In this insightful and cautiously optimistic account, psychologist Peterson and sociologist Densley present findings from their study of nearly 200 mass shootings in the U.S. between 1966 and 2020. Drawing on trial transcripts, media reports, and interviews with perpetrators, their friends and family, and survivors, Peterson and Densley identify risk factors, including childhood abuse and neglect, that increase the likelihood a young person might commit such a crime, and contend that trauma screening in schools could help reduce the frequency of mass shootings.
Peterson and Densley also show that shooters often experience a personal crisis shortly before committing their crime, and provide lists of warning signs (increased agitation, abusive behavior) and de-escalation strategies. To prevent mass shootings motivated by hate-based ideology, the authors suggest deplatforming extremists online and “cognitively empower[ing]” people to think more critically. They also call on reporters to avoid “excessive, irrelevant details” in their coverage of perpetrators, and support “red flag” laws that allow for the removal of firearms from people deemed to be a threat to themselves or others.
Throughout, the authors’ nuanced portraits of mass shooters buttress the case that these tragedies “are not an inevitable fact of American life; they’re preventable.” This is a sensitive and knowledgeable treatment of one of America’s most vexing social problems.