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After three deadly gun rampages, survivors and experts fear what comes next

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4/3/2021 Kimberly Kindy
a close up of a flower: A row of flowers with tags of the victims’ names are tied to a fence at the site of a shooting at King Soopers grocery store in Boulder, Colo., on March 24. © Alyson McClaran/Reuters A row of flowers with tags of the victims’ names are tied to a fence at the site of a shooting at King Soopers grocery store in Boulder, Colo., on March 24.

Authorities laid out a harrowing timeline: A 21-year-old white supremacist was believed to have posted a 2,300-word screed online in August 2019, saying the mass shooting he was planning was inspired by another shooter who had killed 51 people in New Zealand mosques. Minutes later, authorities say, Patrick Crusius stormed into a Walmart in Texas, killing 23 people, most of them the Latinos he said he had targeted.

Such cases have helped establish what experts say is the contagious nature of mass shootings: When one high-profile event takes place, another is likely to follow.

That is why recent events have them worried. Over the past three weeks, 22 people have died in three major mass shootings in the United States, according to a Washington Post database that tracks those events. The Post defines them as shootings in public places in which four or more people die, excluding the shooter, a standard similar to how the FBI defines them.

The shooting in a California office building on Wednesday, in which four people were killed, came a week after the deaths of 10 people in a Colorado supermarket and two weeks after the killing of eight in Asian spas in metro Atlanta.

“Every time it happens, the TV goes off. There is a pattern: There is one, and then there are two or three or four,” said Maria Jose Wright, whose son, Jerry Wright, was one of 49 people killed in the 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando.

“I miss them usually,” she said of the follow-up shootings. “Then I will get a text from someone saying, ‘Thinking of you,’ which means another just happened. I used to keep tabs on them, almost like rosary beads. It’s impossible now. They are happening so quickly, one after the other.”

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Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist who studies mass shootings and intervention methods, said that to understand the contagious nature of these high-profile events, it helps to think of it like a disease.

“Covid is contagious because if you are repeatedly exposed to it, than you are likely to get it,” he said. “Susceptibility is also a factor. If you are older or obese, you are more likely to get it if you are exposed.”

For mass shooters, he said, exposure often comes from hanging out in online chat rooms where people discuss and glorify mass shooters. Susceptibility might come from a perceived grievance — something they believe is unfair in their life — coupled with past trauma, like being bullied, he said.

[Billions are being spent to prevent school shootings. Will it work?]

Because investigations into the recent shootings are underway, the extent of the shooters’ online activity may not yet be fully known. At least one suspect was bullied in high school.

Mass shooters are frequently obsessed with large, deadly rampages. They carefully follow traditional news coverage and social media posts of such events. They study the mechanics of how past shooters planned their attacks. They hang out in chat rooms where they talk about the affinity they feel with shooters. This fuels a contagion, experts say, that can sometimes agitate for years within shooters before they act.

James Densley, co-founder of the Violence Project, a nonpartisan research center, said the online forums give like-minded people a place to gather. They often paint mass shooters as heroes and study ones who killed a large number of people, especially if they left behind documents that detail their plans and grievances.

a sign on the side of the street: A sign at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., on April 19, 2004, one day before the fifth anniversary of the mass shooting there. © Ed Andrieski/AP A sign at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., on April 19, 2004, one day before the fifth anniversary of the mass shooting there.

The shooters in the 1999 Columbine High School massacre — both seniors at the school — left behind journals and videotapes that have been used like blueprints by dozens of other killers.

Jeff Weise, who killed nine people on the Red Lake Indian Reservation in Minnesota in 2005, had been expelled from his high school after he earlier threatened to “shoot up” the campus on the fifth anniversary of the Columbine shooting. He wore a trench coat like the Columbine shooters and was a fan of documentaries about the Colorado massacre.

“Mass shooters study and cite them almost like graduate students cite their professors,” Densley said, noting that Weise, like many other shooters, was bullied at school and had suffered childhood trauma.

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Adam Lankford, a criminologist at the University of Alabama who researches mass shootings, said mimicking shooters will also “dress like them . . . every form of copying and imitation — we’ve seen it.”

The mass shooter in Isla Vista, Calif., near the campus of UC Santa Barbara, posted a 107,000-word manifesto just before his 2014 attack, in which he claimed he was driven to killing because he could not attract women. In the middle of the attack, he also uploaded a video to YouTube titled, “Elliot Rodger’s Retribution,” in which he said he wanted to punish women for rejecting him.

Rodger, who was 18 at the time, had mental health issues, his family said, and he was bullied at school. Shortly after his death, he became a celebrity in the world of “incels” — men who consider themselves unable to attract women sexually.

“There are literally paintings from the Sistine Chapel that have been superimposed with his face on [God] because he has been cast as the patron saint of the movement,” Densley said.

The year after the Isla Vista shooting, a community college student in Oregon, citing Rodger as an inspiration, killed eight students and a professor before fatally shooting himself.

Lankford said the contagious nature of the shootings is often fueled by the desire for fame, which involves a “distasteful” competition with prior shooters who gained some form of notoriety. “I want to do this, but I want to do it better,” he said, describing the way copycats broadcast their intentions.

A 2016 study showed that from 1966 to 2015, fame-seeking mass and active shooters averaged more than twice as many victims as shooters with no known motive. Investigators have not said publicly whether any of the recent shooting suspects appeared to be seeking notoriety. (The FBI defines active shooters as those who may shoot and kill people in a public place, but also includes those who injure but do not kill and those who attempted an event but failed.)

The contagious nature of mass shootings can also prompt threats that, even if they are hoaxes, can send shock waves through communities. Two weeks after the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in which 17 died, school officials, parents and students across the nation were rocked by 638 copycat threats that targeted schools, according to the Educators’ School Safety Network.

Then-presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg walks with Maria and Fred Wright through the Pulse Interim Memorial in Orlando, on Tuesday, March 3, 2020. © Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post Then-presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg walks with Maria and Fred Wright through the Pulse Interim Memorial in Orlando, on Tuesday, March 3, 2020.

The Post database shows major mass shootings overall have skyrocketed over the past decade. More than 180 shootings have taken place since 1966, with more than half — a total of 96 — taking place since 2005. The highest number, 13 mass shootings, happened in 2019.

Everyday Americans, not just potential mass shooters, have been deeply affected by the coverage and the rise in such shootings.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll in September 2019, taken in the wake of the surge in mass shootings that year, found that 6 in 10 people said they were worried “a great deal” or “somewhat” about a mass shooting taking place in their community.

To break the cycle of contagion, experts favor a variety of changes. Several pointed out that in two of the recent shootings — in Atlanta and Boulder — the guns used were purchased days earlier.

“Maybe we need to consider a waiting period for gun purchases,” Densley said.

Densley said gun-owning parents, particularly of teenagers, also can play a role in diminishing the number of mass shootings.

“With school shooters, 80 percent of the time they get them from their parents who just haven’t locked them up properly,” he said.

Mental health services need to be available and affordable, experts say. But Slutkin, founder of Cure Violence, said his nonprofit and others like it are the best hope.

People who are planning a mass shooting are unlikely to book an appointment with a therapist, but they’re likely to confide in friends and peers they look up to in the community, he said. That’s why Slutkin’s group trains laypeople on ways to ferret out such information and intervene.

The demand for such help is rising. The training is being put to use in 20 U.S. cities now, up from 15 three years ago, and at least 10 additional cities have asked for the services over the past year.

“The appointment system . . . doesn’t work in this circumstance,” Slutkin said. “What is sorely missing in the U.S. are the informal paraprofessional outreach networks that meets you where you are.”

Many mass shooting experts say the media also plays a role not only in educating the public about the events, but also in making them contagious. They discourage the use of the shooters’ names to curb the allure of fame they are seeking. They encourage focusing most of the attention on victims.

However, they also note that as social media and online platforms have grown more dominant as purveyors of news, it has become far more difficult to rein in online conversations that can spur follow-up shootings.

Even those who study the issue play a dual role: educating the public about mass shootings as well as bringing them more attention.

Academic research and scholarly papers on mass shootings have skyrocketed, with interest surfacing in the early 1990s. Between 1990 and 1994, there were 109 published articles, compared with 10,100 articles from 2015 to 2019, according to Google Scholar.

Sherry Towers, a data scientist who has studied the contagion phenomenon, said the attention that major mass shootings get provides the greatest fuel for copycats.

“What we are seeing right now is a clustering of these incidents,” she said, adding that it fits the pattern of what her own research has shown. “About 20 to 30 percent of mass shootings appear to be inspired by a mass shooting in the recent past. On average, about two weeks after.”

That leaves those like Wright fearing more violence, nearly five years after her son was shot dead along with dozens of others in Orlando.

“The saddest thing about it is it becomes so commonplace,” she said. “We’ve become a society of death. It doesn’t even move us. That we cannot seem to find a way forward out of this is so devastating.”

Julie Tate, Bonnie Berkowitz and Chris Alcantara contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this story wrongly identified the location of a mass shooting in New Zealand. It took place in two mosques, not a synagogue.

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