Two mass shootings in three days. Are these copycat crimes?


Do a few back-to-back mass shootings in California suggest older men will be the next generation of mass murderers?

Don’t count on it, say experts. The 72-year-old who killed 11 people in Monterey Park and the 66-year-old who allegedly killed seven near Half Moon Bay may have committed the crimes within 48 hours and 400 miles of each other. But they are likely to remain outliers in an increasing number of younger offenders.

The reason: While older men are prone to contracting infectious diseases, they seem virtually immune to the types of contagion that give rise to violent mimicry.

“We don’t see many 60- and 70-year-olds commit mass murders, and when they do, it’s usually a murder-suicide within a family,” said Jack McDevitt, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston.

Suicides tend to occur in clusters suggestive of contamination, McDevitt said, but there’s little evidence that homicides or mass shootings follow such a pattern.

More importantly, he added, is one of criminology’s most established findings: When it comes to crime in general, and violent crime in particular, men tend to “age” criminal activity.

That pattern is also seen in mass shootings.

A database maintained by Northeastern University’s Department of Criminology shows that the man who shot bullets at a ballroom dance studio in Monterey Park at age 72 and died the next day from a self-inflicted gunshot wound was the second. oldest perpetrator of a mass murder in recent years. The 66-year-old accused of shooting seven people in San Mateo County on Monday afternoon is also said to be among the oldest mass murderers.

That database goes back to 2006.

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That both men were Asian and immigrants puts them in even smaller company. Since 1967, a database of mass shooters maintained by the Violence Project has found that 11 of the 172 perpetrators—about 6.4%—were of Asian descent. Nine of those mass shooters had emigrated to the United States from birthplaces in Asia.

All told, 15.1% of Violence Project mass shooters were immigrants.

While differing in methodology and data range, a database of mass murders maintained by Northeastern University, USA Today and the The US Express News tells a similar story. It found that from 2006 to just before the two California shootings, 34 of 535 events — also 6.4% — were carried out by perpetrators identified as Asian or Pacific Islanders.

But it’s the ages of California’s two newest mass shooters that have surprised researchers the most. Not since a 64-year-old video poker player shot and killed 58 attendees at a Las Vegas music festival in 2017 has an elderly person carried out a mass shooting in the US.

Violence in general, and mass murder in particular, is largely the domain of younger and middle-aged men, said Emma Fridel, who teaches criminology at Florida State University and has contributed to the Northeastern database. In recent decades, the average age of mass murderers — defined as those who kill four or more people in one incident with any weapon — has been between 30 and 32, she said.

(They’re also overwhelmingly male: In the Violence Project’s database of 172 mass shooters, all but four were men, and two of four women acted in conjunction with a man.)

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“An important characteristic that we often see in mass murderers is this externalization of guilt,” Fridel said. “They are mostly collectors of injustice.”

Despite their highly visible role in school shootings, teens and young adults are not the most likely demographic to engage in mass murder; they are generally too young to have accumulated enough grievances to move them to such violence, she said.

On the other end of the spectrum, older men tend to have “developed the coping skills to deal with life’s frustrations,” she added.

While they may harbor many grievances, they seem to have safely reached old age precisely because they have found less violent ways to deal with their anger and disappointment.

“Mass shooters don’t make it to old age because they generally can’t last that long,” Fridel said.

If insult is a general motive for mass murder, a shooter’s choice of location may provide more specific clues about the circumstances that deterred him, experts say.

In this regard, experts including McDevitt view the two men’s crimes as somewhat different. The Monterey Park shooter’s choice of the Star Ballroom suggests disappointing social relationships may have motivated his actions. The San Mateo County shooting appears to have targeted the suspect’s co-workers or employers, which could indicate problems with money or work relationships.

“When people have two tragedies in a row, they start looking for patterns that might not exist,” Fridel warned. “We’re still talking about rare cases.”

The Violence Project’s database shows that 31% of mass shootings have occurred in a workplace and about 22% in a bar, restaurant or residence — locations that suggest a shooter may have been motivated by failed relationships or interpersonal or group hatred.

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However, such differences pale next to the most common factor that unites all mass shootings, said Dr. Amy Barnhorst, a UC Davis psychiatrist who studies gun violence.

“So many people struggle with rights, hatred, anger and disappointment,” Barnhorst said. “The thing that makes a mass shootout is the gun.”

Add a gun to the mix, and “all these different paths that start in different places converge in a place where the anger and resentment are more likely to spill into gunshots than a smashed wall or a bar fight,” she said.

Again, the demographics of the two California shootings appear to be consistent with some warning signs of potential violence but at odds with others.

An internet survey conducted in 2018 by researchers at UC Davis and Harvard University estimated that 4.2 million adults in California owned a firearm. A disproportionate number of those gun owners – 43% – were 60 or older.

In light of that finding, it comes as no surprise that the two shooters may have owned guns. That said, gun ownership among Asian Americans appears to be rarer: In a state where Asians and Pacific Islanders make up about 16% of the population, the survey found that only 9% of gun owners identified their ethnicity as anything other than white. Black or Latino.

The vast majority of those gun owners “are very law-abiding, responsible gun owners,” Barnhorst said. “It only takes one to give them a bad name.”

Or two.


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