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Mass Shootings Dubbed the 'Dark Side of American Exceptionalism'

Firearm ownership is an underlying factor, but many mass shootings may be motivated by the 'lost American dream'

A memorial for victims of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting. (Photo: David Keyzer/flickr/cc)

Mass shootings are a perennial crisis in the U.S., unmatched in numbers anywhere else in the world—and it's a problem that may grow worse over time without addressing underlying issues, according to a new study unveiled on Sunday.

In "Mass Shooters, Firearms, and Social Strains: A Global Analysis of an Exceptionally American Problem," presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Chicago, criminal justice professor Adam Lankford analyzed mass shootings around the world from 1966 to 2012 and found that the phenomenon is "a bigger problem today than it was a decade ago and it may be a bigger problem in the future."

Speaking with Newsweek about his study, Lankford, who teaches at the University of Alabama, said that while the U.S. accounts for less than five percent of the world's population, it had 31 percent of mass shootings during that time period.

With 90 such incidents in 46 years, the U.S. had five times as many as the Philippines, which was next on the list at 18. At the same time, 15 occurred in Russia, 11 in Yemen, and 10 in France.

The most consistent connective thread between all of those shootings, Lankford said, was firearm ownership.

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"What was surprising was how strong the relationship was—no matter what test I ran the data always showed the same thing," he told Newsweek. That finding "suggests that essentially you can’t be in the top five in firearm ownership and not have this problem."

A Mother Jones investigation published in July found that most mass shooters obtained their weapons legally.

But firearm ownership was not the only underlying factor in the phenomenon. As Lankford explains, there may be uniquely American social and cultural issues at play.

"In the United States, where many individuals are socialized to assume that they will reach great levels of success and achieve 'the American Dream,' there may be particularly high levels of strain among those who encounter blocked goals or have negative social interactions with their peers, coworkers, or bosses," Lankford explained in a statement.

Mass shootings, Lankford said, are the "dark side of American exceptionalism."

Newsweek continues:

To try to further speculate on the prevalence of mass shootings in the U.S. and to look beyond firearm ownership rates, Lankford turned to his own and others’ previous research to ask: Is there something about American culture that incubates more mass shooters?

“At least one explanation” about violence in the U.S. has suggested that “crime and deviance occur when there’s an unhealthy gap between people’s dreams and aspirations and their ability to reach those dreams,” Lankford explains.

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