Starting hours after the Orlando nightclub mass shooting, in which 49 people were murdered and dozens more injured, the news media and American public began anew conversations and actions that have become routine after these tragedies. I previously wrote about the conversations.
A particularly cringe-worthy component of this routine is the rankings and the speed with which they are updated. Lists of “worst mass shootings in U.S. history” and “worst mass murders of all time” and “worst mass shootings in which the shooter did not commit suicide” and many more variations have all appeared in last couple of days, fully updated to include Monday’s tragedy at Pulse. And it’s not just the lists — it seems every Wikipedia page on mass murder already has been updated.
Any practical purpose for these grotesque rankings is unclear, but scientific research suggests at least two inevitable outcomes: First, they afford special status for the worst-of-the-worst killers, reinforcing extreme violence as a path to recognition and infamy. Second, they set a benchmark to beat for other aspiring mass killers.
I took a look at NPR’s “List of the Deadliest Mass Shootings in U.S. History,” which was published the same day as the nightclub shooting. It includes 12 instances of mass murder perpetrated by 14 people with guns. Notably absent are some of the deadliest instances of mass murder that were perpetrated via other means (like the 1927 school bombing in Bath Township, Mich., that killed 45 people, including 38 children, or the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed at least 168 people).
The 12 incidents on the NPR list span 50 years — 1966 to 2016 — and represent every region of the country. Of the 14 killers, 13 were men, with one woman participating alongside her husband. The killers’ ages at the time of the murders range from 17 to 44, with an average age of 30 years. Eleven of the 14 were born in the U.S., and the other three had either completed or were in the process of completing the requirements for U.S. citizenship.
Four of the 12 mass shootings included use of assault rifles, but most were carried out with shotguns, hunting rifles, and/or handguns. None of the cases includes significant evidence of religious extremist or international terrorist influences. The massacre locations are sites chosen for their familiarity, sites where the killers felt comfortable and in control: a school they attended, a current or former workplace, a business they patronized or that happened to be in the neighborhood.
This brief examination of 12 mass shootings underscores the futility of focusing our national response on issues related to religion, immigration, the vulnerability of so-called “soft targets,” and access to assault rifles. But it also reveals the one thing common to most violent acts in the U.S.
This is important: The perpetrators of U.S. violence are overwhelmingly young-adult American men, many of whom have been angered by the perceived denial of assumed entitlements. We must examine what it is about American masculinity that coincides with entitlement and violence, especially among young men.
— Julie B. Wiest, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at West Chester University of Pennsylvania whose 2011 book, “Creating Cultural Monsters: Serial Murder in America,” explores the sociocultural context of serial murder and extreme violence in the U.S.