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What Social Science Says About Mass Killings

October 02, 2017

The deadliest mass shooting in modern American history claimed at least 59 lives on Sunday night. More than 500 people were injured in the attack. 

The violence shocked the nation and ignited familiar conversations about gun control, the mental states of shooters, and the social causes of mass murder. Although the reasons behind the most recent attack are not yet known, social scientists have suggested three factors that don’t often make the headlines. 

1. When hate leads to homicide: Many studies show that mass murderers turn off their moral sensibilities and dehumanize their victims, treating them as animals or objects. But recent research described in the Behavioral Scientist identifies another kind of killing — moral violence — in which perpetrators view their victims as fully human. Outrage over perceived morality, not indifference, drives these attacks. Although the Las Vegas shooter’s motivations are not yet known, many terrorist acts are instances of moral violence.  

2. A side effect of guns: Shootings claimed more than 36,000 lives in the United States in 2015. Gun advocates say more weapons would help curb the carnage. Yet 30 studies demonstrate that the more firearms there are in circulation, the more crime communities experience, Scientific Americanreports. The social psychological notion of channel factors applies here: the easier an action is to perform, the more likely it is to occur. 

3. Impetus of inequality: Social scientists have long observed that more unequal societies are also more violent. Canadian psychologist Martin Daly goes further and claims that income inequality actually cause men to kill, leveraging violence to secure social rank. As the U.S. is now the most unequal of all Western nations, perhaps some recent shootings are a result of our resource disparities.