In the last days of March, a shooter entered a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado, and opened fire, killing 10 people, including a police officer. The resulting media coverage was filled with what’s become the usual response to killings: thoughts and prayers, calls for gun control, and concern about “copycat crimes” encouraged by news stories about the tragedy.
But there’s a problem: active shooting incidents are not copycat crimes. Referring to active shooters as copycats is both misleading and dangerous.
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What is a copycat crime?
In law enforcement and security, a copycat crime is a crime based on and inspired by another crime or criminals. In these cases, the copycat often idolizes the criminal or the crime itself, and tries to recreate it.
Copycats are patient; they wait for significant times, like anniversaries, to commit their crimes. The recreation of a crime is a ritual for them. That’s not what’s happening with active shooters. This is a different phenomenon entirely, and it’s more of a contagion than meticulously recreated crimes.
In fact, that’s what the phenomenon is called: Mass shooting contagion.
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What is mass shooting contagion?
Mass shooting contagion refers to the effect of media coverage of active shooter events and the potential increase of similar events. It’s an extension of a psychological phenomenon called behavioral contagion or social contagion, in which people tend to mimic behavior they’ve recently been exposed to.
This is often seen in high schools when a student commits suicide; there are often other suicides at the same school. This doesn’t mean the other students are copycats, but that they’ve been struggling with suicidal thoughts already, and the recent suicide at their school — or, in an online world, any high profile suicide — has removed a barrier for them. According to the Centre for Suicide Prevention, this sort of contagion most often affects adolescents, but anyone can be affected — after Marilyn Monroe died in 1962, suicides rose by 12%.
The same sort of phenomenon happens with active shooters. When new shooters become active after a well-publicized mass shooting, these are not necessarily copycats. Instead they were already inclined toward mass shooting. These new perpetrators may already be heavily armed, have targets in mind, or an attack planned. A recent shooting removes a crucial physiological barrier for them, making it possible for them to launch their own attack.
A complication is that active shooters are often in a similar state of mind to those who are suicidal. There’s a connection between suicidal and homicidal thoughts, and in many cases, mass shooters do not intend to be alive after their attacks. These perpetrators are mentally ill, in many cases, not receiving treatment. Without the underlying mental illness, the contagion could not spread.
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What can be done to stop mass shooting contagion?
Our country is currently suffering from an epidemic of mental illness, one that has only worsened during the isolation, loss, and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), last June, 40% of U.S. adults admitted to struggling with mental illness and substance abuse. Those are only the people who felt they could report symptoms, which are still highly stigmatized. Of those surveyed, 31% reported anxiety and depression, while 11% reported seriously considering suicide.
To stop mass shootings, we must focus on the root of the problem by destigmatizing mental health and treating those who need help. We need to recognize the signs of mental illness in employees and co-workers, and provide resources to those who have lost someone to the pandemic, or who are overwhelmed by its realities.
It’s dangerous to call an epidemic of shootings individual copycat crimes, because that means we ignore the larger problems that make such shootings possible. In security, you need to know exactly what your threat is. If you don’t understand your threat, you’ll fail. Right now, when it comes to mass shootings, we’re failing.
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