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.

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