Mass Shootings

I can still remember the day in 1999 when two students entered Columbine High School and killed twelve fellow students and one teacher. I was an undergraduate student then and I remember spending the entire day watching the news in complete shock. This was the first of what we now call “mass shootings” that I can remember. This event horrified the nation and left us all with serious questions. Unfortunately, this event ushered in a period where today these seem common. 

As I was preparing to write this piece, I tried to remember the shootings that stood out. Being an alumni of Virginia Tech, I remember that shooting well. I still knew people there and it was hard seeing places on TV that brought me such joy, now being scenes of tragedy. I also remember Sandy Hook.  It just seemed worse than others being because these were little kids. Yet to my distress I realized most of the others have all blended together. I wish I had answers. I don’t. This is a complicated situation, with extremely strong passions on both sides. I don’t want to discuss the Second Amendment here. I wrote on the subject back in January and it is still online. What I want to do is take a minute and look at this from a historical perspective and share a few things I learned that surprised me.

The different lists I drew my information from, I am sure are, not perfect or complete, but they are close enough in number to make general assumptions. I also did not count shootings like Kent State or Waco that involved government or shootings between rival gangs or with police.

When looking over the lists, the big question is why? There are many different reasons for mass shootings, depending on who you ask. History cannot give any definite answers, but it can shed some light. I started looking at the 1940s to find the number of mass shootings. I figured that decade could give a constant. The constant in this case is the type of weapon used. Starting after World War II, the type of firearm available to citizens is basically the same type available today. Since the war, semi-automatic rifles are readily available. Semi-automatic means one round is fired every time the trigger is pulled and so can be fired as fast as a finger can squeeze. Rifles like this include the AR 15.  With gun arguments we get caught up comparing flintlock muskets to modern weapons, but if we start with the 1940s we are comparing apples to apples. 

What we find, and again these numbers are estimates, is that in the 1940s there was one mass shooting. The same for the 1950s. The numbers do not really rise in the 1960s or 1970s with only three in the 1960s and five in the 1970s. The big increase comes in the 1980s when the number of mass shootings rose to twenty-one. The numbers then rise slightly over the next two decades with twenty-nine in the 1990s and thirty-five in the 2000s. The next big jump is a bit startling with 111 mass shootings and counting in the 2010s. So, the questions must be: what happened in the 1980s and the 2010s for such an increase in shootings.

The first go-to for both parties is politics, each blaming the other for all the troubles. Republicans took over the White House and held it during the 1980s, but Democrats regained it in 1992 and held for the rest of the decade when shootings were just as bad. Democrats took back the highest office in 2008 and were in charge for six years in the 2010s before Trump took over. It would be easy to blame one of the parties if it had dominated over the past forty years, but the years are pretty evenly split.

Other areas of historical significance for this story are the 24-hour news networks and the internet. Ted Turner launched CNN in 1980.  Based on their success, the ‘90s saw the launch of two more very popular networks, Fox News and MSNBC, both starting in 1996. In the need of news organizations to fill a 24-hour loop, these shootings have been sensationalized and the shooters themselves have become famous, or infamous, or to the shooters it is the same. I won’t use the names of the Columbine shooters, but I still know their names.  Everyone who was old enough to remember that day probably does. 

This brings up the first interesting fact. Columbine was not the first school shooting the way I remember it. There were at least nine school shootings in the 1990s before Columbine, nine. Why then do we remember Columbine so vividly? Because, in a twisted way, they became celebrities. A recent Washington Post story reported a large percent of copycat school shooters were obsessed with Columbine. The news told everyone who they were and the Internet pushed their stories and other troubled students wanted to be famous also. Most notably, the Sandy Hook shooter, who, by the way was not the first to target an elementary school. I also learned that California had three elementary school shootings between 1979 and 1989 and South Carolina had one in 1988, yet they received little national attention.

The history of the Internet plays a part also. Though the Internet has been around for some time, it really did not come into public use until 1991 with search engines like Excite and Yahoo coming in 1993 and 1994. The Internet has given shooters the justification they need. When writing this article, I consulted a psychology professor at my University about this subject. He stressed that many of the shooters are not mentally ill. I assumed mental illness was a common factor in all shootings, with the premise that sane people don’t shoot up a crowd. His answer changed my thinking. He explained that soldiers are not mentally ill when they kill during war. They believe what they are doing is correct, they are defending their nation. The same is true with mass shooters.  Many believe what they are doing is correct. Especially the shooters who kill groups they disagree with. It is the Internet that allows them to find common thinking and where they can find praise for their actions. 

I still to try to understand so many things, but I can take away two points. The media can be more responsible and not dive into every aspect of the shooters so their names do not become known. I would also like to see a change in our politicians. As seen, shootings occur during both parties’ presidencies. Instead of spending all their time blaming the other party, they should try working together for change, but in our highly charged political atmosphere, I doubt that will ever happen.   

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at or Facebook at @jamesWfinck.

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