Tuesday brought the second high-profile mass shooting in America in less than a week. With the news came the familiar scramble to find any scrap of motive or clue in the shooter’s background, anything to explain why he killed 10 people in a Boulder, Colorado, supermarket on a weekday afternoon. Some liberals and media figures initially reacted to the shooting on social media by blaming it, erroneously, on “white men,” and the right eagerly pounced on the misstep (the suspect was born in Syria). Meanwhile, the Federalist, which labeled the crime “terrorism” with no evidence, described the suspect as an “anti-Trump Muslim” and got a bit over its skis by falsely reporting he had ISIS sympathies. Zaid Jilani, weighing in for the IDW crew on Bari Weiss’ Substack, somehow made it about Muslim anti-Semitism and critical race theory by arguing, “White People Don’t Have a Monopoly on Hatred,” despite the dearth of any evidence that the killings were motivated by bigotry.*
There’s almost always some effort to impart meaning to mass shootings or to use them to settle some culture war score, based on some aspect of the suspect’s identity or stated motivation.
But these attempts to parse mass shootings obscure more than they reveal. We haven’t heard an explanation from the shooter or found a manifesto laying out a rationale for committing this particular shooting. We just know the suspect’s ethnicity, gender, and age, and that he posted on social media about wanting a girlfriend, about Islam, about politics. There’s no clear way to interpret these facts to better understand why these atrocities keep happening, or what we could do to help prevent them in the future.
Past shooters have embraced a wide range of hateful ideologies, or none at all. Tons of people spout extreme political speech online, but only a vanishingly small number commit mass shootings. Some choose victims on the basis of their race or creed, others places of personal significance to the shooter, and still others seemingly choose targets at random. Many mass shootings aren’t publicly recognized as such: Family annihilation shootings, for instance, or retaliatory criminal shootings can claim many casualties but frequently pass unnoticed. Almost all mass shootings are committed by men, yes, but that category that includes half the population, so gender alone is not a meaningful risk factor.
To explain what shooters actually have in common, we need to look at the suspect’s behavior more than speech or identity—that is, anger more than hatred. The most important risk factors for committing acts of spectacular violence are past acts of violence, frequent anti-social behavior, making threats, and a profound fixation on guns beyond mere ownership. The most important risk factor of those is past violence, which might mean that American tolerance for everyday violence is more to blame for mass shootings than any kind of ideology. The biggest clue that the Boulder shooter posed a danger to those around him was his well-known history of threatening and fighting peers. At 18, he was convicted of misdemeanor assault after brutally beating a classmate. Police said he’d been involved in another more recent assault, and though it’s not clear he was arrested, it seems clear that he was engaged in an escalating pattern of violence. A week before the shooting he suddenly bought semi-automatic weapons, unsettling his family to the point that they temporarily took them from him.
At the same time, his social media postings were harmless by the standards of mass shooters. He posted on Facebook that he wanted a girlfriend, yes, but he did not exhibit any explicit ties to the “incel” phenomenon so associated with mass shooters since the 2014 Isla Vista shooting. Anti-Muslim discrimination often provoked his rage, but he didn’t betray any flirtation with Islamic extremism.
The number of people who actually commit acts of violence is quite small, never mind mass shootings. According to the FBI, police made 495,000 arrests for violent crimes in 2019 — less than 5 percent of the total number of arrests, and less than 0.2 percent of the total population. Only 8 percent of adults report recurrent violent outbursts, per the National Comorbidity Survey. Most gun owners do not pose a threat: A 2015 analysis of that same survey data found gun ownership was not strongly associated with violent outbursts.
Unfortunately, we have not actually designed a gun control system to prevent the people who pose the most risk of committing future acts of violence from getting guns. The federal gun background check system does bar people from owning guns on the basis of convictions for felonies or the most serious misdemeanors, including domestic violence, but those individuals have already gone through the cycle of escalatory violence. Many other violent misdemeanor offenders slip through. For instance, the Colorado shooter’s misdemeanor assault conviction only came with a sentence of probation and community service; the federal misdemeanor gun purchase ban only applies to crimes that carry a two-year prison sentence, so it didn’t apply here. Only five states—Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and California—have expanded the range of criminal convictions that bar gun ownership to include violent misdemeanors like assault, battery, or misusing firearms. In any case, less than half of violent crimes ever get reported to police in the first place. As a result, many people who clearly pose a threat of future violence can legally buy guns. The 2015 study of the National Comorbidity Survey found about 9 percent of American adults both report violent, impulsive behavior and keep guns in the home.
Some states, Colorado included, have enacted “red flag” laws that allow police, family members, teachers, or mental health professionals to petition a court to temporarily seize guns from people who pose a demonstrated threat, akin to a restraining order. Courts issue the orders on the basis of threats and violence—that is, they issue them in response to behavior, not identity, speech, or a mental illness diagnosis. A study of California’s red flag law found that its use may have prevented 21 potential mass shootings. So these orders work—when they are actually used.
All of this is to say that the specific “who” or “why” behind any given mass shooting may be the least practically important thing to understand about the crime. If mass shootings have any meaning, it is in the violence itself, which more easily becomes deadly in the United States thanks to freely available weapons. Commentators and policymakers should drop the culture war frame and focus on the actual warning signs that precede violence, or the legal structures that allow so many obvious threats to public safety to fester until it’s too late.
Correction, March 25, 2021: This piece originally misspelled Zaid Jilani’s last name.