Using data to understand
“Why are mass shootings in the United States disproportionately committed by men? Why are mass shootings committed by so many American men in the world? Are mass shootings socially contagious?”
These are some of the questions that UCSB sociologists Tara Tober and Tristan Bridges will approach in their research project, titled “Mass Shootings in America: Men, Masculinity, Guns and U.S. Gun Culture.”
The project stands as the first to receive a grant from the Pahl Initiative, funded by Gauchos who graduated in 1977 — Louise and Stephen Pahl. After all, their alma mater did face gun and knife violence about five years ago.
On May 23, 2014, on what seemed like just another Friday night in Goleta’s Isla Vista neighborhood, George Chen, Cheng Yuan Hong and Weihan Wang were stabbed to death, and Christopher Ross Michaels-Martinez, Katherine Breann Cooper and Veronika Weiss were shot to death with semi-automatic guns. The victims were all UCSB students, who met their too-early ends at the hands of a single killer.
Was this a mass killing? Some readers might be vigorously nodding their heads, but the answer seems to depend on who is answering.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the most looked-to institution for all things relating to domestic security, defines a mass killing as such: “3 or more killings in a single incident” in “a place of public use,” and the number excludes the perpetrator. According to this definition, the violence referred to as the Isla Vista Rampage may not completely qualify as a mass killing.
The students who were stabbed to death died in a private space, behind the doors of the killers’ residence. And out of the three who died by gunfire, Mr. Michaels-Martinez was slain in a deli mart, which would leave Weiss and Cooper’s deaths just short of the “3 or more” count.
“We have more mass shootings than anywhere else in the world, but we use a really conservative definition,” said Dr. Bridges, whose expertise is in the sociology of gender. He and Dr. Tober are chipping away at the FBI’s definition by building a databank with information from the nonprofit organization Gun Violence Archive and the National Center for Education Statistics, which presents reports to Congress about the nation’s school system.
Whereas the FBI excludes shootings that involve gang violence or domestic violence in the category of mass shootings, the pair of sociologists will. Another variable the two sociologists are adjusting is the death toll. This means that by including cases with a less-than-three-persons death toll, Drs. Tober and Bridges will be analyzing more shootings even if the FBI does not categorize them as such.
By doing so, they will have a pool of data that will capture incidents where the death toll is less than three but the injured toll is high.
By taking the measures to include cases that the FBI does not define as mass shootings, Dr. Tober and Dr. Bridges’ pool will be bigger, allowing the two sociologists to catch patterns that may exist.
“Might be the case that school shootings happen at the end of the spring semester,” said Dr. Bridges. “Could be the case that workplace shootings happen at the end of the year. We can start to ask questions like that when we get a really big sample,” which numbers in the thousands according to him.
Such pattern recognition may help forecast periods when mass shootings are more likely to happen, and being able to predict epidemics that play a key role in containing and, hopefully, preventing them.
The project will also look into the way community members, which include political leaders and journalists, respond to mass shootings.
“We collected all the adjectives, nouns and words used to characterize the shooters,” said Dr. Bridges.
What has the research team found so far? That the race of the shooter may play a role in media and audience’s responses.
“It looks so far that white shooters receive more kind words used to characterize them. Good father, nice neighbor, which are weird words to use to write about someone who just committed a mass shooting unless you want to present the crime as really surprising,” said Dr. Bridges.
What role could this discrepancy in reporting have on members of a society? Dr. Bridges and Dr. Tober will be probing this question as well.
“One thing we’re very interested in is how the crimes get reported on and how that reporting can have the effect of exacerbating other systems of inequality,” said Dr. Bridges.
Dr. Tober — whose sociology expertise covers how a community forms a collective memory — is analyzing the responses of presidents. She told the News-Press that the presidents’ responses in the aftermath of shootings have typically been scripted throughout the years.
“Even (President) Trump’s responses are very scripted,” said Dr. Tober, who is interested in collecting the responses of more local leaders — mayors and city councilmembers — to apprehend the dynamics of communities’ grass roots.
A big part of the project, if not the main part, analyzes the gun culture in the U.S., specifically the relationship between guns and American men.
“I’m always interested when people make arguments that are involved a sort of boys will be boys discourse,” said Dr. Bridges. “People say, ‘Of course men do this stuff.’ But men don’t actually do this stuff everywhere. American men do this stuff.”
Among the components that take part in the pattern in the U.S. that Dr. Bridges is shedding light on is legislation surrounding gun control, but both Dr. Bridges and Dr. Tober believe that it is not the only factor.
“I think fortunately for us, it is about guns and also isn’t,” said Dr. Tober. “Access to gun is a very important issue, but I think it’s more than that. I think it’s about American masculinity.”
Dr. Bridges echoed Dr. Tober’s words.
“Gun control is a big part of this issue, but we’re arguing that it’s only a piece of this issue, that actually the reason that gun legislation looks the way it does in the U.S. is in part due to the relationship between masculinity and gun violence in the U.S.”