The school shooting epidemic as a slow-motion riot

At least 10 people were killed today in a school shooting at a Texas high school. There’s still a lot we don’t know about the shooter and his motives. No doubt we’ll still be writing about that for days or weeks to come. But today National Review’s David French steps back from this particular instance and takes a look at the pattern of shootings. French is relying heavily on a piece written by Malcolm Gladwell back in 2015 which attempted to offer an explanation for the pattern of shootings over the past couple decades. Gladwell starts by introducing some social science on the topic of riots and what drives them:

In a famous essay published four decades ago, the Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter set out to explain a paradox: “situations where outcomes do not seem intuitively consistent with the underlying individual preferences.” What explains a person or a group of people doing things that seem at odds with who they are or what they think is right? Granovetter took riots as one of his main examples, because a riot is a case of destructive violence that involves a great number of otherwise quite normal people who would not usually be disposed to violence…

Granovetter thought it was a mistake to focus on the decision-making processes of each rioter in isolation. In his view, a riot was not a collection of individuals, each of whom arrived independently at the decision to break windows. A riot was a social process, in which people did things in reaction to and in combination with those around them. Social processes are driven by our thresholds—which he defined as the number of people who need to be doing some activity before we agree to join them. In the elegant theoretical model Granovetter proposed, riots were started by people with a threshold of zero—instigators willing to throw a rock through a window at the slightest provocation. Then comes the person who will throw a rock if someone else goes first. He has a threshold of one. Next in is the person with the threshold of two. His qualms are overcome when he sees the instigator and the instigator’s accomplice. Next to him is someone with a threshold of three, who would never break windows and loot stores unless there were three people right in front of him who were already doing that—and so on up to the hundredth person, a righteous upstanding citizen who nonetheless could set his beliefs aside and grab a camera from the broken window of the electronics store if everyonearound him was grabbing cameras from the electronics store.

The important point here is one that Gladwell reaches later: “the longer a riot goes on, the less the people who join it resemble the people who started it.” Sure, at the start, the people breaking windows are probably the kind of hotheads who would do that on any pretext. But as the riot spreads, eventually the people participating are people who are only doing so because everyone else around them is doing it. They are people who would never have thrown the first rock.

Gladwell’s idea is to apply this concept to the kind of misfit losers who commit school shootings. I won’t go into all the details (you can read his entire piece for that) but he posits that the Columbine shooting created a kind of social script for others to follow. And people have been following. It’s very common for school shooters to be people obsessed with previous school shooters, especially the Columbine killers. Even the shooter in the Texas high school today appears to have been fond of wearing a black trench coat to school.

Now imagine that the riot takes a big step further along the progression—to someone with an even higher threshold, for whom the group identification and immersion in the culture of school shooting are even more dominant considerations. That’s John LaDue…LaDue is a scholar of the genre, who speaks of his influences the way a budding filmmaker might talk about Fellini or Bergman. “The other one was Charles Whitman. I don’t know if you knew who that was. He was who they called the sniper at the Austin Texas University. He was an ex-marine. He got like sixteen, quite impressive.”

So if you imagine the series of school shootings as a kind of slow-motion riot spread out over years, then as more cases make the news, more people reach the threshold for participation. People who would never have been the first to do something like this are willing to be the 10th or 20th. And as this progresses, some of the people involved become less identifiable as the kind of obviously troubled kids who might consider something like this.

In the day of Eric Harris, we could try to console ourselves with the thought that there was nothing we could do, that no law or intervention or restrictions on guns could make a difference in the face of someone so evil. But the riot has now engulfed the boys who were once content to play with chemistry sets in the basement. The problem is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men who are willing to contemplate horrific acts. It’s worse. It’s that young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts.

I would point out that Nikolas Cruz, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school shooter, seems like the kind of low threshold person who would throw the first brick in a riot. So it’s not necessarily the case that with each new school shooting we’re getting kids who seem less obviously prone to this sort of thing. We’re still seeing kids who were obviously troubled (and should have been stopped). Does that mean Gladwell’s thesis is wrong? Maybe it just means that, as the riot expands, everyone below the current threshold joins in, not just those at the highest limit. If five people are throwing bricks and someone else walks up who is a zero (i.e. prone to throw the first brick even if alone) he’ll simply join in with the other five without hesitation. There can be more than one person at each level so the progression won’t be always upward.

Finally, based on Gladwell’s analysis, David French recommends a solution to the problem:

it’s the pattern of elaborate preparation and obsession with the subculture of mass shooters that has led in part to my own advocacy of the gun-violence restraining order. While we don’t have sufficient details about today’s shooter in Texas to know if it would have made a difference, it’s a fact that large numbers of mass shooters broadcast warning signals of their intent to do harm, and it’s also a fact that family members and other relevant people close to the shooter have few tools at their disposal to prevent violence. A gun-violence restraining order can allow a family member (or school principle) to quickly get in front of a local judge for a hearing (with full due-process protections) that can result in the temporary confiscation of weapons from a proven dangerous person.

This sounds like the sort of thing that might help in some instances, but remember that in the case of Nikolas Cruz, police had been to the house many times but never took any firm action. And the people he was living with just prior to the shooting say he never betrayed any signs of troubling behavior. So even if this program had been in place, it’s not clear it would have been used against Cruz.

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