Jillian Peterson will be the first to admit that studying mass murderers is not exactly fodder for cocktail party conversations.
But when the Hamline University criminology professor and a former colleague founded the Violence Project they didn't come from a place of darkness. Instead, the two Twin Cities professors came from a place of hope — hope that there could be a solution to one of America's most intractable problems.
The Violence Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center searching for data-driven solutions to reducing violence in society. It came out of the work of Peterson (who studied the lives of death-row inmates at Rikers Island and authored a three-year federally funded study understanding the lives of mass shooters) and James Densley, a sociologist and criminal justice professor at Metropolitan State University.
Peterson and Densley were troubled that their work — like that of most other criminologists and cultural pundits — focused on deconstructing a tragedy after the fact instead of preventing it. The two scholars decided that since mass shootings drew so much public anxiety that they deserved more research with academic rigor.
"Surely we can do better than the talking heads on TV," Densley said.
With the help of Hamline students, the Violence Project compiled an exhaustive database detailing every American mass shooter since 1966. It also led to Peterson's and Densley's recent book, "The Violence Project: How to Stop a Mass Shooting Epidemic."
Their book focuses on understanding past mass shooters and preventing future ones by showing that our approach to mass shooters is flawed. By painting them as one-dimensional monsters, we avoid society's involvement. And that stops us from solving the problem.
"These are the worst of the worst people. These are the people you read headlines about and we'll all terrified of," Peterson said. "And every time, it's just a person who has lived an awful life. It's not a horrific, psychopathic monster. It's a person who did something awful — but who lived a life that led them to a place where they'd do this."
No single solution
Peterson and Densley noticed that everyone from police to pundits seemed to blame America's mass shooting epidemic on singular causes: violent video games, say, or lax gun control laws. But Peterson and Densley thought the theories were little more than myths based on just a few case studies. The academic research on mass shootings, they determined, was incomplete.
They theorized about why America's mass shootings have increased in recent decades. We've always had guns — but they seem less regulated today than ever. We've always had childhood trauma and mental illness — but our social safety net has eroded. We've always had people capable of violence — but today's media and social media ecosystem feed cycles of violence.
The database they compiled over four years examines in granular detail the lives of more than 160 mass shooters. Using public records, research on communities where mass shootings occurred and interviews with the shooters and people close to them, Peterson and Densley delved deep into the lives of each shooter. They formed portraits of each shooter — coding their early childhood trauma and mental health problems, issues at school and heavy use of social media outlets, suicidality and difficult family situations — and found plenty of commonalities.
Their "aha!" moment came when they realized the public discussion around mass shooters was too simplistic. We, as a society, were looking for, as Densley puts it, "one solution to rule them all — the one thing to solve this problem."
Our polarized country painted this issue in blacks and whites — or, more appropriately, in reds and blues. The left thought poor gun control was the problem. The right thought poor mental health was the problem. Some pointed to increased school security or arming teachers as solutions; others pointed to reducing violent video games and fixing broken homes.
Eventually, Peterson and Densley realized the answer: Yes.
Yes to all of it.
"Something like mass shootings are all about shades of gray," Densley said. "One solution would be imperfect, so people were pitting imperfect solutions off each other. 'Because this one thing won't fix everything, we won't do it.' So we've ended up doing nothing. But if you layer those imperfect solutions, they start to add up to something close to a perfect solution."
Their book identifies 34 potential solutions to the mass shooting epidemic.
They divide their solutions into categories. First are things we can do as individuals, such as storing firearms safely. Second are things institutions such as schools and workplaces can do, like create climates that are supportive of people who are struggling. The last category is the most difficult: Changing how society looks at mass shootings, bolstering social safety nets and holding media — including social media — more accountable for their content.
"The biggest surprise is that Jill and I both came away from this project more optimistic and hopeful that we can actually solve this problem," said Densley. "We can actually stop a mass shooting ourselves. Sometimes it just takes an act of kindness to change somebody's life."
The researchers also discovered that mass shooters often seemed as suicidal as they were homicidal.
Shooters "want to air their grievances to the world, not quite suicide but this loud suicide, get their message into the world so people listen to you after you're gone," Peterson said.
Thinking of these as suicides, she said, means "we have to stop thinking of violence prevention as bulletproof glass and armed security and start thinking about it as warm, welcoming spaces and mental health support. As a society, we're ready to have that conversation: 'What is public safety and violence prevention?' "
That's one more thing that gives Peterson and Densley hope.
"Every person we talked to, every perpetrator, the one question we always asked was, 'Was there anyone who could have stopped you?' " Peterson said. "Every time, they said yes. Probably anyone. At that point they were so isolated, spending time only online. If someone would have reached out, it wouldn't solve all their traumas and mental health crises, but they had hit the point where anybody connecting with them could have gotten them through this crisis moment."
"It was usually just that human connection," Densley added. "Someone reaching out who gave them a bit of hope."
More on mass shootings
Among the key findings of the Violence Project's research on mass shooters:
More than 80% were noticeably in a crisis prior to the shooting.
31% of mass shooters were suicidal before the event, and 59% died on scene.
Psychosis played no role in nearly 70% of mass shooters, and a major role in slightly more than 10%.
The most common scene of a mass shooting is at a workplace (31.5%), followed by retail establishments and restaurants; 5.4% of mass shootings take place at colleges and universities, and 6.5% at K-12 schools.
In school shootings, the rate of death is 2.83 times higher at schools where an armed officer is present.