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.

Temple University Press Fantasy Football Returns!

This week in North Philly Notes, Temple University Press acquisitions editor Ryan Mulligan writes about this year’s Fantasy Football League, COVID, and masculinities. Let the games begin!

In March 2020, a month when certainly nothing else happened in the world, Temple University Press released Whose Game?: Gender and Power in Fantasy Sports by Rebecca Kissane and Sarah Winslow. The book looks at the online world of fantasy sports. The authors argue that while the disembodied space of online gaming might theoretically provide an opportunity for men and women to engage in sporting competition and fan culture on a level ground not found in in-person competition and fandom, in fact, male participants have a tendency to overinvest in the activity and gender it as male. The authors find that many men find in fantasy sports an opportunity to live out boyhood values that they feel increasingly out of their reach as they grow older: a proximity to highly masculinized activities and figures, the illusion of managing other people (in particular athletic bodies), a performance of coldly weighing statistical value over emotional investment, and a competitive play that invites bragging. Thus, while men and women both participate in fantasy sports and enjoy it, the authors found that many of their subjects described their leagues as masculine spaces and the men in their leagues as obsessed to the point where their league distracted and detracted from other aspects of their life.

Against these somewhat foreboding findings, Temple University Press decided last year that in order to prepare to publish this book, Press employees might become more familiar with its subject if the Press were to have its own fantasy team. Who would a university press compete against in fantasy sports? Why not other university presses? So as the 2019 NFL Season kicked off, Temple took to the Association of University Presses email listserv to recruit other university presses to compete in a University Press Fantasy League. The response was enthusiastic. A great many people wanted to show that their nerdiness extended from academic publishing into sports nerd-dom. Unfortunately, some presses had to be turned away. The league opened with fourteen teams. Given the findings of the book, it was heartening to see that four of those teams boasted at least one female manager. The league was highly competitive and all teams remained extremely engaged throughout the season, but there was no trash talk to speak of in the league’s forum. Bonnie Russell and Julie Warheit of Wayne State University Press were crowned champions.

A month after the close of the NFL season, as baseball players prepared to take the field, Whose Game? released. And suddenly, sports were put on hiatus as the world confronted COVID-19. Baseball was postponed, the Olympics were put off to another year, and basketball and hockey were interrupted. Moreover, workplaces closed, shoppers stayed home, and families went into quarantine. (Temple University Press continued to operate with all employees working from home, which continues to this day and seems likely to continue for the foreseeable future.) The virus shut down working life and recreational life all at once. Many academic books will emerge about this unusual period of American life and as a sociology editor, I am hopeful that some of them will look at how hegemonic American masculine identity complicated families’ adaptations to domestic life in this period. Denied work, and denied sports, what was left to do and still be a man? Is it any wonder fireworks sales spiked? Is it any wonder an American president driven by a tragically inflexible sense of masculinity would encourage sports leagues to restart as quickly as they could? Is it any wonder that Dr. Fauci would applaud the move as important for Americans’ sense of normalcy, purpose, and even mental health?

The pandemic has thrown a curveball to academic publishing as well, through our buyers, readers, and other stakeholders. Many of the events and mechanisms that we normally rely on to sell books are still unavailable, and while we’re doing as well as we can, control feels fleeting at best. So as sports returned and a new NFL season rolled around, I started getting emails from managers of last year’s participants in the University Press Football League. The University Press Fantasy League is back for year two of fantasy football. Three new teams would replace competitors from last season and some presses passed managing duties between colleagues. In this moment of controlling the uncontrollable, Fantasy makes a game of uncertainty and adaptation. And it feels normal and rewards a little bit of extra insight in a way that is fleeting outside of the league. The league is not exactly the same, though. Compared to last year’s 10 out of 14, this year, 12 out of 14 teams have only male managers.

Celebrating Banned Book Week

This week in North Philly Notes, for Banned Book Week, we blog about Prison Masculinities, edited by Don Sabo, Terry A. Kupers, and Willie London. A passage on prisoner rape prompted the entire state of Texas’ prison system to ban the book!

 

 From the Texas Civil Rights Project 2011 Human Rights Report:

Prison Masculinities, edited by Dr. Terry Kupers, M.D., Don Sabo, and Willie London, is banned because passages on pages 128-131 discuss prisoner rape. A prisoner describes how he was “humiliated telling anyone about” being sexually assaulted, and how he underwent “torture scenes” at the hands of fellow prisoners. TDCJ officials have testified they would even censor government documents that discuss prison rape. 

The book’s editor, Dr. Kupers, an expert in prison mental health care, included the passage as an “illustrat[ion of] the kind of prisoner orientation and education that is mandated by federal law – i.e. the Prison Rape Elimination Act signed into law by President [George W.] Bush in 2003.” According to Dr. Kupers, “the material in Prison Masculinities is designed to facilitate peaceful, smooth operations of the prisons and contribute to the rehabilitation of prisoners.”

About the book:

Prison Masculinities explores the frightening ways our prisons mirror the worst aspects of society-wide gender relations. It is part of the growing research on men and masculinities. The collection is unusual in that it combines contributions from activists, academics, and prisoners.

The opening section, which features an essay by Angela Davis, focuses on the historical roots of the prison system, cultural practices surrounding gender and punishment, and the current expansion of corrections into the “prison-industrial complex.”

prison masculinitiesThe next section examines the dominant or subservient roles that men play in prison and the connections between this hierarchy and male violence. Another section looks at the spectrum of intimate relationships behind bars, from rape to friendship, and another at physical and mental health.

The last section is about efforts to reform prisons and prison masculinities, including support groups for men. It features an essay about prospects for post-release success in the community written by a man who, after doing time in Soledad and San Quentin, went on to get a doctorate in counseling.

The contributions from prisoners include an essay on enforced celibacy by Mumia Abu-Jamal, as well as fiction and poetry on prison health policy, violence, and intimacy. The creative contributions were selected from the more than 200 submissions received from prisoners.

About the Editors:

Don Sabo, Professor of Social Sciences at D’Youville College in Buffalo, is author or editor of five books, most recently, with David Gordon, Men’s Health and Illness: Gender, Power, and the Body and, with Michael Messner, Sex, Violence, and Power in Sports: Rethinking Masculinity. Sabo has appeared on The Today Show, Oprah, and Donahue.

Terry A. Kupers, M.D., a psychiatrist, teaches at the Wright Institute in Berkeley. He is the author of four books, editor of a fifth. His latest books are Prison Madness: The Mental Health Crisis Behind Bars and What We Must Do About It and Revisioning Men’s Lives: Gender, Intimacy, and Power. Kupers has served as an expert witness in more than a dozen cases on conditions of confinement and mental health services.

Willie London, a published poet, is General Editor of the prison publication Elite Expressions. He is currently an inmate at Eastern Corrections. For nine years he was a prisoner at Attica.

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