Story by Jesse Wright
Violence has always been a part of American culture.
From the genocide of the Native Americans, and the gun fights of the Old West to present day street crime, there has never been a shortage of carnage which is used to fill the pages of the United States’ history books and newspapers or flood its TV and computer screens.
However, the 20th century has given the country a new breed of horror not known to previous generations: the mass murderer.
While the terms “mass murderer” and “serial killer” are often used interchangeably, the two are very different types of deviant criminals.
According to the FBI, a mass murderer is an “individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.”
This differs from serial killers who kill one or two people and have a “cooling off” period between their next murder.
The most common type of mass murderer is the lone gunman who shoots a multitude of victims in a single outburst of violence.
The mass shooter is a product of the recent times.
Some say the dawn of the mass shooter was unleashed when a mentally unbalanced World War II veteran named Howard Unruh rampaged through Camden, New Jersey, shooting and fatally wounding 13 people in 1949.
Since then, some of the most infamous incidents of mass shooting have included Texas tower rampage carried out by Charles Whitman in 1966, the various post office massacres of the 1980s (which gave birth to the term “going postal”) and various school shootings that occurred in the late 1990s culminating with the tragedy at Columbine High School in Littleton, Col.
Those incidences are bad enough, but in recent years incidences of mass murder with guns seems to have become an epidemic.
According to a Sept. 2013 report by the organization Mayors Against Illegal Guns, between Jan. 2009 and Sept. 2013 there were 95 mass shootings in the United States; an average of two per month.
Among the most high profile of these were the massacres at the movie theatre in Aurora the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and the mass killing which took place at a public appearance for Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, which left her critically wounded when she was struck in the head.
Such incidences inevitably leave people asking why such incidences occur.
Common culprits indentified in pop culture include: violent movies and video games, lack of proper attention given to mental illness, and easy access to firearms.
Des Moines resident and National Rifle Association member Robert Ziegler says that placing blame on guns is wrong and misplaced.
“It is not fair to blame millions of responsible American gun owners for the mass shootings which are carried out by a handful of sick individuals,” Ziegler said.
“When you look back at the 1940s and 1950s, firearms were much more accessible than they are today, yet during that time, such shootings were a very rare occurrence. This is something gun control advocates tend to overlook when they want to point fingers at people like me.”
Drake University associate English professor and director of women’s studies Elizabeth Younger says that blaming violence in entertainment for real-life violence is also problematic.
“It is very hard to make a direct causation between violence in entertainment and these incidences,” she said.
“A more interesting question to ask is why almost all of these shooters are male. I am not saying that men are bad or more violent than women by nature. In my view, it goes deeper than that.”
Younger says American men are suffering a crisis of masculinity.
“While the roles of women seem to be breaking out of the gender expectations they were assigned for many years, men are still very limited by stereotypes. In this day and age, young boys are still told that they shouldn’t cry and that the ‘manly’ way to handle problems is through violence. It is very problematic for our society.
Darice Vandegrift, the chair for the study of culture and society at Drake, says that too often after these tragedies society embarks on an oversimplified search for answers.
While she says that America should adopt stricter guns laws and provide better access to mental health services, it would be a mistake to blame one aspect for such incidences.
“As a sociologist, I would look at multiple factors which contribute to these types of tragedies,” she said.
“If certain patterns were seen in the lives of every person who committed these types of violent acts, then sociologists could piece together the parts of the puzzle. Unfortunately, finding such patterns can be difficult, and predicting who will commit these acts not only is nearly impossible to predict, but also raises serious civil liberties issues as well. They are no easy answers.”