Whether or not massacres — like the recent shooting at a California bar, which killed a dozen people — can be traced back to specific causes has long been up for debate.
A group of researchers from the University of Toledo have compiled a study that claims to identify the common characteristics of communities where mass shootings are likely to occur and potentially identify those that are at risk.
“It’s multifactorial. It’s about how economically and socially healthy your community is, it’s about the laws that the people in your community have agreed to live by, it’s about successful enforcement of those laws and it’s about mental health services,” explained Dr. Stephen Markowiak of the University of Toledo Health Center, who led the study.
On Wednesday, a gunman opened fire at a bar in Thousand Oaks, Calif., killing a total of 13 people, including himself. It was later discovered that the gunman suffered from mental health issues as well as post-traumatic stress disorder from his time in the U.S. military.
The report, which looks at 155 mass shootings across the U.S., indicates that communities that frequently experience these events are often “less healthy” on average than their counterparts. The factors used to determine what constitutes a “healthy” or “unhealthy” city include availability of mental health resources, levels of socialization, rates of income inequality and housing costs.
Factors that continue to come up in discussions about mass shootings include gun control laws and mental health resources. While communities in states with the strictest gun laws were shown to have a greater risk of mass shootings, two laws in particular correlated with lower incidence rates: mandatory reporting of mental health records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System and restrictions on open carry of firearms.
It’s important to note that the above finding does not include day-to-day gun violence, only multiple-shooting incidents.
Markowiak explained that one of the strongest determinants for low-risk communities was a higher mental health provider-to-patient ratio.
“At the end of our study, we believe we conclusively showed that communities that had above-average access to providers and below-average need had a 2.1 per cent incidence of these events over the 11-year period that we looked,” Markowiak said.
Factors that aren’t discussed as often include socialization of the community and income inequality.
Thousand Oaks is located in Ventura County, Calif., while Squirrel Hill, the location of a mass shooting that killed 11 on Oct. 27, is located in Allegheny County, Pa. While both Ventura County and Allegheny County scored high in terms of availability of mental health resources, they both scored low when it came to income inequality and social associations. Both counties also had stricter-than-average gun control laws.
“The first and easiest conclusion that can be drawn from our study is that we’ve demonstrated that you can study this problem. That is something that’s actively being debated. This issue can be studied. It’s just a fact; it can,” said Markowiak.
However, other researchers point out the true value in studying societal problems comes from turning those findings into policy, which rests on the shoulders of legislators.
“Epidemiological studies of violence tell us an awful lot about the correlations of violence — they also tell us a lot about risk factors. When governments use that knowledge, you see reductions,” explained Irvin Waller, an expert in criminal justice with the University of Ottawa.
He used Glasgow, Scotland, as an example of a city that treated rampant knife crime as a public health issue in order to address the problem.
A 2005 UN report concluded that Scotland was the most violent country in the developed world, and Glasgow was particularly violent. By working with the city’s health, education and social work sectors, Glasgow was able to cut its knife violence epidemic in half.
“Glasgow did an epidemiological analysis of where killings are taking place and the characteristics of the people doing it. When you use that to develop policy and you implement the policy, you can get huge reductions,” Waller said.
He notes, however, that there are some aspects of the mass shooting epidemic in the U.S. that weren’t addressed in the study, including access to military-grade weapons, which allow shooters to kill large numbers of people in a short amount of time.
Frederic Lemieux, a professor with the applied intelligence program at Georgetown University, adds that in addition to enforcing gun laws and bolstering mental health services, it’s important that these two entities work together to take action on mass shootings before they happen.
“What you don’t have is a concerted effort. It is the role of a therapist, for example, to (alert) a school or to (alert) law enforcement if the therapist believes a person could be dangerous for themselves or to others, and that’s where things are falling through the cracks,” he said.
However Markowiak, Waller and Lemieux all agreed that while researchers have just begun analyzing mass shootings, taking the findings into account is key to eventually reducing the problem.
“If we can all agree on the same set of facts, on the same set of associations, then we can make these decisions together,” Markowiak said.