How Biopsychosocial Perspectives Help Explain Seemingly Unexplainable Crimes

This week in North Philly Notes, Chad Posick, Michael Rocque, and J. C. Barnes, coauthors of Fitting the Facts of Crime, write about the connections between gun availability, mental health, and masculinity in discussions about mass shootings.

The United States is no stranger to seemingly random acts of violence. Mass shootings, in which four or more are killed in a single attack on a public stage, are on the rise in both number of cases and number of victims per case in America. The question that most of us have when one of these highly publicized attacks happens is, “Why?” Why would someone shoot a school full of children? Why would someone shoot strangers at a concert? Why would someone target churchgoers? In the case of mass public shootings, they are defined as being unrelated to other forms of crime, such as gang violence or robberies. This means that the motivation and causes of mass public shootings remain cloudy.

As criminologists, we are often called upon for answers to questions about why such crimes occur. People have also not been shy to offer their opinions. It’s guns. It’s mental health. It’s racism. The perpetrators are just bad eggs or sociopaths.

For us, explaining these vicious crimes means moving beyond simplistic, all-or-nothing approaches. While it is attractive to try to isolate the one or two most “important” causes of mass public shootings, if we truly want to understand them, so that we can prevent them, we have to look at all relevant factors and how they intertwine in complex ways. And there is no better way to approach these questions than using the biopsychosocial perspective we promote in Fitting the Facts of Crime: An Invitation to Biopsychosocial Criminology.

One of the approaches we took in the book was to show how traditional, sociological perspectives are able to help us understand particular crime and justice patterns, but how, at the same time, they are incomplete. This is no less the case for mass public shootings. Let’s take a look at some of the more common social/environmental factors that the scholars and policy-makers often point to as causes of these attacks.

Guns

While there is debate about just how much mass public shootings are concentrated in the US, it seems reasonable to conclude that more attacks of this nature occur in America than elsewhere. This begs the question of what it is about the US that makes such attacks more likely to take place here?

One prominent factor that is mentioned in the news media and in scholarship is guns. The U.S. has a lot of guns. Some estimates indicate that there are nearly 400 million guns in this country; more guns than people. And since mass public shootings require access to guns, it is reasonable to wonder whether more guns leads to more mass public shootings.

There is a growing amount of research on the relationship between guns, gun control, and mass public shootings. Research has found that the public tends to favor gun control if they live near the site of a mass shooting. Some work has found that in places where gun laws are less strict, there are more mass shootings. Other research has examined how different gun laws influence mass public shootings. Several studies have shown that banning large capacity magazines, or magazines that hold more than 10 bullets, is associated with reduced mass shootings. Two of these studies showed that requiring a license to buy a handgun is also related to fewer mass shootings.

Interestingly, however, not every scholar is convinced that gun availability and gun control are significantly related to mass shootings. In fact, studies that show the importance of gun licenses and large capacity magazine bans have shown that other measures (such as assault weapons bans) do not affect mass shootings. In a recent study, conducted by one of us, the data have shown that gun availability by state is unrelated to incidence and severity of mass public shootings. While one study showed that gun ownership was strongly associated with mass public shootings internationally, guns are clearly not the only factor that explain these attacks. What is missing?

One factor to consider is that underlying individual characteristics make some people more likely to carry, and use, a gun. Genetic differences account for some of the variation in why one person will carry a gun and another will not. Researchers are also coming closer to identifying specific genetic differences associated with neurotransmission that explain gun carrying behavior. It may, then, be the combination of gun availability in society, coupled with individual characteristics, that lead to gun carrying and mass shootings.

Mental Health

Another controversial but widely discussed factor used to explain mass shootings is mental illness. After two particularly deadly mass public shootings in 2019, then President Donald Trump stated “Mental illness and hatred pulled the trigger. Not the gun.” This statement was met with immediate backlash from those arguing that mental illness is not a “predictor” of mass shootings.

Research focusing on public attacks has found that mass public shooters are disproportionately mentally ill. For example, in his dataset, Grant Duwe found that 61% of mass shooters suffered from a mental illness, which is far higher than estimates for the general population. While it is notoriously difficult to assess mental illness from open sources (commonly used to collect data on mass shootings), other research has confirmed that there are disproportionate rates of mental illness in populations of mass shooters.

Once again, though, this risk factor is certainly not sufficient to explain mass public shootings. The vast majority of those with mental illness will never commit gun crimes, let alone a mass public shooting. Additionally, we know that those with serious mental illness are actually more likely to be victimized by gun crimes than to commit them.

Interestingly, and related to our next factor, gender is related to mental illness and mass shootings. Research has shown that women have higher rates of mental illness than men across countries. Yet women almost never commit mass public shootings. Data show that women tend to be less than 6% of all mass public shooters.

Clearly, mass shootings cannot be reduced to mental illness, though it does appear to be an important factor. Mental illness is influenced by genetic factors and it may be that individuals who experience certain social stressors in conjunction with genetic predispositions are more likely to engage in mass shootings compared to others in society. Once again, this highlights the importance of considering the interconnected nature of biology and the social world.

We agree with the summary statement in a recent study examining the link between mass killers and neurodevelopmental disorders, “These extreme forms of violence may be a result of a highly complex interaction of biological, psychological and sociological factors.”  

Masculinity

As just mentioned, mass public shooters are overwhelmingly men. In Duwe’s data, roughly 99% of mass public shooters were men. In other research with less restrictive definitions, this figure is lower, but still above 90%.

Unlike the other issues we have discussed, there is little dissensus on the finding that mass public shooters are almost always male. Some research—but not much!—has attempted to understand this pattern. In some work, masculinity is identified as a primary factor. Some scholars suggest that mass shootings may be viewed as a “masculine” way to regain control that has been lost. The theory is that when certain men feel they have been denied masculinity, they react in particularly deadly ways. However defined, though, denial of masculinity is clearly more prevalent than mass public shootings.

Masculinity, gender, and sex, may be more relevant in mass shootings that target women or families. But attacks motivated by grievances against women only represent about 34% of mass public shootings, according to some work. Thus, other factors are likely at play.

Furthermore, while female mass public shooters are rare, they do occur. For example, one recent study of 18 female mass public shooters found that they were more similar to male mass public shooters than female general murder offenders.

Masculine identity is not simply due to parental or peer socialization—although that can certainly add to how one views themselves and society. It is an outgrowth of evolutionary processes that extend far back into our ancestral past. Efforts to promote the positive aspects of masculinity while tempering the negative aspects—often called toxic masculinity—will require concerted effort and a thorough understanding of the complex bio, psycho, and social aspects of human nature.

Putting it Together

In our view, gun availability, mental health, and masculine identity are all contributing factors to mass shootings in the U.S. The holy grail of behavioral science is to identify necessary and sufficient causes of a human behavior. Yet none of these factors fit that profile—although gun access is necessary to commit a mass shooting, having access to a gun is not a sufficient explanation. And as we outlined above, it not necessary to suffer from a mental illness nor is it necessary to have toxic masculinity.

When necessary and sufficient causes are elusive, behavioral scientists face a more complicated reality. All risk factors must be included, studied, and considered. This includes factors beyond simple socialization explanations. Instead, we must consider that humans are the product of millions of years of evolution, genetics, and socialization. To focus on only one aspect misses the others and, for us, will result in ineffective policy. In Fitting the Facts of Crime, we lay out what we see as the most promising approaches to understanding these types of crimes and offer policy suggestions we believe can help us prevent crime and intervene if necessary.

Brazil Heads Toward 2018: Originalities and Tendencies

This week in North Philly Notes, Philip Evanson, co-author of Living in the Crossfire, pens a dispatch on Brazil’s anti-corruption campaign and next election.

Brazil’s ongoing investigations into corruption have been discussed with a certain sense of national pride, that they may offer something in the way of originality. The targets are white collar criminals in high places of government and the economy. Everybody knows there will be more revelations, arrests and indictments of political and business leaders that will continue to scandalize voter citizens. The judiciary remains diligently engaged in uncovering and prosecuting the guilty within the framework of law and established democratic institutions. It’s an effort to discover crime and punish the guilty carried through WITHOUT THE USE of exceptional powers of which there are few examples in history, certainly none in Brazilian history.

Are there other Brazilian originalities? President Michel Temer heads a conservative government that responds to wishes of entrepreneurial much more than labor groups. The former want more flexibility in hiring and laying off workers, outsourcing, etc. With Temer’s encouragement, the Brazilian congress revised parts of the 1943 Consolidation of Labor Laws (CLT). The CLT had acquired an almost sacrosanct status. Some of it is imbedded in the 1988 constitution. It served workers, employers and Brazil well during periods of economic growth, and economic turmoil. However, the Temer government now argued that changes were necessary, that the CLT needed to be modernized in order to satisfy domestic and foreign investors. It was necessary to break away from the bondage of bureaucracy and labor courts where workers bring thousands of suits each year against employers. Changes to the CLT enacted in 2017 were hailed with government fanfare. But there is also resistance to applying them led by labor court judges, lawyers practicing labor law, and labor law intellectuals. Labor law is a major area of Brazilian jurisprudence. The labor courts or Justiça do Trabalho are organized in a national system with regional tribunals. Critics of the changes argue that important principles protecting workers present in the constitution, obviously inspired by the CLT, cannot be modified by simple legislation. A new collective bargain agreement cannot leave workers worse off in benefits, working conditions, and salaries. Courts will be deciding these issues. A young Brazilian lawyer said to me, “No country has the kind of labor law and labor courts that we have.”

Layout 1Yet another originality, or at least unusual, is the system of election courts (tribuna eleitoral) which like labor courts are organized throughout the country in regional jurisdictions. There is a supreme court. In 2017, its members in sharply divided opinions voted 3 to 2 not to cancel the candidacy, and therefore of election of Michel Temer as Vice-President in 2014. Among the charges against him: Accepting illegal campaign contributions. While Temer survived, other executive branch office holders have not. In 2017, the judiciary has removed on average one mayor a week on charges of corruption.

Of corse, there are ways in which Brazil stands alone, or nearly alone in disrepute. Brazil has greater socio-economic inequality than any Latin American republic as measured in income distribution. The issue goes beyond Brazil’s standing in Latin America. Brazil belongs to a small group of countries that include Middle Eastern oil states, and the Union of S. Africa as examples of extreme inequality. New studies by both foreign and Brazilian researchers have focused on this issue, putting it in the spotlight of public discussion. One study compares bolsa familia or family grant program with investments in public education and asks how much each might reduce inequality. The conclusion: Both contribute, but investments in public education contribute more to reduce inequality. While the Temer government continues to proclaim its support for bolsa familia, it has cut support for education, and otherwise largely ignored mass anxieties. Another study by Irish economist Marc Morgan, a member of the Thomas Piketty, CAPITALISM IN THE 21ST CENTURY research group, produced the conclusion that if the annual income of the top 1% of the richest 10% of Brazilians, a group of 140,000 people, was reduced to that of the top 1% in France and Japan, and the money transferred to the poorest 50% of Brazilians, their income would nearly double. This is a striking demonstration of how low is the income of the bottom 50% of the population. The income of poor Brazilians, and for that matter a large portion of the Brazilian middle class is in fact very low both by world and Latin American standards. The income of the 80% of the Brazilian population below the top 20% is comparable to the poorest 20% in contemporary France. Low income helps explain why people in Rio de Janeiro are not riding a new Metro subway line in expected numbers. A preference for riding busses continues though surely not because the trip takes longer, and can be far less comfortable than the Metro. However, bus fare is R$3.60 while the Metro charges R$4.10 a ride. The difference is 50 centavos or about 16 cents which nonetheless represents an all-important difference for low income riders. Moving up to the richest 10% of Brazilian households does not mean immediately moving from low to high income. Entry into this group begins at 4,500 reais per month or about US$1,500.

The issue of high cost and low quality bus transportation remains a source of intense public dissatisfaction in many large Brazilian cities. Some of the blame can surely be placed on corrupt ties between bus owners and local politicians. The facts and dimension of this corruption are not fully known. However, a Federal police investigation in Rio de Janeiro—Operation Final Stop—culminated in August, 2017 with the announcement that R$500 million reais (about US$175 million) in bribes had been paid by bus owners to former governor Sérgio Cabral (in office from 2007 to 2013, but now serving a lengthy jail term for corruption) in exchange for higher fares, and other favors such as suppressing freelance van competition. However, bus riders are finally getting some relief. This discovery of large bribes paid by bus owners to politicians led to a judge to lower fares. The Federal police, a zealous army of young federal prosecutors, and a growing group of determined, well prepared judges are acting against white collar crime in an ever widening gyre of investigations, arrests, indictments and punishments.

Meanwhile, public security continues in a state of crisis in many areas of Brazil. I can attest to this in my Rio de Janeiro neighborhood of Leme. A Sunday in October saw an invasion of the nearby hillside favela of Babilonia by drug traffickers with a noisy exchange of gunfire. A group of Sunday visitors walking up the winding road of the nearby Duque de Caxias army base heard a soldier explain how the clearly audible gunfire was coming from both automatic rifles and hand guns. He added the army could stop the wars in the favelas in a week—there are conflicts in several of them between different drug gang factions–but the politicians won’t allow it. Too much money “esta rolando” or turning over. These are declarations the public is ready to hear and endorse.

Public security budgets have been cut since the great Brazilian recession of 2015. Gangsters or bandidos as Brazilians call them have been emboldened, and the police less and less able to respond. The violence often seems unchecked, and receives ample media coverage.  Public security has always been a leading issue on any list in which the public is polled. Brazil leads the world in number of homicides. The official count was 61,619 in 2016, and includes people murdered by the police. The crisis in public security more than any other issue will test the mettle of presidential candidates in the 2018 election.

As Brazilians approach 2018, they are processing new information about democracy and the rule of law under the socially progressive Constitution of 1988. Thirty or forty years ago, the leading issue was how to pay the tremendous social debt defined as raising the poor out of destitution and poverty. Now it is confronting white collar crime. There is consensus that the investigation and punishment of corrupt actors will continue. Otherwise what should be done, and is likely to shape the coming 2018 election ferment can be best observed by following the broad range of public and media discussion, and the actions of groups throughout Brazil ranging from landless rural and homeless urban workers to wealthy investors creating funds such as Vox Capital, a new fund with social impact ambitions led by Antônio Ermírio Moraes Neto, an heir to the Votorantim group, Brazil’s (and Latin America’s) largest industrial conglomerate. An example of Vox Capital funding is for production of a low cost respirator with easy maintenance requirements for ambulances and hospitals.  The idea of investing with social impacts in mind is said to be new in Brazil. A Brazilian banker explained: “In my 20 years in banking, I never had clients disposed to link the social with the financial.  They want to make money.” But Brazilians are always open to new ideas, and the appeal of the ethical is in ascendance.

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