Do mass shootings inspire dangerous ideas about guns?
People in the United States endure hundreds of mass shootings per year and the deadliest shootings receive widespread media coverage. How does a national audience that owns an estimated 265 million guns react to news about mass shootings? One concern is that mass shootings subtly inspire more aggressive gun use in society – that is, they spread dangerous ideas about using guns as an outlet for one’s darkest impulses.
Ideas about people imitating others’ violence go at least as far back as London’s 1888 media-driven “Jack the Ripper” murders. So-called copycat crimes are the imitation of violence, presumably because media sensationalizing leads troubled individuals to see such behavior as a means to achieve similar “fame” for themselves (Coleman, 2004). When a mass shooting becomes salient to millions of people, it is easy to imagine that a few will be tempted by the power a gun affords, even if they intend to use the power for a good cause, such as to defend themselves, their community, or their rights.
“One concern is that mass shootings inspire dangerous ideas about using guns as an outlet for one’s darkest impulses.”
In our research, we ask whether people ever get tempted to turn to guns as means of empowerment – and whether mass shootings help to promote such ideas. As part of an international collaboration, researchers at the University of Groningen conducted a field experiment of over 800 U.S. gun owners, which happened to coincide with the 2016 mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida (Stroebe, Leander, & Kruglanski, 2017). At the time, it was the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history by a lone gunman: 49 people were killed and 58 injured (note: a year later, the Las Vegas strip shooting killed 58 people and injured over 500).
When we designed our field experiment, we did not anticipate that a mass shooting of such magnitude would coincide with data collection. Our initial plan was just to study the subtle motives that drive people’s support for gun use – motives that may be implicit or inappropriate to admit outside the context of an anonymous survey. The field experiment was specifically designed to test whether certain gun owners resort to their guns to compensate for a threatened sense of competence or self-efficacy. It was only by coincidence that we discovered that mass shootings intensify the subtle motivations we were studying.
“It was only by coincidence that we discovered that mass shootings intensify the subtle motivations we were studying.”
We hypothesized, initially, that those seemingly random and senseless acts of bullying and violence against innocents were actually forms of displaced aggression (Leander & Chartrand, 2017). We theorized that displaced aggression is neither totally random nor entirely senseless – it is actually quite purposive in the sense that inflicting harm produces a sense of self-efficacy. In other words, we thought that displaced aggression is a kind of defense against threats to one’s sense of competence or efficacy over outcomes in the environment. With this theory in mind, we then predicted that threats to competence—namely, an experimental induction of personal failure—would increase gun owners’ perceptions that their guns are means of personal empowerment and that gun use is justified.
That’s not quite what we found. The results of our field study indicated that it took a combination of both personal failure and the Orlando mass shooting to drive compensatory tendencies towards guns. In the wake of the Orlando mass shooting, certain gun owners were more likely to compensate for failure by perceiving guns as means of empowerment, which in turn increased their beliefs that gun use against a suspected criminal was justified. This was especially the case among gun owners who felt threatened by mass shootings.
“Personal failure motivates a search for a more aggressive means to increase one’s sense of competence.”
The findings supported our theorizing on displaced aggression, in that personal failure motivates a search for a more aggressive means to increase one’s sense of competence. Yet we were struck by the finding that the Orlando mass shooting intensified the temptation to perceive guns as means of empowerment. In fact, we were so uncertain about the results that we set out to replicate the finding in a more general survey this year; even in this second study, which included 875 gun owners, we found the exact same failure compensation tendency – but only among those who expressed worries about mass shootings, even though no major mass shooting had been widely reported in recent months (Leander, Stroebe, Kruglanski, & Gordijn, 2017).
“Although most of us may be horrified by mass shootings, some people may see reason to identify with such actions.”
We are now considering why mass shootings intensify the temptation to compensate via guns. We have some ideas. First, it is possible that fears about mass shootings further threaten one’s sense of competence given that one could become a helpless victim of such violence anywhere one goes, at any time.
A second possibility is that mass shootings are sensationalized in the media to such a great extent that they inspire others with ideas that guns are effective means of displaced aggression. Not only do mass shootings fit our description of displaced aggression to the extent that they represent random and senseless acts of violence against innocents, but the perpetrators of the deadliest mass shootings also get their names and faces into the news. And by focusing on the number of deaths, or that a shooting is the biggest in history, the media could contribute to the ambitions of future mass shooters.
A third possibility is that media speculation about the causes of mass shootings makes the gunmen’s actions more relatable. This is perhaps best illustrated by media speculations about the motivation that drove the October 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas, which surpassed the Orlando nightclub shooting as the deadliest in U.S. history by a lone gunman: 58 people were killed and over 500 were injured. Rumors abound that the perpetrator wanted to kill as many people as possible in response to problems in his personal life. These rumors are unproven, but are being spread by the media anyways. We can only wonder what impact such media-driven speculation has on the minds of other troubled individuals, especially those who are struggling with personal failure in their own lives and searching for a means of personal empowerment. Although most of us may be horrified by mass shootings, some people may see reason to identify with such actions.
Coleman, L. (2004). The copycat effect: How the media and popular culture trigger the mayhem in tomorrow’s headlines. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Leander, N. P., & Chartrand, T. L. (2017). On thwarted goals and displaced aggression: A compensatory competence model. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 72, 88-100. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2017.04.010
Leander, N. P., Stroebe, W., Kruglanski, A. W., & Gordijn, E. H. (2017). When guns are means of compensation. Manuscript submitted for publication.
Stroebe, W., Leander, N. P., & Kruglanski, A. W. (2017). Is it a dangerous world out there? On the motivational bases of American gun ownership. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43, 1071-1085. doi: 10.1177/0146167217703952
Note: Edited image, original from Pierre André Leclercq.