More than 200 people have died this year in mass shootings, including the 19 schoolchildren in Uvalde. There were 692 mass shootings last year as well, an increase from 610 the year before, according to the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive.
As the circumstances and grievances of the killers have dribbled out in each of the latest cases, ranging from racism in Buffalo to back pain in Tulsa, questions have risen over warning signs not caught ahead of tragedies. The killer in Uvalde harassed girls online and displayed pictures of rifles in social media chats, which has led many to ask why those alarms were ignored.
Grid spoke to Liza Gold, a clinical forensic psychiatrist at Georgetown University School of Medicine, author of 2016′s “Gun Violence and Mental Illness,” and past president of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, about the common factors behind such shootings — notably not mental illness — and what is driving their increase. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: You and other researchers have found that domestic violence is the biggest risk factor for mass shootings. The suspect in the Uvalde case reportedly first shot his grandmother. Is domestic violence a factor in this case?
Liza Gold: So, the connection between domestic violence and mass shootings tends to be around the fact that you’re a woman, and you’re involved in an abusive relationship and you want to get away from your partner. You can move, you can change your address, but women who are trying to leave abusive relationships, they don’t typically change their jobs. On Christmas, you can be pretty sure where you’re going to find them. They don’t change where they go to church.
So that’s in line with the fact that homicide is one of the top causes of occupational murder, murder on the job, for women. Because, again, the guys know where they are.
When you start off by shooting a family member or an intimate partner, the other people that get killed are often collateral deaths. And by collateral, I mean the guy who sits at the desk next to the woman.
But it can also be family that he might not have made a point of going after specifically, but he doesn’t mind if they’re there if they get killed because he doesn’t like them either.
G: In a sense, they are more than bystanders?
LG: Sometimes it is just bystanders. In workplace situations, often it’s bystanders. Yeah, but it is more when you’re talking about family gatherings, churches, funerals, stuff like that.
G: So what are we seeing here instead in the Uvalde case?
LG: We don’t know a lot of information about the Texas case. But the bottom line is that when you get these very angry men, with or without mental illness, the people that they live with are going to be at the most danger. The risk conferred upon every member of the household for homicide, suicide and unintentional death is five times higher than a household without guns.
Without any inside information whatsoever, this sounds much more akin to the Sandy Hook shooting. You may have a very troubled kid, or young adult let’s say. I call them kids. They look like kids to me. And they’ve burned a lot of bridges. They have behavioral problems. They don’t do well in school; they get into fights. They are socially ostracized for whatever reason; these are your kids with lots of problems.
Really the last person to give up on a kid like that, even if they’re frankly psychotic and have a substance use disorder, it’s usually the mom or the grandma, right? Or, sometimes the dad, and those are the people who will get killed. But that doesn’t typically turn into a rampage against strangers or a rampage against children.
So that’s why it doesn’t quite fit into the picture. I mean, it’s interpersonal in the sense that the first person they kill is probably someone that they resent very much. And it’s usually the person who’s hung around and been trying to help them and the person they get into fights with all the time.
But then after that it’s much more common, for example, to see them commit suicide after that, a murder-suicide. It’s much more common for them to commit suicide by cop and let the cops shoot them.
It’s very unusual. It’s horrifying and dreadful and heartbreaking and just gut-wrenching to have them go out and shoot children, in particular, but also a nightclub full of people, because you know what, that’s not usually how this goes.
G: How, then, do experts look at this kind of school shooting?
LG: The idea of going in and shooting children, I don’t think anybody has a good handle on that. Of course, it’s so rare, right? And in the end, school shootings fall into lots of different categories, too.
There are kids who have grudges, who bring in a gun to kill a teacher or bring a grudge against another kid. And again, those are interpersonal, right? So what we’re talking about here is somebody who presumably didn’t know any of these kids, which is the rarest kind of homicide, against a stranger.
And they’re not releasing a lot of information, which I have to say is a good thing in a way, because you can see what’s happened every time one of these things happens: It’s not so much that it’s a copycat thing, but I think it kind of gives people permission to say, “I’m gonna go and do this.” It tears at the social fabric a little bit more and makes people feel a little less likely to resist urges to go and do stuff like this.
G: So this is seen as the aftermath of the 1999 Columbine shooting?
LG: In a sense. And the other thing, too, is that things have gotten much worse in the last two years or so. Obviously, because of the pandemic, our social institutions have been stressed and boundaries have become harder to maintain, at school, at home, at work. Things that used to support people have become more unavailable, personal contact, from social contact with people, constructive, personal and social contact.
But the biggest issue has been the skyrocketing sale of guns. And that’s just mind-numbing to think about.
G: How big is that sheer number of firearms factor?
LG: When I tried to count, figure out how many guns are in the United States, we estimated there was about 1.3 guns for every man, woman and child in the United States. That’s a lot of guns.
At that time, you know, people said, “Oh, more guns make you safer.” If that was true, we’d be the safest country in the world. There’s no other country in the world that has as many guns and [as] many of the military-style weapons as in the United States.
Now, I’m hearing numbers closer to 400 million. And states are reducing restrictions on guns.
The research is so clear, states that have decreased restrictions, that have less strict gun laws, have more gun violence, and states that have gun laws have less gun violence.
And yes, there are many, many steps to addressing this problem, but then what happens is someone says, “Well, this wouldn’t have stopped this or that [shooting], so why bother doing it?” That’s such an ignorant and a boneheaded response. … It’s not rocket science. People like myself have been writing about this. People have been researching this.
The best analogy is cars, where driving has become a lot safer. And that is because they’ve done lots of things to make it safer. They’ve reinforced the cars so that they crumpled differently when they get hit, set speed limits, seat belts, rumble strips, all of the different things make their own contribution to decreasing X number of motor vehicle deaths per year.
The gun industry was very, very clever. It’s not even the [National Rifle Association], in my opinion, because the NRA is a straw man for them. It’s really the gun manufacturers, because what they managed to do was to get the politicians who are in their pocket to pass an immunity law. They can’t be sued for their products.
So that’s the thing that has to change, I think, at this point. I think that’s the only thing that’s going to result in significant change like it did for the car industry, like it did for the tobacco industry.
Until they can make the gun manufacturers liable for what happens when someone shoots up a classroom full of kids with an AR-15. That gun is not supposed to be used for that purpose.
G: So, am I just wasting the reader’s time like talking to a psychiatrist about gun violence if it’s just about restrictions on guns? Should I be talking to a lawyer instead?
LG: No, because there is no question in my mind that I think that everybody is more anxious, is more frustrated, and many people are much more angry, and that is also part of the story.
Their lives have become very hard. A lot of people have to face all the different things that have happened as a result of pandemic. I do think there are a lot more angry people. And I don’t know that they’re mentally ill. Being angry is not a mental illness.
One of the reasons, for example, for the emergency risk protection order, when we designed those, we designed them specifically so as they did not include the words “mental illness,” because it shouldn’t matter why someone is dangerous to themselves or others in order to temporarily remove a weapon.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.