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What motivates a mass shooter?

Click to play video: 'Suspected gunman captured on camera shooting into Greektown restaurants'
Suspected gunman captured on camera shooting into Greektown restaurants
WATCH: Suspected gunman captured on camera shooting into Greektown restaurants – Jul 23, 2018

On the evening of July 22, a man walked along the busy Danforth Avenue strip in downtown Toronto and opened fire, shooting a total of 15 people. Toronto police have confirmed that two of the victims have died, an 18-year-old woman and a 10-year-old girl.

The gunman is also dead, although it’s unclear if he died from police fire or by suicide. Little is known of the gunman, except that he was 29 years old. Police also do not have a confirmed motive for the shooting.

WATCH BELOW: Police still unable to speculate as to motive behind Danforth shooting

Click to play video: 'Police still unable to speculate as to motive behind Danforth shooting'
Police still unable to speculate as to motive behind Danforth shooting

Toronto chief of police Mark Saunders said that “everything is open” when it comes to determining a motive.

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“I’m looking at every single possible motive for this,” he told reporters Sunday night. “When you have this many people that are struck by gunfire, it is a grave concern. I certainly want to find out exactly what it is and so I’m not closing any doors or any chapters on this.”

The residents of Toronto and the rest of the country are reeling from the news, unsure what to make of an event that is usually relegated to headlines south of the border. What could possibly drive a person to randomly shoot and kill innocent civilians?

In an interview with Global News, Dr. Kim MacInnis, professor and chairperson at the college of sociology at Bridgewater State University, said deconstructing the motives of a mass shooting is “a very complex issue.”

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“From my perspective as a sociologist, the motivation is always about power and control. Most mass shooters and mass murderers are white males — that’s a cultural pattern. When you think about how we live in a white, male-dominated world, a lot of these murderers feel like they’re losing power in some aspect of their lives and this is one way to show a force of power.”

READ MORE: Reducing the reward: should we name the perpetrators of mass violence? 

MacInnis, who is working on a book titled American Assassins: Mass Murder in Post-Modern Society, says the increasing independence of women and the growing success of immigrants and people of colour in our society can be perceived by a mass shooter as stripping the dominant culture of their authority.

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“This threatens the status quo and violence is used to put people back in their place.”

That’s not the only pattern we’re seeing with crime in Canada. According to Chelsea Parsons, vice-president for guns and crime policy at the Centre for American Progress, handguns and semi-automatic rifles are more prevalent in our country, and 98 per cent of the crime guns used in Canada originate from the U.S. As long as American laws remain full of loopholes that enable trafficking, she argues, these guns will continue to cross over the border and potentially land in the hands of criminals, including mass shooters.

For her part, MacInnis is reluctant to label mass shooters as mentally ill, and says that it’s irresponsible to assume that their actions are always motivated by a psychological disorder.

“A psychologist may disagree with me, but if that were the case, we’d have a lot more mass murders in the U.S. and Canada. There are millions of mentally ill people and they’re not all out shooting [people],” she says.

“The acts [of a mass shooter] are so disturbing that we want to think they’re mentally ill. That means we don’t have to look at the structure of our society and blame how we’re bringing people up. [President Donald Trump] always attributes a mass shooting to mental illness because he wants to appease the NRA. It’s just another way of not dealing with it.”
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READ MORE: Woman, 18, girl, 10, killed in mass shooting in Toronto’s Danforth

Some experts argue that mass shooters commit their crimes as much for fame as any other motivating reason, which is why they advocate for withholding a shooter’s identity. But MacInnis says that’s not always the case.

WATCH BELOW: The latest on the Toronto Danforth shooting

“That may be part of it for some, but for most [mass shooters] it’s a way of making a statement for retaining some sense of power. Domestic violence murderers aren’t looking for fame; they just don’t want anyone else to have their family.” (She argues that domestic violence cases should be included with those of mass killings because, by definition, they often result in the death of four or more people.)
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Although she does agree that withholding the shooter’s name would help to curb any thirst for fame that could have partially motivated an attack, she doesn’t believe there’s a correlation between that fame (or infamy) and copycat events.

“I’ve always argued based on research that the likelihood of a copycat shooting is relatively low because there hasn’t been a cultural pattern of it,” she says. “And even if there is another shooting two or three weeks later, it’s hard to tell if it’s a copycat.”

“There are a lot of violent people who may have been angry enough to do it anyway. The copycat side is hard to determine.”

With files from Andrew Russell

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