On Dec. 14, 2012, a lone gunman entered Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, CT and murdered 20 children and six school personnel. In a country used to mass shootings, Sandy Hook touched a nerve. The scale of the crime and the nature of the victims were so tragic that Barack Obama took the opportunity to wade into the highly polarized politics of gun control.
Whether or not mass shootings are on the rise in the US is contested and depends on what criterion is used. Shootings of the type seen at Sandy Hook — where a lone gunman takes many lives in a public place —are most definitely on the rise. Depending on who you ask, these shootings are simply outbursts of evil that will always be with us or teachable moments from which American’s can learn about their society in order to change it.
In a sense, the debate sparked by Sandy Hook is racist and hypocritical. Most of the children and teens that die from gunfire in the US are from poor minorities. These deaths don’t produce a ‘national conversation’.
When the motives of mass shooters are examined, commentators inevitably depict them as “loners” who are “mentally ill” as if these traits emerge from a vacuum. There’s discussion about whether or not the shooters had access to guns legally or illegally, whether or not the shooter had a history of mental illness and whether or not American culture is altogether too violent and gun obsessed. All these questions are valid, but still other question are left unasked.
When a teenager is shot dead on the streets of Chicago, most people assume that poverty has something to do with it. When it comes to mass shootings, the economic standing of the perpetrator is seen as peripheral if it’s even discussed at all.
Mother Jones —a left-liberal political journal in the US — has assembled a timeline of 60 mass shootings since 1982. As is typical of current debate, Mother Jones focused their analysis on the availability of guns and the mental health of the perpetrators. While I’m not a mental health professional or a criminologist, my own examination of the 60 cases led in a different direction.
The vast majority of those who undertake mass shootings are part of the lower middle or working class. This ‘precariat’ class increasingly struggles with job security and lives with the constant threat of financial ruin. Out of 60 cases, 43 perpetrators have immediate economic ‘motivations’ for their crimes. Many had been recently fired, but others faced a life of underemployment. Still, others had a financial setback that precipitated their crime, like a workplace injury, a divorce or a failed business.
By themselves, these circumstances don’t explain the actions of the perpetrator as millions are in the same position and react differently. However, what is telling is that economic pressures are never mentioned in broad examinations of shootings despite their obvious presence in a large majority of cases. In reality, it’s a dynamic interplay of multiple factors that results in someone committing a mass shooting. Most critically, mental instability affects a person’s financial situation and vice versa.
David Hadwen is QJBlogs’ Political Columnist. He’s a fourth-year history major with a specific interest in American Politics. Follow him on Twitter @David_Hadwen.
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