U.S. Mass Shootings and the Need for a Sociological Perspective | April 2023
In the United States, the month of January 2023 set a record for having the most mass shootings since 2014, when the Gun Violence Archive began tracking mass shootings in the United States. In January alone, there were 52 total mass shootings, that is, shootings involving four or more victims of gun violence (O’Kruk 2023).
These shootings included 11 fatalities at the hands of a 72-year-old gunman in Monterey Park, California (Salahieh et al. 2023), and 7 victims of a 66-year-old farmworker in Half Moon Bay, California (Miracle & Tucker 2023). Surgeon General Vivek Murthy repeatedly refers to gun violence as a national epidemic, or a disease with rapid, widespread occurrence (Here & Now Anytime 2023). Yet, the cures most often proposed for this social epidemic—greater access to mental health services but more restricted access to guns—take a more individualistic approach than a social one.
Calling for improved access to mental health, while necessary and important, focuses on the psychological well-being of individuals rather than the well-being of U.S. society as a whole—as if only individuals with mental illness are capable of mass shootings, and gun violence is not a social illness implicating the entire nation. Moreover, calls for greater gun control emphasize balancing individuals’ access to certain types of firearms with the current interpretation of the second amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Rarely do these calls ask why, in a country where guns outnumber people (Black 2022), so many desire guns in the first place, or why many Americans today interpret the Second Amendment as protecting their right to any firearms in all circumstances. Also, there is little discussion as to why most mass shooters are cisgender, heterosexual men (Paterson 2019). The Nashville school shooter, identified as transgender, appears to be a rare exception.
Addressing the social aspects of gun violence in the United States requires a sociological perspective. American sociologist C. Wright Mills defined the sociological imagination—also called the sociological perspective—as perceiving people’s choices, actions, and behaviors as not just the result of their individual circumstances or biographies, but also as the product of the historical factors and forces that shape the societies in which they live (New World Encyclopedia, n.d.).
Taking a sociological perspective on gun violence reveals that the use of firearms has historically been a defining aspect of U.S. masculinity (Baggett 2012). Indeed, several contemporary scholars have noted the role of toxic masculinity in mass shooters’ lives (Vandegrift 2021, Reese 2019), explaining that heterosexual, cisgender men raised in the United States learn to resort to gun violence to assert and defend their masculinity against perceived threats, such as social and sexual rejection.
Classical social theorist Emile Durkheim also emphasized that social rejection can lead to violence. A lack of social integration, he wrote, can lead a person to suicide. He defines social integration as a healthy, functional level of involvement in major social institutions, such as the economy, religion, and the family—involvement that is beneficial to both the institutions and the individuals involved in those institutions (Alsabeh 2019). Too much social integration can lead to altruistic suicide, on behalf of the institution, or fatalistic suicide, from a lack of independence from the institution. Too little social integration can lead to egoistic suicide, from feeling disconnected from social institutions, or anomic suicide, from not being able to follow the norms of these institutions (Alsabeh 2019).
Whether someone chooses suicide or homicide in the form of mass violence depends on whether they blame themselves for their unhealthy social integration or whether they blame an institution, such as a school, for making healthy social integration impossible (Rankin 2012). Often, the blame is mixed, which is why many mass shootings end with the shooter taking their own life (Waters 2019).
Applying Durkheim’s theories of suicide to gun violence in the United States suggests that many mass shooters experienced too little social integration. Indeed, media biographies of these shooters often describe them as being lonely and isolated, with few friends and weak connections to social institutions, including family (Ruvio 2023). Durkheim’s theories hold social institutions and even society at large as being equally, if not more, responsible for a lack of social integration as are individual members of these institutions (Alsabeh 2019).
Viewing gun violence through a sociological lens reveals that U.S. society as a whole must change its social and cultural conditioning of boys and men to reduce the occurrence of mass shootings. But what about mass shooters not raised in the United States, like Huu Can Tran and Chunli Zhao, the Asian immigrant gunmen responsible for the Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay shootings? These shooters are not products of U.S. society and social institutions. However, they, like all immigrants, sought to integrate or assimilate into American society and its institutions, at least economically.
Although Tran’s and Zhao’s exact motives for their shootings remain unknown, media profiles of these shooters suggest that they struggled to experience economic success and achieve the American Dream. Their lack of social integration into the U.S. economy threatened not only their masculinity as financially independent wage earners, but also their basic survival (Larson & Madyun 2023, Uyehara 2023). In both cases, as in the cases of other mass shootings, there are sociological explanations to consider in addition to psychological and political ones.
The United States will experience more mass shootings. And each shooting will be followed by more calls for better mental health services as well as stricter gun control. While both are very much needed, they will not address all the reasons gun violence is so prevalent throughout the nation. To begin addressing all the reasons, gun violence must be considered from a sociological perspective, as a social problem, not just a problem of individuals’ mental health or their access to guns. Durkheim’s theories of social integration and violence are as relevant today as they were two centuries ago.
- How can a sociological perspective help to explain a mass shooting other than the ones mentioned in this article?
- How does Durkheim’s theory of social integration help to explain the relatively low occurrence of gun violence and mass shootings in nations other than the United States?
- Why does the United States tend to explain mass shootings and gun violence only in terms of gun control and mental health and not sociologically, as a social problem?
Alsabeh, Farid. 2019. “Are Senseless Acts of Violence Really That Senseless?” Medium. October 1. https://falsabeh.medium.com/are-senseless-acts-of-violence-really-that-senseless-8bf81611880f#:~:text=When%20an%20individual%20is%20overly,fatalistic%20suicide%20was%20the%20result.
Baggett, Ashley. 2012. “Masculinity and Guns in America.” Nursing Clio. December 31. https://nursingclio.org/2012/12/31/masculinity-and-guns-in-america/
Black, Thomas. 2022. “Americans Have More Guns Than Anywhere Else in the World and They Keep Buying More.” Bloomberg. May 25. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-05-25/how-many-guns-in-the-us-buying-spree-bolsters-lead-as-most-armed-country?leadSource=uverify%20wall
Here & Now Anytime. 2023. “Surgeon general calls gun violence an ‘epidemic’; How Waco reverberates today.” NPR. January 31. https://www.npr.org/2023/01/31/1152844038/surgeon-general-calls-gun-violence-an-epidemic-how-waco-reverberates-today
Larson, Amy, and Madyun, Haaziq. 2023. “Accused Half Moon Bay Mass Shooter Sobs in Court.” KRON4. February 10. https://www.kron4.com/news/bay-area/accused-half-moon-bay-mass-shooter-sobs-in-court/
Miracle, Veronica, and Tucker, Emma. 2023. “Man Accused of Killing 7 and Injuring 1 in Half Moon Bay Shootings in California Pleads Not Guilty.” CNN. February 16. https://www.cnn.com/2023/02/16/us/half-moon-bay-suspect-arraignment/index.html
New World Encyclopedia. N.d. “C. Wright Mills.” https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/C._Wright_Mills#The_Sociological_Imagination
O’Kruk, Amy. 2023. “It Was the Worst January Yet for Mass Shootings.” NBC Washington. January 31. https://www.nbcwashington.com/news/it-was-the-worst-january-yet-for-mass-shootings/3268941/
Paterson, Leigh. 2019. “Many Mass Shooters Share a Common Bond: Male Grievance Culture.” Guns & America. WAMU. August 13. https://wamu.org/story/19/08/13/many-mass-shooters-share-a-common-bond-male-grievance-culture/
Rankin, John. 2012. “Research Note: Durkheim’s Taxonomy of Collective Violence.” Office of Justice Programs. June 16. https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/247721.pdf
Reese, Phillip. 2019. “When Masculinity Turns ‘Toxic’: A Gender Profile of Mass Shootings.” The Los Angeles Times. October 7. https://www.latimes.com/science/story/2019-10-07/mass-shootings-toxic-masculinity
Ruvio, Ayallah. 2023. “Mass Shootings Are a Symptom, Not the Root Problem.” Psychology Today. March 1. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/forward-looking-behavioral-science/202303/mass-shootings-are-a-symptom-not-the-root-problem
Salahieh, Nouran, Chan, Stella, and Eric Levenson. 2023. “11 Victims of Monterey Park Mass Shooting Ranged in Age from 57 to 76 Years Old, Coroner Says.” CNN. January 25. https://www.cnn.com/2023/01/24/us/monterey-park-california-mass-shooting-tuesday/index.html
Uyehara, Mari. 2023. “Huu Can Tran’s American Dream.” The Nation. February 6. https://www.thenation.com/article/society/monterey-park-killings-guns/
Vandegrift, Darcie. 2021. “Mourning After Mass Shootings Isn’t Enough – A Sociologist Argues that Society’s Messages about Masculinity Need to Change.” The Conversation. December 15. https://theconversation.com/mourning-after-mass-shootings-isnt-enough-a-sociologist-argues-that-societys-messages-about-masculinity-need-to-change-173727
Waters, John. 2019. “Mass Shootings and Émile Durkheim.” First Things. August 27. https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2019/08/mass-shootings-and-mile-durkheim