Firearms are so synonymous with American culture that gun control—even after a barrage of mass shootings—remains a political nonstarter. But what if the real problem was something even harder to disentangle from modern life?
The Internet. Computers. Smart phones. Facebook.
As the country marks the fifth anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, an Illinois State University professor argues that the digital revolution has detached us from one another in a dangerous way. The shift away from real-world human interaction to online spaces has been especially problematic for the troubled young men who most often become mass shooters.
“We’ve said that the digital revolution is going to take care of everything for everybody. It’s not. It’s making it much, much worse,” said Julie Webber, a professor in the Department of Politics and Government and author of two books on school violence.
Twenty-six children and educators died at Sandy Hook in Connecticut in 2012.
On average, there's nearly one school shooting a week in the United States, according to Everytown Research, a nonprofit organization which advocates for gun control. Just in the past month, six people, including the shooter, died in a school shooting in Rancho Tehama, California. Three people, including the shooter, were killed in a shooting at Aztec High School in New Mexico.
Webber’s books have divided school shootings into two eras. The first ones in the late 1990s, including Columbine, were before widespread adoption of the Internet, when mainstream media outlets like CNN still narrated the story, Webber said.
The second era, she said, includes school shootings since 2005—after the media began its digital shift, as social channels like YouTube emerged. Many of these recent shooters are working off the Columbine script—even their physical gestures and clothing—while layering their own elements on top of past massacres.
It’s no coincidence that gaming—online or real world—is popular with many shooters—an activity based on repetitive behavior that can degrade social skills. The gunman in the Las Vegas mass shooting that killed 58 was a notorious gambler.
“It’s like a game, because they’re trying to outdo the last attack,” Webber said.
Guns are a big part of the problem too, Webber said. But she’s concerned about pursuing gun control as a political reaction to a single mass shooting.
“I wouldn’t want it to be because of one of these shootings because I think they will continue to happen, until we reform some of these social relationships and our relationship to digital culture. I wouldn’t want to have gun control and have people say, ‘Oh, see, it happened anyway,’” Webber said.
The Sandy Hook shooting and its aftermath—particularly an exhaustive 2014 report on what lead to the massacre—has been very informative, Webber said.
Webber said it’s only amplified the need for a comprehensive threat-assessment tool that health professionals and family members can use if they have concerns about someone. Right now, parents with concerns about detached children are often left to solve the problem themselves—a problem they’re not equipped to handle, she said.
Even the parents of Adam Lanza—the Sandy Hook shooter—struggled to find a solution to their son’s troubling behavior, Webber said. And they had the money to try.
“We need some sort of threat-assessment protocol (we can use) throughout society so people can intervene to help parents and relatives of people who are struggling. Because of all of these people have been struggling prior to the act. And their families don’t know what to do. And we don’t have any answers for them,” Webber said.
“It’s not about labeling a person as a threat,” she said. “It’s trying to find the source of the problem and solve it, which is much more reliable.”
Webber's most recent book, "Beyond Columbine: School Violence and the Virtual," was released earlier this year.
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