At the moment, no one has any idea why Stephen Craig Paddock brought a deadly arsenal up to the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, hammered out a window, and opened fire on a crowd of country-music fans two nights ago, killing at least 59 and wounding more than 500.
Eventually, the full story will come out. It has to, given the number of investigators currently on the case. And when it does, it’ll be morbidly fascinating, especially given Paddock’s lack of any sort of criminal record and the apparent absence of any hint of online anger or radicalization. But his story also, in a very real sense, doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because we already know many of the reasons why America is a dark outlier when it comes to gun violence in the developed world, with rates far, far higher than those found in similarly wealthy, developed nations.
This might seem like an odd thing to say. Certainly there are important lessons to be learned from Paddock’s motives and thought processes, and from how he acquired his weapons. In a limited sense, yes. But from a policy perspective — from the perspective of actually figuring out how to prevent more massacres — no, not really. If the United States’ political system weren’t utterly broken with regard to gun policy and gun research, we’d be well on our way to ameliorating this problem based on the information we already have.
Determining shooters’ ideology is sort of beside the point.
Whenever a mass shooting occurs in the U.S. — that is, quite often — ideologues and trolls and others immediately try to find information to suggest that the shooter in question was motivated by some ideology or another. Oftentimes, this information quickly turns out to be false (as the Vegas massacre was unfolding, for example, far-right outlets spread the rumor that he had an ISIS connection, which authorities quickly quashed), but it’s always used in the same way — to argue, “See? Our political opponents are crazy and violent!”
In reality, no ideology has a monopoly on committing horrible acts of violence. At different places and at different times, different groups may be more likely to commit such acts. When it comes to the category of political violence in the U.S., for example, at the moment, the research does suggest that far-right violence is a much more significant threat than far-left violence at the moment — but overall, because such a vanishingly small percentage of the population commits these acts in the first place, looking to ideology as a frontline “explanation” makes very little sense.
Plus, a lot of evidence suggests that when politics are a contributing factor, radicalization patterns look surprisingly similar between different ideologies. Young men — it is, the present example notwithstanding, most often young men who commit deadly violent acts — are recruited into movements not because they have a keen ideological interest in them, but because they feel disempowered, disillusioned, and are seeking a connection to a broader movement.
Overall, pointing to politics as an explanation for mass shootings in the U.S. just won’t get us very far.
We’ll never really be able to predict who will commit a mass shooting.
It should be hammered home, over and over and over, that all else being equal, the rarer a type of behavior is, the harder it is to predict who will do it. It is thankfully rare, even in the United States, for someone to commit a mass shooting. But while it’s hard to predict with any accuracy who is at risk of committing one, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any hints. Men with histories of domestic violence appear to be more likely to commit mass shootings, for example. But at the individual level, knowing someone has committed domestic violence offers precious little insight into whether they’ll commit a mass shooting — because, again, these acts are so rare. This just isn’t the sort of thing that can be predicted with useful accuracy, with only the rarest of exceptions.
Were American society to truly internalize this insight, it would change our approach to this sort of violence. It would snap us out of the illusion that any sort of profiling or predictive approaches could meaningfully address this issue. Many real experts, of course, were snapped out of that idea long ago. After an October 2015 mass shooting, for example, I reached out to Dr. Paul Appelbaum, a Columbia University psychiatrist who specializes in researching mass shootings, in the hopes of writing a story along the lines of “Since we know gun control is a political impossibility in the U.S., what else can we do to prevent these sorts of attacks?”
Nothing, he said. Given how rare mass shootings are, and the attendant difficulties with discerning meaningful predictors about who will commit them, the only meaningful intervention that could conceivably prevent these sorts of acts is gun control. He said he’d grown so frustrated by queries like mine that he had come up with a one-size-fits-all post-mass-shooting statement for reporters, part of which went as follows: “If you tell me that there’s nothing we can do about guns, I’d say then we’re done. We’ve conceded that we are willing to tolerate periodic slaughters of the innocent. There’s nothing more to say.”
The only hope for preventing mass shootings is to treat guns like any other public-health threat and build a strong body of research — but the Republican Party has seriously hamstrung any efforts to do that.
Because we can’t predict who will commit a mass shooting, our only real hope of reducing the number and deadliness of such shootings is to better understand how guns “work” at a public-health level, and finding out policies that will reduce the odds of dangerous people getting guns, or at least getting the most deadly types of guns.
This is exactly the sort of task the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would be well-suited for in any other situation. After all, it has a $7 billion annual budget and its entire mandate is to study threats to Americans’ health and well-being. And the CDC did, for a while, study gun violence. That changed abruptly in 1996, when the National Rifle Association, as part of its remarkably successful decades-long effort to keep just about any meaningful national-level gun control off the table, successfully pressured congressional Republicans to strip the CDC of its gun-research funding and to effectively ban the agency from studying gun violence, or disbursing funds to researchers who want to do so.
Since its passage, the ban has led to tens of millions of dollars of lost research funding for one of the biggest public-health threats to American lives. As this graph from a research letter in the journal JAMA shows, gun violence is profoundly under-researched compared to similarly dangerous public-health threats:
Naturally, this has had a stunting trickle-down effect on the national conversation about gun violence. “Because we don’t know what works, we as a country are left in a shouting match,” Dr. Mark Rosenberg, the president and CEO of the Task Force for Global Help and a former gun-violence researcher at the CDC, told me for a story I did on the ban in December of 2015. “We get into these totally nonproductive shouting matches because nobody has the evidence … and that’s where we stand right now.”
We know many of the key public-health questions about how gun violence works in the U.S.: What differentiates the sorts of people who are and aren’t able to acquire weapons illegally? What sorts of temporary bans on gun ownership for people in states of severe psychological distress would, and wouldn’t, help prevent deadly violence? And so on. But we are years, if not decades, behind on answering these questions because our own lawmakers have decided that the government should sweep them under the rug, rather than aggressively try to research answers to them — largely because the NRA is worried that the answer to some of these questions will be that tightening certain gun laws would make us all safer (a reasonable assumption in light of evidence from countries like Australia).
Again: It will be interesting, and useful in a certain, narrow sense, to find out why Stephen Craig Paddock committed his heinous crime. But to focus too narrowly on the details is to miss the much more important, broader point: The U.S. is soaked in a great deal of what is likely unnecessary bloodshed because it refuses to do anything about its gun-violence epidemic. There’s no cute or subtle way out of that fact, no insight waiting to be uncovered from poring over mass shooters’ Facebook profiles or their texts with family members. We’re stuck where we are, because of political choices we have made, and there doesn’t appear to be any escape. Just more and more horror.