In the aftermath of high-profile mass shootings, such as those in Las Vegas, Nevada, and Sutherland Springs, Texas, there is continued demand for policy responses to such tragedies. Often, these responses are rooted in emotion rather than empirical evidence and a strong theoretical foundation. As a result, there is little progress toward prevention, and the same dialogue is revisited with each new event. In this paper, we propose that Cohen and Felson’s (Am Sociol Rev 44(4):588–608, 1979) routine activity theory can be used as a framework for developing evidence-based responses to mass shootings. Specifically, by considering mass shootings as a function of the theory’s three key elements (motivated offenders, suitable targets, and capable guardianship), we consider how this theory, which overcomes many of the challenges found with typical responses to mass shootings, can be used to develop effective policies.
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Data for the analysis were derived from Schildkraut and Elsass’ (2016, p. 28) earlier work, which defines a mass shooting as “an incident of targeted violence carried out by one or more shooters at one or more public or populated locations. Multiple victims (both injuries and fatalities) are associated with the attack, and both the victims and location(s) are chosen either at random or for their symbolic value. The event occurs within a single 24-h period, though most attacks typically last only a few minutes. The motivation of the shooting must not correlate with gang violence or targeted militant or terroristic activity.”
In two specific mass shootings, the perpetrators bypassed metal detectors that were in place at the locations. At Red Lake High School in Red Lake, MN (2005), the perpetrator shot and killed an unarmed guard at the school’s entrance before walking through the device with his weapons and continuing his attack (CNN 2005). Similarly, in 2013, a gunman shot and killed a TSA agent at Los Angeles International Airport, bypassing the security checkpoint, and continued his rampage in the terminal (CBS News 2013).
In three school shootings, people were killed behind locked doors. In the shootings at both Red Lake High School and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL (2018), the perpetrators shot through the windows that were part of the entry design. The Red Lake shooter gained access through the broken window (Pioneer Press 2015), whereas the Parkland perpetrator killed several of his victims without entering any rooms (Mazzei 2018). The third case was the 2006 shooting at Platte Canyon High School in Bailey, CO, in which a student was killed by an armed attacker who had barricaded himself with her behind the locked door (Park County Office of Emergency Management 2006).
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Schildkraut, J., Naman, B.M. & Stafford, M.C. Advancing responses to mass shootings using a routine activity approach. Crime Prev Community Saf 21, 346–361 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41300-019-00077-3
- Mass shootings
- School shootings
- Routine activity theory
- Crime prevention
- Violence prevention