We Can't Ignore the Fact That Mass Shooters Are Disproportionately Veterans

There have been 11 mass shootings in the United States in 2017 alone, with the most recent tragedy occurring in California on Tuesday. As we search for ways to understand these violent acts, it's obvious that a connection has emerged around the shooters' past military service. Journalist and activist David Swanson explores the relationship between the military and mass shootings in a recent piece.

Analyzing data from Mother Jones on mass shootings from 1982 to 2017, Swanson looks specifically at mass shooters aged 18 to 59 who are veterans. He writes, “Following a quick search of 82 shootings on the internet, I’ve been able to find that at least 28 of the shooters had been in the U.S. military. … On the other side, I’ve been able to confirm very few of the shooters as having not been in the military. ...that’s 34% of U.S. mass shooters who are military veterans, as compared with 14.76% in the general population for the same gender and age. In other words, veterans are over twice as likely to be mass shooters, and probably more likely than that.”

Swanson acknowledges the parameters of the data gathered by Mother Jones from which he starts. (Both Swanson’s analysis and the Mother Jones data exclude the shooting in Rancho Tehama.)

Swanson advises not to label or stereotype given this data, acknowledging that “this is a statistic about a large population, not information about any particular individual. Needless to say, profiling and discrimination are counterproductive.” Perhaps this data can be used to increase resources to veterans and preventative measures. Swanson goes on to argue that it’s important to look at the situations and systems of violence that these men are placed in, “but here’s what else might be counterproductive: Training people in the arts of mass murder, launching wars, and dropping people trained for wars and having suffered through wars into a heavily armed society full of economic insecurity and the industrialized world’s leading lack of healthcare.”

The data analysis done by Swanson enters into a larger debate about veterans, PTSD, the psychology of mass shooters and gun control policy.

In April 2014, David J. Morris published an article on Slate countering arguments made that “mentioning PTSD in conjunction with these shootings is not only inaccurate, it hurts veterans.” He writes, “while it is inaccurate to say that PTSD causes violence, the unfortunate truth is that there is a link between PTSD and postwar homicide, and it’s far more than just a passing correlation. Serving in a war zone exposes people to very serious moral challenges, and the experience can serve as a catalyst, making some people less stable and more violent than they might have been otherwise.”

This argument is echoed by Swanson, who argued, “Of course it’s possible that people inclined toward mass shootings are also inclined to join the military, that the relationship is a correlation and not a cause. In fact, I would be shocked if there wasn’t some truth to that. But it’s also possible that being trained and conditioned and given a familiarity with mass shootings—and in some cases no doubt an experience of engaging in mass shooting and having it deemed acceptable—makes one more likely to mass shoot.”

However, in an opinion piece published in October 2014 on Task & Purpose, Mallory Newman argued that making such connections “can deter veterans who are currently suffering from the effects of post-traumatic stress from seeking treatment for their condition, out of fear that they may be unfairly misjudged.”

Other important points have emerged around the connection between mass shooting and veterans, including in 2016 after the shooting of police officers in Dallas by Micah Johnson. Professor Hugh Gusterson published a piece in light of data links between veterans and mass killings, making arguments about insufficient care provided to veterans when they return from war. This led to a larger conversation including a response published by veteran Phil Klay in the New York Times that pushes back on links between PTSD and shooters, instead placing emphasis on veterans who died in mass shootings themselves.

Swanson’s most recent data example, the Sutherland Springs shooting, was committed by a veteran. The debate about the intersection of mass shooters and veterans will continue amidst an Air Force review on why information about the shooter’s conviction was not placed into a database that would have prevented him from passing a background check to buy a gun.

Read Swanson's full analysis here

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