Why so many mass murders? Families, experts

Akash Arjun
Akash Arjun

Global Courant 2023-05-08 10:09:23

More than five years after his son was shot in the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history, Richard Berger still wonders why.

Why Stephen Berger was killed the day after he celebrated his 44th birthday. Why the shooter bullets rained down the Las Vegas Strip in 2017, turning a country music festival into a bloodbath. Why the the death toll from the massacre did not shock US leaders to do more to prevent this kind of violence from happening again and again.

Why?

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“It’s just a hole in our hearts,” Berger said. “We just don’t know, and we just don’t know what to say.”

For the Bergers, the families of the other 59 Vegas victims — and relatives and friends of countless others who have died in mass murders across the country in the years since — the question looms as big now as it did when the crimes happened. Yet the carnage continues.

In the first four months and six days of this year, 115 people have been killed in 22 mass killings – an average of one mass murder per week. That includes the bloodshed Saturday at a mall in Dallas where eight people were shot dead.

The total represents the highest number of mass murder deaths this early in the year since at least 2006, according to an Associated Press data analysis, and the deaths were already falling at a record rate before the horror unfolded in Texas.

Experts point to some contributing factors: a general increase in all types of gun violence in recent years; the proliferation of firearms amid lax gun laws; the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, including the stress of long months of quarantine; a political climate unable or unwilling to meaningfully change the status quo; and a greater emphasis on violence in American culture.

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Such explanations are of little comfort, not only to the families torn apart by the murders, but also to Americans everywhere reeling from the cascading, collective trauma of mass violence.

This year’s murders have happened in a variety of ways, from family and neighborhood clashes to school and workplace shootings to gunfire explosions in public areas. They have taken place both in the countryside and in the city. Sometimes people knew their killers; sometimes they didn’t.

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The massacres are defined by the FBI as mass murders when there are four or more fatalities within 24 hours, not counting the perpetrator. The Associated Press and USA Today have tracked and collected extensive data on these violent attacks in collaboration with Northeastern University.

The The motive of the Las Vegas shooter remains unknown even today. The high-stakes gambler was apparently angry at how the casinos treated him despite his high-roller status, but the FBI never uncovered a conclusive reason for the slaying, which ended up with more lives lost than any mass murder in decades.

Contributing to the steady rhythm of death in 2023: the gruesome murder-suicide in Utah who left five children, their parents and their grandmother dead just days into the new year; the fatal shooting of six people, including three 9-year-old children, at one elementary school in Nashville; back-to-back California dance studio and mushroom farm disasters; and the mall shooting in Allen, Texas, on Saturday, when authorities say a gunman got out of a car and immediately began shooting at people.

But while these tragic events receive extraordinary attention in the news media and public opinion, they represent only one small fraction of total gun deaths.

Far more common are fatal shootings involving less than four people and deaths from domestic violence. And then there are the suicides, which make up more than half of the 14,000 gun deaths this year so far, according to the Gun Violence Archive, which tracks news media and police reports to gather data.

Yet mass murders stir the deepest fear in the hearts of most people.

“People all over the country are all sending their kids to school – and they’re worried about getting shot if they send their kid to school?” said Daniel Webster, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions.

The fact is, while they are less common than other gun deaths, the mass killings keep happening – 20 years after Columbine, 10 years after Sandy Hook, five years after Las Vegas, and less than a year after massacres at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, and an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

Which leads to the same terrifying question: why?

People who study such violence are also amazed at the sustained pace of the brutality.

“We have plenty of examples of things that seem to be at breaking point in this country,” said Katherine Schweit, a former FBI executive who drafted the agency’s active firing protocol after Sandy Hook. “When I was asked to work on this in 2013, I never imagined that I would still be working on the same thing 10 years later.”

It will be years – if at all possible – before researchers can figure out what’s behind the drastic increase in gun violence. Proponents say there are measures that might prevent such crimes — including firearms reform and gun bans — but note that there is little appetite on Capitol Hill to implement them.

“I think the United States has a relationship with guns like no other country in the world,” said Kelly Drane, director of research at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “These events are a result of our failure to take preventive measures.”

President Joe Biden, a staunch advocate of stronger gun control, is frustrated by Congress’ reluctance to enact a ban on some semi-automatic rifles in the face of the powerful gun lobby led by the National Rifle Association. The NRA did not return an online request for comment.

Lawmakers passed on what was marked for them a landmark gun violence law that tightens background checks for the youngest buyers, deters firearms from more domestic violence offenders, and helps states use red-flag laws that allow police to ask courts to take deadly weapons away from people who show signs of becoming violent . to pray signed the bill last year.

The law and other measures have done little to slow the pace of violence or ease the country’s pain, which has been further exacerbated by the pandemic, climate change and the racial reckoning following the police killing of George Floyd.

“These tragedies piled up one after the other, almost becoming too much to bear,” said Roxanne Cohen Silver, a psychology professor at the University of California, Irvine, who studies coping with traumatic life events.

The mass murders, Silver noted, “are just another tragedy on top of all these other psychological and emotional challenges.”

Stephen Berger his father, Richard, is now 80. He spends his days with his grandchildren – one of them is a soccer goalkeeper who reminds him of Steve, who had a passion for basketball. Their family awards annual athletic scholarships to Stephen’s high school.

Berger watches as the teens approach the next stage of their young lives, promising and full of life. But his own son is dead, and five years later he still wonders:

Why?

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Associated Press Writer Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.

Why so many mass murders? Families, experts

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