There’s almost never a second shooter.
Two things are consistently true about gun attacks on groups of people in North America:
- There are often reports of multiple gunmen.
- They’re almost never accurate.
It’s made its way into a checklist for following confused, violent attacks on the news (see #4):
Sunday’s attack on a Quebec City mosque followed this pattern. Police made two arrests, which led to reports that more than one gunman had been involved.
What we know about Alexandre Bissonnette
This turned out not to be true; one of those arrested, Alexandre Bissonnette, has been charged with six counts of first-degree murder, while Mohamed Belkhadir was arrested after he panicked and fled the heavily armed police who arrived after the shooting. Police freed Belkhadir on Monday, and now say he is a witness, not a suspect.
Very few people, even those with extreme beliefs, ever become violent, explains University of Toronto sociology professor Jooyoung Lee, an expert on gun violence. And almost none ever engage in the large-scale violence of a mass shooting.
“The vast majority of racist people will not air their racism, or they will practice subtler forms of discrimination and prejudice. Then there’s a smaller handful who are exceptional cases who will act out violently, and an even smaller proportion who will commit lethal violence on the scale of someone like Dylann Roof, or in (Timothy) McVeigh’s case, have a plot to overthrow the state.”
“There are not a lot of people who, when the time comes, will become violent. Most people, through socialization, or their psychological development as adults, will not be capable of that kind of premeditated violence on innocent others.”
There are almost no North American examples of a mass shooting with more than one gunman. The 2015 San Bernardino attack, in which a husband and wife killed 14 people, and the Columbine high school shootings in 1999, in which two students fatally shot 15 people, are the only North American examples we’ve been able to find. (In this list of 85 U.S. mass shootings going back to the 1980s, 82 had only one gunman.)
‘A despicable act of terror’
Every stranger-on-stranger mass shooting or terrorist attack in recent Canadian history, from the École Polytechnique massacre in 1989 to the Dawson College shooting in 2006 to the 2014 Parliament Hill attack, has featured a “lone-wolf” gunman.
Very few people engage in any kind of violence, far fewer in the extreme violence of a mass shooting involving strangers, and the odds are radically against two such people finding each other and acting together.
READ MORE: Anti-Muslim incidents in Quebec: a timeline
People who act violently on extreme political beliefs come from a context, Lee points out:
“The idea of a lone gunman is something of a misnomer, especially since these people who are radicalized often don’t act in a vacuum. They develop these ideas in a community, whether it’s a virtual one or people in their immediate community.”
“There are a small minority of people that actually do it – that will actually take that step. It’s the same thing for street gangs, as well. You can look at almost any organization and see the same pattern of a small, violent minority and a larger network that tacitly or actively supports the beliefs that kind of propel that person.”
On the other hand, real engagement with nearly any group, even an extreme one, will tend to inhibit violence:
“One reason there are a lot of lone gunman mass shootings is that when a person is immersed in a social network, and when they’re communicating and interacting with other people, typically they will have somebody in their network who is a voice of reason, somebody who will notice that something is wrong, that somebody has fantasies about this kind of violence.”
As well, recent experience has shown that one well-armed person who takes innocent people by surprise can kill large numbers very quickly — 50 people were shot dead, and another 53 wounded, by one gunman in the Orlando, Fla., nightclub attack last year.
It’s not clear that an accomplice is really necessary.
“Firearms are instruments specifically to be efficient means of killing life, whether that’s through hunting or, in this case, using it against people,” Lee says. “The one thing that makes an attack like this so much more lethal and so much more efficient is having a firearm available at your disposal.”