Why Santa Barbara shootings are not just about gun control

The rampage that left seven people dead near Santa Barbara, Calif., fit the trend of past shooting sprees: A young, angry man trying to draw attention to the ways he felt mistreated by society. That means neither gun control nor mental health is the core issue, some experts say.

Chris Carlson/AP
Flowers are placed through a bullet hole on a window of IV Deli Mart, where part of Friday night's mass shooting took place in the Isla Vista beach community of Santa Barbara, Calif. Sheriff's officials said Elliot Rodger stabbed three people to death at his apartment before shooting and killing three more in a crime spree through a nearby neighborhood.

The fingers are already pointing, the headlines already blaring. Once again, a young man, angry at the world, has ended his life in a hail of gunfire, taking with him innocent victims.

When Elliot Rodger drove through the streets of Isla Vista, Calif., Friday night, his guns chewing through some of the hundreds of rounds of ammunition police said were in his car, some said he was yet another example of how a lack of meaningful gun control has made mass killings too easy. One victim's father openly wept, "The talk about gun rights.... When will enough people say: 'Stop this madness!' "

Reports that Mr. Rodger had been receiving psychiatric care and had been diagnosed with a mild form of Asperger's, others countered, was proof of a mental health crisis in the United States. The shooting spree was the work of a "mad man," the sheriff of nearby Santa Barbara concluded.

And on the web, feminist blogs were noting that Rodger's YouTube videos showed a man who had become so warped by a misogynistic society that objectifies women that he felt it was justice to hunt down and kill college-age girls because none had ever dated him.

In the yearning to make some sense of a rampage that left seven people dead, including the suspect, and 13 people injured, the public and the media have once again begun searching for elements of Rodger's life that fit the narrative of a mass killer. Some and perhaps all surely played a role.

But to researchers who have studied the trend, these are secondary – though important – factors. The young men who are overwhelmingly responsible for these shooting sprees fit a very clear portrait: self-obsessed yet marginalized in some way. Their rampages are not fits of senseless rage, but cold, calculating attempts to level the score with society.

In the attempt to become an antihero – to lay bare how they think they have been wronged by others – these men need an audience, and shooting sprees are the ultimate way to get one.

"Mass shootings are a kind of theater," wrote Ari Schulman, editor of the journal The New Atlantis, in The Wall Street Journal last year. "Their purpose is essentially terrorism – minus, in most cases, a political agenda. The public spectacle, the mass slaughter of mostly random victims, is meant to be seen as an attack against society itself."

The senselessness "is just the point of mass shootings: It is the means by which the perpetrator seeks to make us feel his hatred," he added.

Indeed, to researchers, neither the mass killer nor his motives are a mystery, and many aspects of Rodger's life fit squarely into trends observed by researchers.

Rodger left a long trail across the Internet, both with YouTube videos and online message board postings, that appear to explain why he launched his "Day of Retribution." As short and mixed-race (Asian and Anglo), Rodger was perpetually insecure about his looks. Yet his videos repeatedly speak to a sense of entitlement with women – he deserved their love and was anguished at their lack of interest despite his jet-setting lifestyle as the son of a Hollywood director. (His father was an assistant director for the first "Hunger Games.")

This perceived slight became the fuel for his anger. In a YouTube video that has since been removed, he vowed: "I'm going to enter the hottest sorority house of [the University of California at Santa Barbara] and I will slaughter every single spoilt, stuck-up, blonde ... that I see inside there."

According to a Washington Post timeline, Rodger knocked on the door of the Alphi Phi sorority house for two minutes Friday night. When no one answered, he walked across the street to his car and opened fire, killing two women and injuring a third before driving away.

In a 2010 article, James Knoll, director of forensic psychiatry at the State University of New York's Upstate Medical University, wrote that mass killers are " 'collectors of injustice' who nurture their wounded narcissism."

Others have pointed to a narcissistic streak in Rodger. Forbes's Kashmir Hill writes:

Rodger’s Facebook page is full of selfies and photos of his rich but lonely life. There are photos of him, by himself, flying first class and attending a private Katy Perry concert, and with his parents, at the Hunger Games premiere in 2012; his father was an assistant director of the film. Friends are generally absent from the photos and make few comments; he likes many of his own photos, and is usually the only one to do so. He was obsessed with himself and with putting his opulent lifestyle on display, and Facebook was the perfect outlet for it.

A mass killing, then, becomes a plea for attention – an attempt by the chronically overlooked to be heard, and feared. To Mr. Schulman, that means the particulars of each case – looking at motive, mental health, or misogyny – are less important than the way society reacts. When the media spread fear, broadcast a killer's manifesto, and endlessly show his photos, they fuel the next round of potential mass killers by helping the last one accomplish his goals.

Mass killings, he suggests, are contagious. He likens them with suicides, noting a rash of suicides on the subway system in Vienna in 1984. Suicides fell by 75 percent after a group of researchers at the Austrian Association for Suicide Prevention persuaded local media to change their coverage "by minimizing details and photos, avoiding romantic language and simplistic explanations of motives, moving the stories from the front page and keeping the word 'suicide' out of the headlines."

Speaking of mass killings, Schulman added: "Whatever the witch's brew of influences that produced this grisly script, treating mass killings as a kind of epidemic or contagion largely frees us from having to understand the particular causes of each act. Instead, we can focus on disrupting the spread."

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