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How Riots May Help Us Understand School Shooters


After the recent mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., the whole country is asking yet again, why does this keep happening? Writer Malcolm Gladwell has a hypothesis. In the new issue of The New Yorker magazine, he proposes that a well-known theory about riots by the sociologist Mark Granovetter can also help explain school shootings. The theory says that a person who starts a riot is different from someone who joins in later. Our colleague, Steve Inskeep, called Malcolm Gladwell, and he explained how they might be different.

MALCOLM GLADWELL: The first person who throws the rock is a lot more radical than a hundredth person. By the time the riot has attracted a hundred people, you don't have to be nearly as much of a daredevil or a hothead or committed or any of those things to want to engage in a riot.

GREENE: Gladwell uses this theory to contrast early school shooters back in the 1990s with shooters today.

GLADWELL: The first half-dozen or so cases are kids who are profoundly psychotic, deeply traumatized or, in the case of someone like Eric Harris at Columbine, are kind of textbook psychopaths. Now 20 years into the epidemic, the kinds of boys - it's all boys - who are attracted to this are no longer as profoundly troubled or - you know, as the early ones were. We're replicating Granovetter's theory of riots. The hundredth person in is not nearly as much of a committed radical as the first person in. And that's a terrifying conclusion if that's what we're seeing.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: You're saying that there were some demented individuals who took this demented behavior and made it seem normal...


INSKEEP: To some people in the population. And the threshold that you had to cross to find yourself doing that has gotten lower.

GLADWELL: Lower, exactly. The key figure in all of this is Eric Harris, the kind of architect of Columbine. He's become a kind of heroic, mythological figure in this subculture of school shootings. You know, all of these kids post-Columbine, they talk about Eric Harris. They worship Eric Harris. They mimic the things he does. There was a case last year where a kid was asked by the police after he had shot up a university in Seattle, did you have any accomplices? And he said, yes, I had Eric Harris in my head talking me through it. That's a remarkably different stage in the epidemic than we were in in 1997, when kids were doing this kind of thing and there was - almost never been done before. It was like a brand-new phenomenon.

INSKEEP: Do you have reason to think that this is the reason that there have been more mass shootings in the United States in the last several years than there were in the several years before that?

GLADWELL: Yeah. If I had to - I mean, this is - I'm simply using a theory from sociology and trying to make sense of it. I have no idea whether mine is the right one, but we're seeing more and more of these incidents overtime. And I would say this is as good an explanation as I have ever seen for this particular phenomenon.

INSKEEP: When I look at the FBI's statistics that have shown in the last half decade or so an increase in mass shootings, though, I do wonder - this is in the broader context of a great decrease in murder rates over a couple of decades across...


INSKEEP: The United States. And there still have been relatively few mass shootings. Do you think that what's happening is statistically significant, that something is happening that does call for an explanation?

GLADWELL: Yeah, I mean - yeah. You're absolutely right. As a percentage of homicides in this country, school shootings represent a tiny fraction, which tells us more about how many homicides we have than it does about this particular phenomenon. But any time you have as a regular occurrence in American life this bizarre, ritualized, terrifying thing of teenagers entering their high schools and firing at will, you know, I think it's something that deserves our attention.

INSKEEP: Of course, the question on the minds of policymakers is what could we do to break this cycle to prevent mass shootings. If your hypothesis or theory here is correct, what would you do to stop that from happening more?

GLADWELL: I have no idea. You know, it's - 30 or 40 years ago, you could say to newspapers and television they should - if you show some restraint in how you report it, maybe we can curb this phenomenon. But these kids now, they're not reading the newspaper and getting this meme off television news. There is now, online, an incredibly vigorous subculture which is wholly devoted to the cultural expression of these kinds of horrifying rituals. This is the great curse of the Internet. The Internet is so vast and contains so many little, dark alleyways that I have no idea how you stop it from spreading now. I mean, I wish I did. You know, it would certainly help if we limited the availability of guns. But let's be clear; that is only a very, very partial solution. The problem is much deeper than that, right? It's that teenage boys are fantasizing about joining this fraternity of shooters. The availability of a gun is in many ways a small part of the overall picture.

INSKEEP: Malcolm Gladwell of The New Yorker, thanks very much.

GLADWELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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