Mass Shootings Are Contagious, Spawning “Copycat” Killers

December 22, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Heavily filtered black and white, blood-splattered image of a man pointing a gun at the camera.
Photo credit: Fabrizio Rinaldi/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A new study shows that mass shootings can “infect” others with the urge to senselessly kill.

Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, San Bernardino —  the bone-chilling list goes on. To most of us, mass shootings represent sadistic acts of inexplicable murder, but to some, the urge to follow suit infects them like a disease. A study published earlier this year in the journal PLOS ONE, found evidence that mass shootings increase the chance that others will try to imitate the killings within about two weeks.

The study defined mass shootings as events which cause four or more deaths, and found that they spawn more mass shootings as a result. Study researcher Sherry Towers, a professor of mathematical and computational modeling at Arizona State University, told Live Science that, “On average, one school shooting inspires 0.22 other school shootings, and on average, one mass shooting inspires 0.3 more mass shootings.” Towers explains that, in other words, one out of five school shootings, was inspired by a shooting that occurred in the past.

SEE ALSO: Is the “American Dream” to Blame for Mass Shooting Epidemics?

The notion that violence is contagious isn’t completely new — “suicide contagion” occurs when vulnerable people choose to take their lives after reading about the details of previous suicides. In response to the phenomenon, many media outlets have chosen to refrain from reporting such incidents because it actually sensationalizes the tragedy.

Similarly, experts suspect that media coverage of mass shootings creates notoriety and infamy for the killers, which then provokes others to dream of their own name making the front page. Surprisingly, there are no national government databases of mass shootings, so Towers and her colleagues turned to USA Today for its online database of mass killings from 2006 to 2013. This demonstrates just how involved the media is in these horrific killings.

USA Today’s title page warns that mass killings “happen far more often than the government reports, and the circumstances of those killings — the people who commit them, the weapons they use, and the forces that motivate them — are far more predictable than many might think. Yet no one is keeping track.” The publication’s timeline of U.S. mass killings provides a chilling glimpse of just how frequent and serious the incidents are.

The researchers also used data from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which records statistics on school and mass shootings. With both data sources, the researchers were faced with the ugly truth: mass shootings in America aren’t uncommon in the slightest. “On average, a mass shooting that leaves four or more people dead occurs every 12.5 days in the United States. School shootings occur every 31.6 days, on average,” the study concluded.

The study also cross-referenced shootings by state with prevalence of mental illness and gun ownership. The analysis showed that states with higher level of gun ownerships experienced more mass shootings, but that after gun access was accounted for, mental illness rate did not significantly predict the shootings.

Towers and her colleagues discovered that shootings in which fewer than three people died were not contagious, and they suspect media coverage may explain why some shootings create a “contagion” while others remain in the shadows. National news, as opposed to local news, perpetuates the mass shooting contagion.

Essentially, the media makes notorious celebrities out of mass killers, creating the “copycat phenomenon,” according to a report by CNN. Towers says this doesn’t mean the media shouldn’t report on mass shootings, but “voluntary efforts to de-emphasize the killer’s name and portrait might help stave off additional shootings.”

Along with reforming gun control laws, the best way to counter the mass shooting contagion is to refrain from broadcasting the killer’s name on media outlets after the tragedy occurs. This widespread attention instills a sense of immortality in the killers’ minds— glamorizing the feeling that their names will live on. While journalistic value relies heavily on providing the public with the truth, there are certain reporting standards that must be followed in the name of preventing  future tragedies.

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