On Monday Oct. 2, Americans woke to the report of a yet another mass shooting. As the details were splashed across the 24-hour news cycles, smartphone news updates, and media reports, the sounds and the images were almost too much to bear: the sound of automatic gunfire, the terrified screams and the confusion and mayhem that one man unleashed on a crowd of happy-go-lucky concert goers.
For those who watched the news, it was an attack on the senses. The media grasped for answers and broadcast soundbites that would provide some type of explanation for a horrific act that shook us all to our core. Yet despite witness accounts, press conferences and the seemingly endless repetition of those cell phone videos, we understand almost less than we did in the moments immediately after the attack.
Everyone seems to ask why this happened. I sat in my office with criminology majors who needed an explanation or a way to make sense of this horror. I tried to offer words of wisdom to my classroom full of students at a moment when there didn’t seem to be enough words (or the right words) to convey anger, fear, sadness and helplessness. I talked to my mom and friends about the warning signs. In my course, The Etiology of Mass Violence, I attempted to link this event with the other tragedies (there are so many) to identify similarities and compare them to the profile of other mass shooters. But even as I sit to write these words, nothing seems as if it will be enough.
If I put on my researcher hat, I can rattle off facts for you. I can recite the names of shooters and number of victims from 245 active and mass shooting events from 1966 to 2012. I can tell you that they were perpetrated by 251 people ranging from ages 11 to 88 with varying degrees of sadness, tragedy and anger in their lives. I can give you details from the water tower at the University of Texas to Sandy Hook Elementary School. I can remind you that these incidents alone killed 777 people and injured 947, and I can tell you microsystemic and macrosystemic factors that may have affected each of these shooters. I can also warn you that these numbers have been rising at staggering rates since the end of that time frame with events like the shootings at Umpqua Community College, Pulse Night Club and now Las Vegas.
There are a lot of ways that researchers approach these issues and try to make sense of it through science. When I started my doctoral research on this topic, I knew that it was a pressing issue that has now written itself into that fabric of American culture. (Yes, these happen here more than anywhere else in the world.) I thought that if I engaged in organized, methodical research like a good graduate student, I’d have the magic answer at the end. I would have policy recommendations and prediction tools and eventually put myself out of business as a mass shooting researcher. Spoiler alert: That didn’t happen.
I know how to research this. I comb through thousands of news articles to find clues, and I have the tools I need to calculate the rates of increase over time and predict the rising numbers of victims and offenders. But I don’t have the clear answer. Amidst the calls for less guns (or more guns!), increased security measures at public events, tales of heroism and compassion, close evaluation of tactical responses and impassioned tweets and posts about thoughts and prayers, where do we even begin?
The crushing weight of it all in moments of confusion is unbearable, but then, as a country, we’ll quietly begin to self-soothe through distraction. Donald Trump’s next tweet and Taylor Swift’s new album release will burst into our lives, and the attack in Las Vegas will join Hurricanes Irma, Harvey and Maria and North Korean threats as yesterday’s news (as people continue to suffer and threats remain). Yet, we’ll be reminded of Las Vegas again when someone new decides to claim the title and commit the next “deadliest shooting.” (Side note: Stop calling it that.) Just as this attack in Las Vegas brought us back to Columbine and Virginia Tech and Fort Hood and Aurora, the next will reopen the scars from last week that were never fully healed or resolved.
The professor part of me wants to use my remaining word count to teach you about social bond and strain theories (or even anomie if you really want to get into the weeds), but I won’t. I’ll instead charge you with a task if you’ve made it this far: remember how you feel now and do your own small or large part to make a difference. This was a national tragedy, and we are in the midst of a national crisis. I don’t say this to be alarmist, but rather to tell you that the “not if, but when” attitude about the next mass shooting is a problem.
And then, I come back to Mr. Rogers. I know that he’s become a meme about looking for the helpers (which is always comforting), but he also said this: “Even if we wanted to, it would be impossible to give our children all the reasons for things such as war, terrorists, abuse, murders, fires, hurricanes and earthquakes. If they ask questions, our best answer may be to ask them ‘What do you think happened?’ If the answer is, ‘I don’t know,’ then the simplest reply might be something like, ‘I’m sad about the news, and I’m worried. But I love you, and I’ll take care of you.’” You’re not children, but we’re all part of a larger community, and we’re worried and asking why in the aftermath of murders.
Take care of each other. Speak to someone who seems isolated or alone. Ask people how they’re doing, and then actually listen to the answers. Do more than retweet videos of poignant words; be the person with compassionate words.
This isn’t scientific or empirically based or a question on the midterm exam. We can’t know what would have happened if the shooter in Las Vegas had known a person who was genuinely concerned about him and loved him in the days and months before his attack, but we can damn sure try to make sure that others don’t feel the same way that he did.
You chose to attend or work at a college where Benedictine values ensure that people feel welcome and safe. Perpetuate that message, and embody it every day. This isn’t much in answering your questions and making the world a safer place (and I’m sure that I’ll be dubbed “the Kumbaya criminology professor” by some), but it’s a start.
I’ll continue my research, and I’ll teach Saint Vincent students about warning signs for violence, tactical responses and prevention and intervention methods. You’ll continue your work to go forth into the world and bring about positive change.
And when we awake to another report of a mass shooting and you ask again why this happened, I’ll start this way: “I’m sad about the news, and I’m worried. But I love you, and I’ll take care of you.”
Dr. Sarah E. Daly is an assistant professor of criminology, law and society at Saint Vincent College. Her primary areas of research are active/mass shootings and common school violence. She holds degrees in Spanish literature, counseling, and criminal justice and is a graduate of The University of Notre Dame, The University of Pennsylvania, and Rutgers University’s Camden and Newark campuses. She spent 11 years as a high school Spanish teacher and school counselor in New Jersey prior to coming to Saint Vincent.
Photo: Benjamin Hager/Las Vegas Review/Journal
Attendees of a vigil for the shooting victims of the Route 91 country music festival at the University of Las Vegas on Oct. 2