Book review: What if mass shootings are the American way? Minnesota authors share what they've learned

Reviewing "The Violence Project, How to Stop a Mass Shooting Epidemic," the authors view active shooter drills as counterproductive and they find our so-called "school hardening" techniques to be waste.

David Vov Diemar/Unsplash

ROCHESTER, Minn. -- The first thing to know about this solution-focused new book is that it is an attempt to write about the prevention of mass shootings without using the names of any mass shooters.

The authors, a pair of Minnesota-based researchers, made that decision in response to a post-Aurora survivors movement called No Notoriety, one set on changing the way we talk about mass shootings. Twelve people were killed and dozens injured in that Colorado theater shooting in 2012.

The authors say that every time we read, publish or repost a shooter's name, Facebook content, headshot or the angry postings sometimes described as "manifestos," we feed a social-contagion fame machine that motivates the next shooting.

The Violence Project: How to Stop a Mass Shooting Epidemic , is both a Hamline University database and now a book.

Both are the creation of Jillian Peterson and James Densley, professors of criminology and criminal justice, respectively, who have taken to studying the commonalities linking mass shootings.


They posit that by viewing mass shooters as monsters, we insulate ourselves from the way in which the perpetrators and their actions are in fact the creations of our very own ways and practices.

They write that by distancing ourselves from the crimes in this way, we miss the opportunity for change.

For their book, the authors sent interview requests to 31 imprisoned mass shooters. Of the five who were able to participate, they refer to them only as Perpetrator A, B, C and so on.

They do so because mass shooters are increasingly driven by a fantasy that their crimes will immortalize them and exact revenge for their outsized sense of injury. Hoping to get the story first, media organizations can walk right into this warped agenda.

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The Violence Project is a Hamline University-based research institute for the study of mass shootings. Cover Image/Submitted photo


  • The Violence Project, How to Stop a Mass Shooting Epidemic
  • by Jillian Peterson, PhD and James Densley, PhD
  • Abrams Press, Sept. 7, 2021; $28.00

"During the 2017 attacks at Pulse, a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, which killed forty-nine," as the authors remind us, "the shooter checked Facebook and Twitter to make sure his massacre was going viral."
The authors also interviewed survivors, first responders, family and friends of mass shooters and their victims, shielding their identities upon request.


'It's complex'

A survivor of the 2005 Red Lake shooting in northern Minnesota sets the stage when she says that mass shootings are an epidemic devoid of easy answers.

"I'm a math teacher," she says. "I think of things as black and white, problems to be solved. I've been trying to solve this. But this is fuzzy. It's complex."

"There are no quick fixes to systemic social problems," the authors remind us. They do provide "off-ramps" for the road to tragedy however -- ways in which each of us can help to build a society less likely to produce them.

Some of these suggestions cut to the core of what we believe is best about our society.

Mass shooters, as they explain, emerge from a uniquely American, masculinity-distorted backdrop of abuse, trauma and isolation. Add "frustration, disappointment, and fame seeking," and it can create a suicidal crisis directed outward.

"They've searched for validation for their feelings and have found it in America's cultural script for mass violence," Peterson and Densley write of the perpetrators, "its long history of firearm enabled violence, its values of rugged individualism and success at any cost."

And here the reader may be thinking, "Wait a minute, I thought our spirit of rugged individualism was a good thing?"

It's a reframing of our mass shooting problem, beyond the familiar and mistaken messaging that bullying, video games and undiagnosed mental illness lay at the crux of the crimes.


For Peterson and Densley, we do just as well to rethink the American pursuit of happiness and, given the almost exclusive male-ness of mass violence, our untenable expectations placed on boys and each other of what it means to be a man.

Better to do away with our worship of self-reliance and the American way, they write, a distortion that "affords people undue credit for personal successes and undue blame for personal failures."

"If an American ... can't make it here," they explain, "it's his own fault."

Their book is a reminder to open our eyes -- these are crimes after all which shooters frequently warned others were coming. It helpfully summarizes de-escalation techniques and it relays four D's of crisis, dangerous, disruptive, dysregulated or distressed behaviors.

The authors of the Violence Project view active shooter drills as counterproductive and they find our so-called "school hardening" techniques to be waste. "It’s not metal detectors and bulletproof doors," they write. "It’s noticing when children and young people are struggling and then giving them what they need to thrive."

The Violence Project is a courageous deep dive into a topic for public health that most researchers would rather forget. And yet for such an inscrutable stare at our signature American horror, when it comes to some potential contributors to mass shootings, the authors pull up short.

When they report on a mother's concern that a provider had increased a dose of an antidepressant medication again and again prior to her son's mass shooting, they leave the detail unexplored. We get a percentage for the crimes involving medications (23%) but no analysis.

It's a familiar blind spot in our careful age. Though the medications may be helpful for many, it's well established they can elicit agitation , suicidal thoughts, activation and emotional blunting in some persons who undergo a rapid increase or decrease in dose.


But follow these trails and you risk crossing other powerful American narratives.

In our focus on a host of worthy causes of concern behind mass shootings-- including easy access to guns and what we tell ourselves it means to be a man and an American -- some potential causes are still not ready for scrutiny.

Paul John Scott is the health reporter for NewsMD and the Rochester Post Bulletin. He is a novelist and was an award-winning magazine journalist for 15 years prior to joining the FNS in 2019.
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