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Gun Violence in America: Characteristics of Mass Shootings and Perpetrators
The purpose of this research paper is to ascertain the characteristics of individuals that
commit gun violence, specifically mass shooters. In addition to characteristics, I am also
researching where mass shootings take place and what the shooter’s motivations are. I
hypothesize that perpetrators of mass shootings are predominantly white males who feel they
have been wronged in some capacity and engage in these extreme acts of violence as a means of
Much attention has been given to the prevalence of gun violence in the United States.
Mass shootings, particularly those occurring in schools, have more attention grabbing potential
when featured in the media. There is a significant amount of fear that has been generated over
the last several years leading activists to fight for tighter gun control laws and politicians to
support these initiatives. Conversely, a fierce Pro-2nd Amendment has united to argue that it is
not the gun laws that must be changed or the number of guns reduced because it is not gun law
abiding people committing these acts of violence.
To sort through the conflicting debate and arrive at meaningful gun reform that protects
the gun owner’s right to bear arms but also the people in society it is important to examine what
the characteristics of gun violence and its perpetrators are, especially when considering mass
shootings. There is incredible variability in the characteristics of perpetrators of gun violence in
terms of age, background, and education. Despite this, we can make some generalizations about
mass shooters in particular.
The research for this paper on gun violence and mass shootings in America was
conducted through an extensive literature review of journal articles and books. This secondary
analysis includes such articles as “Mass Media Reporting and Enabling of Mass Shootings” by
Jennifer L. Murray and Wanda Parham-Payne’s “The Role of the Media in the Disparate
Response to Gun Violence in America”, as well as many others. Authored books include, but
isn’t limited to, Mass Shootings: Media, Myths, and Realities by Jaclyn Schildkraut and Elsass.
The database “Gun Violence Archive” was used for statistics in particular and data in
general. This quantitative data was useful in determining the characteristics of shooting
locations, offenders, and victims. Reports were also thoroughly examined, including the Federal
Bureau of Investigation’s June 2018 report “A Study of Pre-Attack Behaviors of Active Shooters
in the United States Between 2000 and 2013” and The American Psychological Association’s
2013 report, “Gun Violence: Prediction, Prevention, and Policy “.
On November 18, 2019 I interviewed a 34 year old Asian male living in Milton, New
York. He has three siblings; the oldest being a 40 year old brother and the youngest being a 30
year old sister. Respondent was born and raised in Toms River, New Jersey, and has lived in the
Hudson Valley area for approximately 10 years. His family still resides in the Toms River area
and he sees them several times a year on average. Respondent is a licensed gun owner, with that
license being issued in New York’s Ulster County. He is college educated having received his
bachelor’s degree from the State University of New York at New Paltz with a major in
Psychology and a minor in Sociology. He was interviewed to explore the opinions and
perceptions on gun violence and mass shootings in America. The nation’s feelings and opinions
regarding current shooting events as depicted in current news media was also considered during
In addition to the literature and data review and interview, a one hour field observation at
Ulster Firearms in Milton, New York was conducted to gain insights regarding gun ownership
and ease of purchase. During this time I spoke with the shop owner, looked at various items in
the store, and watched a rifle transaction occur. With me was a friend who has a “conceal and
carry” permit for a pistol issued out of Ulster County. I was able to ask him questions about
various interactions and products to further my understanding of what I was seeing.
To better understand the influences of mass media on mass shootings, “Mass Media
Reporting and Enabling of Mass Shootings” by Jennifer L. Murray provide incredibly insightful.
Murray’s article discusses the role that the news media has in influencing future mass shooters
by the ways in which they report current massacres. She argues that mass media reporting of
mass shootings occur in seven stages: 1) tragic shock, 2) first witness reports, 3) reports of
character of shooter, 5) media branding: the packaging of a massacre, 6) official response and
official report, and 7) return to stage 1, and begin cycle. Mass shooters will see massacres unfold
in the media and a desire for similar fame is incited, as well as a motivation do out-do the most
prolific shooter. The media coverage also serves as a template to release their frustrations and
During my research it became evident that certain personality traits have a high
correlation with mass shootings; one such trait is narcissism. “Narcissism, Fame Seeking, and
Mass Shootings” by Brad J. Bushman was one of the articles used in reaching my conclusions of
what influences perpetrators. Bushman’s article sets out to counter the popular belief that mass
shooters have low self-esteem and insecurities with the argument that many likely have
narcissistic personality traits. Such evidence for this argument includes the manifestos that mass
shooters will author and the video diaries left behind that have been analyzed by psychology
professionals (e.g. the Columbine Shooters and Virginia Tech Shooter). Research has suggested
a strong link between narcissism and violence and has been observed in such notorious
personalities as Genghis Khan, Adolf Hitler, and Joseph Stalin.
Mass Shootings: Media, Myths, and Realities by Jaclyn Schildkraut and H. Jaymi Elsass
is a book which contained several sections of relative importance to this paper. This book seeks
to debunk the inaccuracies of mass shootings that are perpetuated by mass media. Since mass
shootings occur with less frequency than other crimes, but are more widely reported by the
media, there is a significant amount of dialogue that is not based on accurate facts. By covering
the history, causation, and characteristics of shootings, the authors build a thoughtful dialogue
around what mass shootings are, its characteristics, and how frequently they are occurring.
Included is a section that addresses possible solutions to gun violence and mass shootings.
During the course of researching this paper, many facts about racial disparities came to
light regarding gun violence that will be addressed in this paper. While they do not pertain solely
mass shooters, I feel they are absolutely worth mentioning as a means to build a more complete
dialogue around gun violence (which includes mass shootings). In particular, “The Role of the
Media in the Disparate Response to Gun Violence in America” by Wanda Parham-Payne was
incredibly insightful. This article by Parham-Payne addresses the racial disparities in media
reporting of shootings. Statistical information has shown that Blacks are far more likely to die
from gun violence than any other race yet the media rarely, if ever, reports these stories. The
American Psychological Association’s 2013 report, “Gun Violence: Prediction, Prevention, and
Policy” (APA 2013 Report) further backs up this fact.
The FBI issued “A Study of Pre-Attack Behaviors of Active Shooters in the United States
Between 2000 and 2013”in June 2018 that provided various statistical data and characteristics of
mass shooters studied. This report was also helpful in eliminating inaccuracies reported in the
media because it relied on actual active shooter data collected from various sources. The report is
also current and therefore applicable to the gun violence events that we see unfolding in the
current news media. While we will never be able to predict a mass shooting, the FBI does
provide us with numerous insights that can allow us to identify individuals that have a high
likelihood of committing a mass shooting.
Before discussing mass shootings, it is necessary to establish what they are and what gun
violence is. Gun violence has been generally defined by the Gun Violence Archive as the threat,
injury, or death to a person by a firearm. Therefore, gun violence can include suicide, homicide,
or threatening someone with a firearm during the commission of a crime like robbery. Mass
shootings are a type of gun violence that can occur, and it’s heavily covered in the news media
despite being a relatively rare occurrence, even presently (APA 2013 Report).
Defining a mass shooting, I have found, is not as straightforward as I assumed prior to
embarking on this research. I previously thought that a mass shooting was something that
happened in a public space where an individual killed four or more people at one location in one
event. However, there are multiple definitions for a mass shooting that various agencies and
scholars may rely on. For example, Gun Violence Archive classifies a mass shooting as any
event with four or more fatal or non-fatal injuries in any location (public or private). The Federal
Bureau of Investigation (FBI) doesn’t even use the term “mass shooting”, instead choosing the
term “active shooter incident”. Their agency defines this event as “‘an individual actively
engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.’ Implicit in this
definition is that the subject’s criminal actions involve the use of firearms” (FBI 2013 Report).
Other databases may refine their numbers even further by counting only the shootings that occur
in a public space (excluding private domiciles), only counting those killed as victims (excluding
those who were injured), or by excluding such crimes as gang violence or domestic violence
Recognizing the need to better understand “active shooters”, the FBI analyzed pre-attack
behaviors of 63 shooters from 2000-2013 and released a report titled “A Study of Pre-Attack
Behaviors of Active Shooters in the United States Between 2000 and 2013” in June 2018. This
study sought to identify certain characteristics of offenders and also determine any similarities in
their behaviors leading up to an incident in order to better assess the likelihood of an event.
While there was great variability in the statistics and a limited sample (only 63 shooters were
used), they were still able to garner interesting and valuable information. For example, the study
and subsequent report showed that approximately 94% of shooters are male, 63% are white, and
76% are single, divorced, or separated (FBI 2018 Report). However, it is worth noting that being
single or divorced does not imply social isolation. In fact, “All active shooters either: a) lived
with someone, or b) had significant in-person or online social interactions” (FBI 2018 Report, p.
Other interesting observations were discussed in the report. For example, there were
statistics for the percentage of shooters that spent time planning the attack, the time they spent
preparing for the attack, and how the offenders obtained their firearms. There was also
information collected and analyzed regarding the percentages of concerning behaviors and
stressors that were present in a perpetrator prior to an incident. Significant concerning behaviors
are mental health (62%), interpersonal interactions (57%), telling a third party their plans for the
attack, termed “leakage” (56%), and quality of thinking or communication (54%) (FBI 2018
Report, p. 18). The likelihood of violence increased when several concerning behaviors were
observed together. Significant stressors in one’s life include mental health (62%), financial strain
(49%), and job strain (35%) (FBI 2018 Report, p. 16).
What is troubling about mass shootings is that they can take place seemingly anywhere.
For example, they may occur at a music festival (e.g. Las Vegas Shooting), in a church (e.g.
Charleston Church Shooting), or in a school (e.g. Sandy Hook Elementary Shooting).1 It is
especially troubling that such acts of violence can unfold in places meant for social gatherings or
institutions that are part of people’s everyday lives. In another FBI report published on
September 16, 2013 titled “A Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States Between
2000 and 2013”, the FBI determined that approximately 70% of shootings occur in places of
commerce or education. Educational areas are the second most common location after commerce
locales; 24.4% of the shootings analyzed occurred in a school and of those, 16.9% were in
primary schools grades pre-k to 12 (FBI 2013 Report, p. 13). The fact that schools are the second
1 Associated Press 2018, Zapotosky 2017, and Ray 2019 respectively.
most common location for a shooting lends credibility to the fear people feel specifically about
There is a major debate in politics currently between pro-gun owners (“pro-A2”) and gun
control advocates. When studying how perpetrators obtained their guns, some interesting
information was noticed. 40% of shooters obtained their firearms legally for the sole purpose of
committing the act while 35% already possessed a firearm (FBI 2018 Report, p. 14). This seems
to prove that tighter gun control laws and reducing the number of firearms may be incredibly
beneficial in reducing the number of mass shootings. Pro-A2 groups generally believe that a
majority of guns used for mass shootings were purchased illegally, but the FBI found this was
the case in only 2% of the cases examined (FBI 2018 Report, p. 15).
This belief in illegal guns being the main avenue shooters obtain their firearms allows for
the argument that gun control laws will be largely ineffective. Pro-A2 people feel that putting
restrictions on legal gun ownership is not an effective means of reducing gun violence and mass
shootings. They tend to believe that it is more likely that a gun used in a mass shooting scenario,
like a school shooting, will be illegally obtained. While they want to see acts of violence like this
reduced or even eliminated entirely, they don’t think this is the best approach to doing so. The
person I interviewed is a pro-A2 advocate and had this to say about America’s stance on gun
I think the country is heavily divided. You know, the pro A2 movement is huge;
protecting their rights, their rights to bear arms. But here’s the problem, with that
argument people are asking why are they going to take away my guns when most
of the gun violence is executed from illegal guns? It’s not the law abiding citizen,
it’s not the concealed carry owner, it’s not the recreational shooter, it’s not the
sportsmen shooter, hunter whatever. It’s not their weapon on the street killing
someone. It’s the weapons that are on the street illegally that have been deserialized
that are killing people. And I’m sure there are statistics to back that up.
I’m not sure if that applies to mass shooters, but I would say that for gun violence
in general that is 100% true. Its illegal guns being trafficked and they’re the ones
that are ruining it, in a sense, for law abiding citizens. Hence the divide.
It appears that there is some misinformation that circulates between the two camps and hinders
any effective reform from taking root and being successful. More importantly, the belief that
illegal guns are the problem is essentially debunked in the FBI’s report.
While there are numerous characteristics and statistics that have been identified, what
remains largely unknown is why someone chooses to commit a mass shooting. There are far too
many motivations attributed to individual shooters that we can’t simply create a blanket cause.
For example, the Aurora Theater Shooter was believed to have been suffering from a severe
mental break, the Columbine Shooters were believed to be acting out narcissistic desires to be
famous and taking revenge on bullies, and the Pulse Nightclub Shooter committed that shooting
for his ISIS religious beliefs.2 Sometimes we never know why someone committed a mass
shooting, as was the case with the Las Vegas Shooter; it has been several years and there is still
no known motive for that crime (Associated Press, 2018).
My research has led me to some factors that may contribute to motivating a person to
engage in such an act of violence, namely the news media and social media. There are a variety
of news outlets and social media platforms that can be used to broadcast a story to millions of
people at the speed of one’s internet connection. This reachability has allowed a shooter’s
actions and/or message to be put on a platform for the public’s viewing pleasure. In fact, the
2 Peralta 2012, Brockell 2019, and Ellis, Ralph, et al 2016 respectively.
Columbine Shooting was the most notable shift in how mass shooters communicated their
motives for the attack; where previously it had been done in written format in the form of
journals or paper notes, Columbine’s shooters communicated via technology in a series of videos
that have been termed “The Basement Tapes” (Schildkraut & Elsass, p. 141).
In Murray’s article, she states that “In a study on contagion mass killings, Towers et. al.
(2015) found ‘significant evidence that mass killings involving firearms are [inspired] by similar
events in the immediate past,’ with the highest risk within 13 days”. The role of the media can be
even more influential for shooters believed to have narcissistic traits, like the Columbine
Shooters and the Virginia Tech Shooter (Bushman, 2018). In his article analyzing narcissism and
the influence of media, Bushman states that “Unfortunately, the media provide a stage for
narcissistic individuals to become ‘stars’ through extreme acts of violence, such as mass
shootings”. There is compelling evidence that notoriety achieved by killing as many innocent
people at one time is a sure way to get someone famous quickly.
This notion of the role media plays in encouraging mass shootings is not lost on people
either. When I conducted my interview I specifically asked the respondent what role he thought
the media played in increasing the prevalence of mass shootings. He replied:
Sure. Sure. Of course. Especially when someone is just looking for that attention,
whatever it might be. Their mental state, or lack of support system, or they might
have been abused, and they just are either hurting or bullied. Because let’s face it,
bullying is a huge thing. Anything that’s causing someone to lash out, guns would
be one of the fastest ways to do it. It’s all laid out. With the media covering
everything and every step that this person did, you’re just setting up the footprint
for the next person to top it.
Another segment of media, social media, is also worth discussing because this is a type of
technology and form of communication that is incredibly common today. There exists a segment
of social media users who repost the material posted by a mass shooter. This allows a community
of either supporters or opponents to form that may encourage the violence via platforms like
Twitter, Facebook, and Tumbler (Schildkraut & Elsass, pp.149-52). “Such sites can act as a
platform for likeminded individuals to join together to discuss their plans for similar attack and
provide support and reinforcement for one another” (Schildkraut & Elsass, p. 152). Given that
some of these platforms are fairly new their effect on influencing mass shooters may not be fully
researched and assessed for years to come.
The focus of this paper was mass shootings, but I feel some facts about gun violence
must be incorporated into this paper because they are important and necessary to have a wellrounded
dialogue about gun violence and possible solutions. Firstly, suicides are the most
common form of gun violence (Centers for Disease Control, 2017). Gun violence also
disproportionately affects Blacks in urban areas more than any other demographic, but this fact is
rarely discussed in the media (Parham-Payne, 2014 & APA 2013 Report). Black victims of gun
violence are also depicted as seemingly at fault for their victimization (Parham-Payne, 2014).
These disparities are incredibly troubling and only serve to impede progress in preventing gun
violence as it ignores a large segment of society that falls prey to it.
Two assumptions I had at the start of this project were that mass shootings are relatively
commonplace and we can try to prevent them by examining the motives of shooting offenders.
Mass shootings are incredibly rare events when looking at gun violence as a whole. This was
surprising to me because of the coverage I have been seeing in the news. I assumed that this was
a common occurrence. While we are seeing more mass shootings, they are still far less frequent
than suicides and deaths from firearms in a domestic incident.
More importantly, very little can be determined about what motivates a mass shooter
because there is an immense amount of variability. What motivates a shooter must be examined
on a case by case basis given the vast differences in age, employment, education, concerning
behaviors, and stressors. What we can determine is the likelihood of someone committing a mass
shooting by looking at various characteristics and possibly intervening by providing counseling
and other resources.
The news media plays a strong role in influencing people to commit a mass shooting with
their incessant coverage of shooting events, like the Las Vegas Shooting and Sandy Hook
Shooting. However, there is little to no research that supports the hypothesis that media violence
increases the likelihood of firearm violence (APA 2013 Report). Therefore, it is largely an
untested theory that news coverage of mass shootings will make firearm violence more likely.
Even more unknown is the exact influence of people using social media to idolize mass shooters
and/or recirculate their communications.
If we, as a society, are to address the issue of gun violence we must examine it as a whole
and not focus solely on mass shootings. There are incredible disparities that exist and must be
acknowledged. And since suicides are the leading fatalities of gun violence, that too must be
acknowledged and part of the larger dialogue. Perhaps then the reform of gun control laws and
taking measure to reduce the numbers of guns on the street would be more successful.
Advocating for gun control on the platform of preventing school shootings might be too
polarizing of a stance considering the low prevalence and murky statistics.
My hypothesis was both correct and incorrect. On one hand I was correct that mass
shooters are mostly male, but incorrect in stating that they are committing acts of retribution.
This being a motivator is not a complete picture and can’t even be applied to all mass shooters.
What motivates these offenders is largely unknown, but characteristics used to determine age,
race, and behavior are far more helpful in painting an accurate picture of mass shooters. Seeing
that there are too many unknowns, especially given the small sample sizes of the studies, gun
reform may better be served if applied to gun violence as a whole.
Associated Press (August 3, 2018). “Las Vegas shooting: No motive, no 2nd shooter in
massacre, sheriff says”. NBC News. Retrieved from
2nd-shooter-massacre-sheriff-n897421. Last accessed December 9, 2019.
Brockell, Gillian (April 20, 2019). “Bullies and black trench coats: The Columbine shooting’s
most dangerous myths”. The Washington Post. Retrieved from
shootings-most-dangerous-myths/. Last accessed December 9, 2019.
Bushman, Brad J. (2017). “Narcissism, Fame Seeking, and Mass Shootings”. American
Behavioral Scientist 2018, Vol. 62(2), pp. 229-41.
Centers for Disease Control (2017). “10 Leading Causes of Death, United States”. Retrieved
from https://webappa.cdc.gov/cgi-bin/broker.exe. Last accessed December 9, 2019.
Ellis, Ralph, et al (June 13, 2016). “Orlando shooting: 49 killed, shooter pledged ISIS
allegiance”. CNN News. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2016/06/12/us/orlandonightclub-
shooting/index.html. Last accessed December 9, 2019.
Johnson, Emily Alfin (August 4, 2019). “What Is A Mass Shooting? Why We Struggle To Agree
On How Many There Were This Year”. Guns & America. Retrieved from
on-how-many-there-were-this-year/. Last accessed December 9, 2019.
Murray, Jennifer L. (2017). “Mass Media Reporting and Enabling of Mass Shootings”. Cultural
Studies <-> Critical Methodologies 2017, Vol. 17(2), pp. 114-24.
Parham-Payne, Wanda (November 2014). “The Role of the Media in the Disparate Response to
Gun Violence in America”. Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 45, No. 8 (2014), pp. 752-
Peralta, Eyder (July 27, 2012). “Court Documents: Alleged Colorado Shooter Was Seeing
Psychiatrist”. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwoway/
Last accessed December 9, 2019.
Ray, Michael (last updated December 7, 2019). “Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting”.
Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/event/Newtownshootings-
of-2012. Last accessed December 9, 2019.
Schildkraut, Jaclyn and Elsass, H. Jaymi (2016). Mass Shootings: Media, Myths, and Realities.
Santa Barbra, CA: Praeger TM.
U.S. Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation (June 2018). “A Study of Pre-
Attack Behaviors of Active Shooters in the United States Between 2000 and 2013”.
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of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States Between 2000 and 2013”.
Zapotosky, Matt (January 4, 2017). “Charleston church shooter: ‘I would like to make it crystal
clear, I do not regret what I did’”. Washington Post. Retrieved from
11e6-a783-cd3fa950f2fd_story.html . Last accessed December 9, 2019.
GROUP MEMBER GRADES
Group work can be difficult at times, especially when trying to coordinate schedules.
There were three other people in my group which, for me personally, made it difficult to keep
track of who was doing what and when. Despite any challenges, we were able to complete the
project and presentation. Grading is as follows: Kimberly Meija a 5 because she always
responded to texts and kept everyone updated even if group members missed class. Madeline
Flores I would give a 4 because she responded to questions and commented in a timely manner.
Paige DeCecco I would give a 3 to because she finished her part of the presentation on time and
presented will, but didn’t always contribute to conversation in the group chat (although this
could be because she is roommates with Madeline and was being updated by her).
I would give myself a 3 as well because I don’t feel I performed to the best of my ability
on this project in terms of attendance for in class group work. However, I did complete my slides
on time and made sure to respond promptly to the group chat. I would have also liked to have
done better presenting but I get very nervous talking in front of the class and am unable to speak
clearly as a result.