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UB researcher looks for root causes of mass shootings present in 55 years of statements from perpetrators


Thu, Jun 20th 2024 06:45 pm

By the University at Buffalo

A University at Buffalo researcher’s analysis of 55 years of statements made by the perpetrators of mass shootings could provide a foundation for developing preemptive counter-messaging designed to undermine those arguments for violence and reduce the potential for copycats.

The study published last month in the journal Communication Monographs demonstrates that shooters’ grievances are classifiable and can be mapped onto existing communication theory in ways that suggest a degree of predictability, explanation and control.

Not all mass shooters communicate their reasons for committing atrocities, but a significant proportion do, and those who shared any motivation whatsoever were more likely to kill or injure more people than those who did not state their motivations, according to Lindsay Hahn, Ph.D., an assistant professor of communication in the University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences.

“We found evidence consistent with the idea that violent extremists are driven by otherwise ordinary motivations that they seek to uphold regardless of the cost, including the loss of human life,” said Hahn, the paper’s corresponding author. “Although no single study could consider all the antecedents leading to a mass shooting, or resolve to prevent them from occurring, this paper is a first step in analyzing and understanding their motivations.”

Hahn said previous research suggests how a motivational imbalance might drive mass shooters. In these cases, a single need, such as notoriety or in-group loyalty, might crowd out or consume other desires. For most people, these needs are effectively governed, but when an imbalance occurs, the needs can swell to dangerous levels of intensity and duration.

These imbalances can happen with nonviolent extremists. “Summit fever,” for example, often pushes mountain climbers to risk their own well-being for the sake of a goal. But violent extremists are characterized by a willingness to hurt others in pursuit of their motivation.

“Violent extremists would likely seek out media content that contributes to that imbalance,” Hahn said. “Knowing that shooters often discuss their motivations online or through social media suggests that these places might be useful for preemptive counter-messaging.”

The sample used for the study consisted of 178 documented statements by mass shooters (those who used a firearm in the U.S. to kill four or more people in a single incident) from 1966 (when mass shooting records began) to 2021. These statements included manifestos, suicide notes, online posts, written letters, verbal statements, direct quotes, and court transcripts. The statements were coded and assigned to one of 11 motivation categories.

“I don’t want to overstate our findings,” Hahn said. “But this paper does give us a potential path forward that looks at something related to a mass shooting that maybe we didn’t look at previously.”

Katherine Schibler, the paper’s lead author, was a UB graduate student at the time of the research; and co-author Adam Lankford, Ph.D., is a professor and chair of the department of criminology and criminal justice at The University of Alabama.

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