Making Sense Of Mass Shootings

Monday’s Navy Yard shooting, which resulted in the deaths of 13 people including the gunman, added to the rising tally of mass shootings across the country in 2013. Mother Jones counts the Navy Yard shooting as the fifth of its kind this year in their data set covering mass shootings in the US from 1982 to 2013. On Monday, the Dart Center re-released a tip sheet for journalists covering the tragedy to help navigate reporting on the event.

As this disturbing phenomenon appears to grow, experts are struggling to grasp how to define it and how to predict it. In a report by the Congress Research Service in March 2013, “Pubic Mass Shootings in the United States,” mass shootings are defined as occurring in public places and resulting in four or more deaths, not including the perpetrator. Victims are targeted indiscriminately, and the killings are not pursued for common motives, such as criminal benefit or terrorist ideology.

In a column Wednesday in Buzz Feed, Dart Center Ochberg Fellow Dave Cullen, the author of "Columbine," a book on the Littleton, CO shootings, suggests that the media should stop allowing killers the fame they seek and refuse to use their names in coverage. Cullen recommends that the media use the perpetrator's name or names sparingly in the first 48 hours, and then "disappear him," or stop using names altogether. 

Using statistics compiled from previous shootings, The Atlantic eerily postulated on Tuesday: “The next mass shooting will take place on February 12, 2014, in Spokane, Washington. It will be committed by an emotionally disturbed, 38 year-old white man who will kill seven people and wound six more at a place he used to work using a semi-automatic handgun he purchased legally in the state.”

While the exercise of profiling is still problematic, most of the mass shootings over the past 30 years have been committed by a white male, averaging in his mid-30s, at a place where he previously worked with a legally purchased firearm. Mental health issues are believed to be another characteristic of mass shooters. Since they are difficult to diagnose, journalists need to be careful before categorizing shooters or deconstructing motives based on victim accounts.