Mass shootings have become an all-too-common occurrence in modern American life. Though such events seem to defy explanation, a closer look reveals a confluence of factors that have created a dangerous recipe for these tragedies. America’s long love affair with guns, inadequate mental health resources, and a culture that glorifies violence have all converged to make mass shootings disturbingly frequent.
With over 393 million guns in civilian hands, America’s gun ownership rate far surpasses that of other developed nations. This sheer abundance of firearms makes them easily accessible to individuals who may wish to carry out an attack. Weak gun laws in many states allow dangerous people to legally obtain assault-style weapons designed for mass casualties. The nation’s gun lobby has also been effective at blocking reforms that could help prevent firearm deaths. This obsession with firearms and resistance to regulation provide one crucial ingredient for mass shootings.
Many mass shooters exhibit warning signs of mental health issues before their attacks. But America’s mental healthcare system has deteriorated in recent decades due to a lack of funding. Millions of people who need psychiatric help don’t receive it, allowing their conditions to spiral out of control. Stigmas surrounding mental illness also prevent people from seeking treatment. Better screening and access to care could identify those at risk before they turn to violence. Our collective failure to provide adequate mental health resources is thus complicit in mass shootings.
While mental illness alone cannot explain mass shootings, it often interacts with other factors in dangerous ways. Untreated psychiatric disorders may increase susceptibility to extremist ideologies or conspiracy theories. Access to proper care and medication can prevent someone on a path to violence from escalating. Nuance is required; being mentally ill does not predispose someone to being violent. But in rare cases, mental health issues left unchecked can lead to horrific acts. A holistic healthcare approach is needed to identify and help at-risk individuals.
American culture frequently glorifies and even fetishizes violence through media and entertainment. Graphically violent video games, films, and online content help normalise brutality, particularly among impressionable young men who have carried out many mass shootings. While no direct causation has been proven, this steady diet of violence likely desensitises some and makes the idea of an attack more cognitively accessible. Mass shooters often explicitly reference violent media and gain inspiration from previous attackers who became notorious. A cultural obsession with violence provides fertile ground for mass shooting ideation to take root and spread.
In addition to external societal factors, the lives of mass shooters are often characterised by isolation and loneliness. Though speculation about “profiles” is problematic, many perpetrators shared traits of social disconnection and resentment towards others for perceived grievances. Increasing polarisation and tribalism in America likely worsen this alienation. Social media echo chambers can reinforce negative worldviews. When unstable individuals feel marginalised by society, mass violence can begin to seem like a viable path. Strengthening social connectedness and community bonds could help divert some from this extreme course.
Beyond the horrific direct death tolls, mass shootings impart trauma and pain that ripples through communities long after attacks. Survivors often suffer lasting physical and mental health consequences, including PTSD, depression, and anxiety. Families of victims carry unfathomable grief. And for bystanders and people across the country watching events unfold, a sad phenomenon has become distressingly routine. Mass shootings permeate the public psyche, fueling fear and helplessness. They impart collective trauma that hurts America’s very social fabric.
Mass shootings also inflict steep financial costs on American society. A 2022 analysis by Everytown for Gun Safety determined that gun violence in the US, including mass attacks, incurs $557 billion in economic damage annually. This includes direct expenditures for emergency and medical care, along with reduced quality of life for victims and lost wages. Mass shootings disrupt local economies and strain hospital resources. The ripple effects across communities raise costs through declines in property values, business activity, and tax revenues. America pays a high monetary price for a crisis that could be mitigated through sensible reforms.
When compared to other developed Western nations, America is truly an outlier regarding mass shootings. A 2015 study found that the US accounted for nearly one-third of all mass shootings worldwide between 1966 and 2012, despite having only 5% of the world’s population. Easy access to guns, healthcare policy shortfalls, and desensitisation to violence simply do not exist in most peer nations to the extent they do in America. The frequent occurrence of public mass murders that so profoundly shocks the US is practically unheard of in comparable societies. This highlights that the tragedy of routine massacres is a solvable crisis specific to America.
Simplified calls for singular solutions belie the complex web underlying mass shootings. Gun reform, healthcare expansion, cultural change, and social inclusion all must work in concert to prevent further tragedy. No single legal, medical, or societal intervention can address the multitude of factors at play. Americans must avoid reactionary impulses and be open to nuanced, research-based policies. With compassion and moral courage, we can respond to this crisis with wisdom and enact lasting change that honours those we have lost.
John McKay is a freelance writer and political commentator based in Austin, Texas.