Randall Collins casts his sociological eye on mass killings:
Mass shootings are very rare events. There are about 15,000 homicides per year in the USA; the great majority are single-victim killings. Less than 1% are mass killings (4 or more victims in the same incident). Spectacular mass shootings, where many persons are killed or wounded, have been happening at a rate of about 1 or 2 per year, in the 30 years since 1980, for the most common type, school shootings; shootings in other venues, apparently imitating school shootings, are rarer but on the rise. It is their rarity that attracts so much attention, and their out-of-the-blue, seemingly random relationship between killer and victims, that makes them so dramatically alarming.
This rarity means that very distinctive circumstances are needed to explain mass killings, and that widely available conditions cannot be very accurate predictors. There are approximately 190 million firearms in the civilian population in America, in a population of 310 million. The vast majority of these guns are not used to kill people. Even if we focus on the total number of yearly homicides by gun (about 12,000), the percentage of guns that kill someone is about 12,000 / 190,000,000, or 1 in 16,000. Another way to put it: of approximately 44 million gun owners in the US, 99.97% of them do not murder anyone. It is not surprising that their owners resist being accused of abetting murder.
What can be said analytically is that banning guns is trying to manipulate a variable that is a very weak predictor of mass homicides.
Not very usable clues are the patterns that rampage killers are low status isolates, or recent academic or career failures, or introverts. Like availability of guns, here again the explanatory variable is too common; there are a tiny number of rampage killers, but incidents of career failures are widespread; the number of introverts in the population is probably around 40 percent; victims of school bullying comprise 5–15% of students; since there are about 13 million secondary school students in the US, bully victims would total around 650,000 to 2 million. About two-thirds of school shooters are bully victims, but there are other ways to be low status in the youth culture, so the number would be higher. The correlation of these predictors with rampage killings must be extremely low.
Better clues come from considering the micro-sociology of this kind of violence. Any kind of violent confrontation is emotionally difficult; the situation of facing another person whom one wants to harm produces confrontational tension/fear (ct/f); and its effect most of the time is to make violence abort, or to become inaccurate and ineffective. The usual micro-sociological patterns that allow violence to succeed are not present in a rampage killing; group support does not exist, because one or two killers confront a much larger crowd: in contrast, most violence in riots takes place in little clumps where the attackers have an advantage of around 6-to-1.
Another major pathway around ct/f is attacking a weak victim. But in almost all violence, the weakness is emotional rather than physical — even an armed attacker has to establish emotional dominance, before he can carry out effective violence. One might think this is simply a matter of using a gun or displaying a weapon, which automatically puts the armed person in the position of strength, the others in a position of weakness. Nevertheless, detailed analysis of incidents and photos of armed confrontations show that groups without guns can emotionally paralyze an armed opponent, preventing him from using his weapon.
Guns provide emotional dominance when an armed individual threatens a peaceful group and they try to hide or run away. This depends on the style of the victims. When rival street gangs clash, they do not turn their backs; they are used to gesturing, with and without guns, and most such face-to-face confrontations wind down. Running away has the effect of confirming emotional dominance; it is easier to shoot a person in the back than in the front; and turning away or attempting to hide one’s face has the effect of removing one’s greatest deterrent — eye-contact with the opponent. Thus the hundreds who piled on the floor in the theatre at Aurora, or who ran from the attacker on the Norwegian island, may have saved some percentage of themselves; but they collectively could have saved more than ended up being killed or wounded, if they had used their superior numbers to confront the attacker. I don’t mean just the possibility of physically overcoming him, but taking advantage of the fact that groups are always emotionally stronger than individuals, if they can keep themselves together and put up an emotionally united front: they could probably have made him stop shooting.
If this sounds implausible, consider how rampage shootings usually end: in a 1997 school shooting at Paducah, Kentucky, the solo killer, a 14-year-old boy who opened fire on a prayer group in the school hall, allowed a teacher and the prayer leader to come up to him and take his gun away as soon as he had shot 8 girls and boys (who were facing away from him). I will discuss this case in detail below. The Aurora theatre killer gave himself up to the police without resistance after he left the theatre. Even Breivik, the Norwegian killer, who stated a strong ideological motive for his killings, gave himself up without a fight once armed authorities arrived on the island, although he had plenty of ammunition left. The key point here is not simply that the Norwegian police were armed, and the teenage campers were not; but rather that the police confronted him, while the teens ran away and turned their backs. Rampage killers almost always give themselves up peacefully, or else commit suicide. A rare exception is the Columbine duo, who exchanged fire several times with the police, at long distance and ineffectually, before killing themselves in a lull in the action. This is another respect in which rampage killers differ from other types of violent persons.
There’s much more.