Sociology and the Newtown Shootings

Almost exactly a month ago, a friend of mine wrote on facebook:

“My beautiful Emily just came bouncing off the bus, giant smile, big brown eyes gleaming, singing ‘Feliz Navidad,’ and I nearly lost it. Jesus. Not a good day for parents.”

As the father of a 5 year-old daughter in pre-K, I knew exactly what he meant.  In the aftermath of the Newtown shootings, just interacting with my daughter (or son, who turns three later this week) left a lump in my throat.

I considered posting something on the shootings at the time, but it all seemed too soon and too close to home at that moment.  Now, with a little time having passed, I thought that I would at least mention the issue of school shootings and what sociology might have to say about such phenomena.

First off, school shootings are rare events and this makes them difficult to study sociologically.  Because of that, you should be cautiously skeptical of the conclusions that people (including sociologists) make on the topic.  Still, as long as one recognizes methodological challenges, there are insights to be gained from sociological analysis.  I am aware of at least one important book that has explored school shootings sociologically.  The book is “Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings” (2005) by Katherine Newman and several of her colleagues.  The book arose from a congressionally-mandated study of school shootings.  Because of this, the authors had extraordinary access to residents in two communities where shootings had occurred (and they chose to donate the royalties of their book to the two schools studied).  A couple important caveats:  First, while I attended a conference session by the authors of this book soon after it was published, it has been a long time since I’ve read any part of the book.  Second, the school shootings studied for the book involved students who were shooters, which is different from the Newtown shooting.)

Here is a description of the book:

In the last decade, school shootings have decimated communities and terrified parents, teachers, and children in even the most “family friendly” American towns and suburbs. These tragedies appear to be the spontaneous acts of disconnected teens, but this important book argues that the roots of violence are deeply entwined in the communities themselves. Rampage challenges the “loner theory” of school violence and shows why so many adults and students miss the warning signs that could prevent it.

There are two non-intuitive points that stuck with me :

1) small communities, rather than being idyllic havens (or perhaps because they are viewed that way), seem especially susceptible to school shootings

2) gun policy is not the primary key to solving this problem

I share these with you here because they challenge some dominant narratives I’ve noticed in the aftermath of Newtown.  For instance, I thought about point 1 when reading Ross Douthat’s reflection on the shooting:

When you live in a hectic, self-important city, it’s easy to romanticize a town like Newtown, and maybe imagine escaping there someday, children in tow. The last time we drove through was more than a year ago: it was a summer dusk, and there were families out everywhere — kids on bikes, crowds around the ice cream stand, the images of small town innocence flickering past our car windows like slides on a carousel.

Any grown-up knows that such small-town innocence is illusory, and that what looks pristine to outsiders can be as darkened by suffering as any other place where human beings live together, and alone.

But even so, the illusion has real power, not least because the dream of small-town life makes the whole universe seem somehow kinder and homier.

Rampage suggests that the illusion of “it couldn’t happen here” actually blinds people to recognizing warning signs when they appear, and leads people to misattribute blame.  The authors also argue that recognizing the potential for school shooters to emerge goes hand in hand with constructing a culture that pro-actively seeks to prevent violence by confronting and treating students (and others) when warning signs develop.  This second part (development of a pro-active culture) also highlights why gun control policy alone will not be the key solution to this problem.

Point #2:  If people think that gun control will “solve” the problem of school shootings, they are mistaken.  It will require deeper social and cultural changes.  At best, gun policy can be a contributor to such changes.  More likely, however, shifting gun control laws are best understood as a consequence of, rather than a cause of, larger social and cultural shifts.

I am not against all changes in gun control policy.  Nor,  I am pretty certain, are the authors of “Rampage.”  In fact, I’d bet that the authors of this book are probably personally supportive of such efforts gun availability is one of the five necessary but not sufficient elements that they identify as crucial.  Thus, they advocate for important gun control policy changes. However, Still, their sociological analysis suggests that the sociological roots of shootings are deeper and more diffuse than the issue of guns.  Gun control efforts seem concrete and doable, and the current impulse to want to “do something” is understandable.  Yet, if we fail to understand the broader social and cultural roots of school shootings, then efforts at gun control may even be counterproductive, if changes in gun laws merely serve as an additional “illusion” that blinds us from undertaking even more important community efforts.  That is why this book is worth reading, and why sociological research on such “rare events” is worth doing.

3 thoughts on “Sociology and the Newtown Shootings

  1. I found a recent article in Nation by Katherine Newman discussing her book in light of the Newtown shootings.

    I also looked back at the book and noted that gun control is specifically mentioned because gun availability is the fifth necessary (but not sufficient) element in their theory. So, I’ve corrected my last paragraph to better recognize this.

    Regardless, the larger point–that deeper social elements should not be overlooked such as problematic cultures of masculinity and social exclusion–comes across in Newman’s article.

    Anyways, I did note that it had been awhile since I read the book…and one should definitely go to the author to get the definitive take. So, read what Katherine Newman has to say!

  2. I think you’ve assessed this well. I haven’t read _Rampage_ but I expect your analysis of it is sound. I wonder how sociologists can convince our political leadership to understand the idea of necessary vs sufficient. Most of the politicians I’ve seen or read talking about this issue are working from an emotional reaction which is likely to not yield fruit.
    It is also interesting to see how various Catholic thinkers are addressing the issue of firearm regulation. Some suggest buying more guns now while others want these bans. I think I can see some interesting topics for greater study in the future.

  3. Randall Collins has written much about this topic, not only in his book on Violence but also on his blog page.