How reframing mass shootings as suicide could help prevent them

A man walks away from a memorial site
Curtis McDowell, who lives near Covenant School, walks away after placing flowers outside of the school's entrance in Nashville, Tenn., on March 23. Multiple children and adults were killed during the school shooting.
Andrew Nelles | The Tennessean via AP

As the nation grapples with another school shooting and media rushes to put it into context, there's a good chance you've heard a statistic compiled right here in Minnesota. The Violence Project in St. Paul is the nonprofit, nonpartisan research center behind what's believed to be the largest, most comprehensive database of mass shooters. And in 2021, its co-founders came out with a book called “How to Stop a Mass Shooting Epidemic.”

One of them, James Densley, joined All Things Considered last week to offer some research and nuance to the conversations happening in marches and statehouses across the country following last week’s Covenant School shooting in Nashville. 

Researchers James Densley and Jillian Peterson stand for a portrait
Researchers James Densley and Jillian Peterson stand for a portrait at Hamline University in St. Paul on March 19. Densey and Peterson are co-founders of The Violence Project, a research and training organization with the mission of reducing violence in society.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2019

Use the audio player above to hear the conversation or read a transcript of it below. Both have been lightly edited for length.

How do you define deaths of despair and why do you think it applies to many, if not most, of these mass shootings?

Deaths of despair are usually defined as deaths caused by suicide, drug overdose and alcohol poisoning. They are driven by an underlying despair, and I think that's what those deaths have in common with mass shootings. Those who perpetrate mass shootings often get to a point in life where they no longer care if they live or die, and a mass shooting is always intended to be a final act. 

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Many mass shooters are suicidal prior to going into those attacks, and these mass shootings are a spectacle of violence. They want the world to see the pain that they are enduring. And so if we can understand the despair that drives them, we can hopefully do something to prevent tragedies from occurring. 

This framework also helps explain what is an acceleration of mass shootings in the last decade or two, right?

That's right. Mass shootings have become more frequent and they've become deadlier, and they map to some degree on this rise that we've seen across society with regard to the deaths of despair, suicide in particular. And I think this connection between suicide and homicide in these cases is really important because there's so much we've learned from suicide prevention over the years that can be applied to get somebody off of the pathway toward this type of violence. 

Now, I imagine some readers would say, here we go again taking the focus off of guns and using that political refrain, ‘people kill people.’ How is this different?

In our book, we list over 30 different solutions to mass shootings. We have an entire chapter of the book that is focused on firearms and the common-sense measures that could improve gun safety. 

I think for too long we've pitted imperfect solutions politically off of each other because we don't want to have those difficult conversations. Our work is really trying to embrace the complexity of this issue and recognize that you can layer solutions one on top of each other. It doesn't have to be an either-or proposition. We can do it all. 

You are saying this is a multi-part solution and that gun reform would be part of this. Tell us what the data points you toward?

Well, a great example of this is around safe storage of firearms. In the vast majority of K-12 school shooting cases, perpetrators are themselves school children, and how they get access to firearms is that they have not been secured safely in the home. So that's something that in many ways doesn't need an act of Congress or is not particularly controversial. It's just if you've got a teenager in the home, and if you've got a teenager at the home who is in crisis and at risk for violence, we need to make sure that we are safely storing our firearms and not providing them with access to them. 

We've also seen in our data, a real increase in the use of AR-15-style assault weapons. And many people point to the utility of that weapon, that it's dangerous and so on. But I think what's more interesting from our research is that there's a copycat phenomenon involved with these shootings. And if you want your shooting to conform with the sort of genre conventions of a mass shooting in America, you follow the template of the shooters that have come before you and sometimes that means using the very same weapons. 

So it's also important to understand that this is more than just looking at the deadliness of the weapon; there’s also cachet with some of these weapons. 

Minnesota Congressman Dean Phillips was on All Things Considered and he said he would support a ban on assault weapons, but he said he's beginning to think we need armed security at all schools, or as he put it, ‘as many schools as possible.’ So what does the data say there? 

Well, I think this is the dilemma. Parents and community members are crying out for solutions, and in the absence of legislation, we are trying to fortify our public buildings and, particularly, our schools. I think it's important to go back to something we talked about earlier: Mass shootings are a form of suicide, and many people are intending for it to be their final act. 

In 1979, there was a shooting at Grover Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego, California, and the shooter was a 16-year-old female, who at the time was asked why she committed the crime. And she famously said because she hated Mondays. 

Later at her parole hearing, after spending most of her life in prison, she was asked that same question and she said, “I wanted to die. I was trying to commit suicide.” She followed up by saying that “every time I tried suicide in the previous year, I screwed it up.” She targeted the school specifically because she felt that police would shoot and kill her. 

I think if you reframe mass shootings around suicide prevention, the logic of having armed guards in school and fortifying our public spaces starts to look faulty, because if people intend to die in the act, these individuals are not going to serve as a deterrent, they may even serve as an incentive and part of the plan for the shooting.

Right now we're hearing calls on the Democratic side for new gun legislation. Republicans aren't saying much publicly, but one or two have said there's just nothing more that can be done about this. Is there something we're not hearing that could get a conversation going? Where would you start?

We try and structure solutions at three levels. In our research, we talk about things that would require an act of Congress. And let's be honest, they require an act of courage, too, because this idea that there's nothing that can be done is really just a political choice and you can choose otherwise. The data is overwhelming that there are solutions available in this space. It's just about whether or not the courage is there to enact them. 

But we also structure solutions and our work at the institutional level. So we ask, what can schools, workplaces and communities be doing right here, right now? And that goes back to things like, if you see something, say something, and building the systems around crisis response, threat assessment and getting people connected to the help that they need. 

And then we also ask, what can you do at the individual level? Whenever the shootings occur, everybody's frustrated because they feel like nothing is going to happen. And what we try and do in our work is provide a little bit of hope, which is to say that sometimes it's a simple act of kindness, reaching out and showing some love and support for our fellow community members that can be enough to get somebody through that moment, that despair that is at the root of the shootings. And sometimes you don't know the impact that you might be having just by asking the right questions and being connected to your son or daughter or neighbor. 

The thing about mass shooters is this before they ever pulled the trigger, every mass shooter was somebody's son, somebody's brother, somebody's classmate, somebody's colleague, somebody's neighbor. And if we recognize them as the human being that they were before they pulled the trigger, perhaps they would have never done it in the first place. 

We cannot live our lives as if this is an inevitable part of them, that there's nothing we can do about them. There has to be some hope and there has to be some action. Otherwise, this is going to continue. 

If you or someone you know is in crisis or thinking about suicide, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.