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Academics and experts discuss mass shootings

Academics and experts discuss mass shootings

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Academics and experts discuss mass shootings
October 15
00:37 2015

Rhiannon Saegert | Senior Staff Writer

@Missmusetta

Two weeks after the Umpqua Community College shooting in Oregon that resulted in 10 killed and nine wounded, questions about the nature of mass shootings, their frequency and why this kind of violence has become so prevalent only seem to grow more complicated.

Though associate dean for assessment and academic reporting Tracy Dietz now works in UNT’s College of Business, she is a quantitative sociologist who has studied medical sociology, domestic violence and social inequality. Dietz said although shootings have come into the spotlight, they aren’t as common as the general public might think.

“They’re just looking at all mass killings with weapons, because it seems so frightening to them, makes so little sense, and the victims seem so random,” Dietz said. “It’s a terribly frightening thing to people because they can’t control it.”

For example, the FBI reported a statistically significant increase in active shooter situations, but these instances don’t always have victims and aren’t always widely reported.

“The more likely thing that could happen to you is to be shot by a significant other or during the commission of some other crime, like a robbery,” Dietz said. “Mass shooting, active shooter situation and spree shooting are actually three different things. Researchers distinguish between those three kinds of events. I don’t think the general public does.”

Dietz published a report titled “An Examination of Violence and Gender Role Portrayals in Video Games” in 1998, a year before the Columbine High School shooting that claimed 13 lives. The shooting prompted a moral panic over violence in popular culture.

“That was not the point of the research I was doing. For a small sub-group of people who are already at risk, the exposure to it in a video game may simply support that risk,” Dietz said. “Otherwise, if it was actually causing it, you’d have thousands of [shootings] a day, given how many people play video games.”

Dietz said by the time a child reaches the age of 18, it is estimated they will have witnessed over 100,000 murders through different types of media.

“That exposure may cause us to be desensitized to the horror and consequences of violence, but it doesn’t actually cause us to run out and shoot someone,” she said.

Dietz said the increase in incidents began in the 80s, when gun manufacturers began producing more automatic and semi-automatic weapons to boost sales.

“You can’t shoot a lot of people in a short period of time with a 12-gauge,” Dietz said. “But weapons that are automatic, semi-automatic or assault weapons became readily available. The Internet increased that. Even if you purchase a semi-automatic, there are instructions on the Internet for how to retro-fit it into an automatic weapon, even though it’s illegal.”

During the same decade, Dietz said, the federal government began to de-institutionalize mental health facilities and lower federal funding for mental health programs.

“What we know now is that once they de-institutionalized, the homeless population went up, because you put people out on the streets with a prescription and said, ‘Here, take your meds,’ Dietz said. Around the same time, we started to see incarceration rates go up.”

She said though the vast majority of people with mental illnesses are not violent, those who are may not get the help they need until it is too late.

Dietz said there’s very little long-term research on the phenomenon, and spotty records of mass shootings, barring the last few decades, make it even harder to say for sure if the frequency of mass shootings has significantly increased.

“We may know about it while it’s still happening,” Dietz said. “In the 1930s people saw it in newspapers. If something happened in a particular place, it might not even get out to anyone else.”

Psychologist Peter Langman, author of “Why Kids Kill: Inside the Mind of School Shooters,” said the news media’s treatment of these shootings matters in terms of whether it directly inspires copy-cat crimes. He said he could see a shift from focusing on the perpetrators to the victims in recent years.

“With Sandy Hook in 2012, the coverage focused very much on the suffering of the community,” Langman said. “Even if you want to name the perpetrator and provide some information, you don’t have to go into details. If they focus more on the sadness and grief, that’s a very different kind of coverage and hopefully less likely to spur someone else to get the fame that goes with carrying out this kind of attack.”

In regards to campus carry, Langman said he doesn’t believe concealed weapons on campus will deter potential school shooters.

“Half the time, they are expecting to die anyway,” Langman said. “They expect they’ll kill themselves or be killed by police.”

Langman said there could be unforeseen problems if multiple people were carrying guns during an active shooter scenario.

“It’s easy to imagine, like in a movie scenario, a bad guy starts shooting, a good guy whips out a gun and then kills the bad guy. In real life, it could play out very differently in multiple ways,” Langman said. “When you’re in a life-and-death situation, there’s so much adrenaline pumping through you that your reason tends to go away, your fine motor skills tend to go away and your body is in fight-or-flight mode.”

Langman said his main concerns would be students mistakenly shooting one another in an attempt to stop an active shooter, students mistaking anyone with a weapon as a threat or even intervening police mistaking anyone carrying a weapon as the active shooter.

He said recognizing red flags and stopping the shooting before it starts should take priority.

Dean of Students Maureen McGuinness, who heads UNT’s CARE team, said faculty members are told to report any student concerns to the team.

“Sometimes students come out and directly report they are thinking of hurting themselves or that they have made some kind of attempt to self-harm,” McGuinness said. “Sometimes we find it in their behavior, academic work or through friends or social media.”

She said if students see someone behaving in a way that seems dangerous, students can contact the Dean of Students office. If the problem is more urgent, students should contact campus police directly.

Featured Image: President George W. Bush signs a Virginia Tech memorial after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007.  Eric Draper | Wikimedia Commons

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