The killer’s name and photograph reappeared in daily reports on emerging details of the massacre and the shooter’s life. Many of us could easily pick the previously completely unknown shooter out of any line-up, given the frequency with which his picture appeared in the media.
Two weeks ago, a man fired into the crowd at a Las Vegas music festival. As this was the deadliest US mass shooting in modern history, the world media have since delivered constant updates on the tragedy. The killer’s name and photograph reappeared in daily reports on emerging details of the massacre and the shooter’s life. Many of us could easily pick the previously completely unknown shooter out of any line-up, given the frequency with which his picture appeared in the media.
The unprecedented number of casualties reignited the gun control debate. Gun lobbyists defend Americans’ “right to bear arms”. Opponents argue that guns cannot prevent mass shootings, as perpetrators usually expect to die during their rampage - or even specifically plan attacks as a form of suicide. Thus, the threat of someone shooting back does not deter them. Massacres are their deranged way of leaving their mark before they die.
Law enforcement agencies are looking for reasons or triggers, but learning as much as possible about one cold-blooded shooter will not fix all unhinged psychopaths or help grieving families.
Criminologists like Prof Adam Lankford of the University of Alabama warn that the constant media attention mass murderers achieve is part of the problem. A Western New Mexico University review study found that the frequency of mass shootings has increased in proportion to mass and social media coverage. Essentially, this means that “homicide contagion” is a possibility: individuals with homicidal tendencies may feel encouraged by news stories about mass shooters, as described by Sherry Towers of Arizona State University. Since media reports typically focus more on the killers than on the victims, potential mass murderers expect international infamy to follow their horrible deeds.
Of course media coverage alone does not produce mass killings, but for offenders who are attracted to infamy or notoriety, a change in the way such events are reported could remove an important incentive. The “Don’t Name Them” campaign of the ALERRT Centre at Texas State University, supported by the FBI, and the “No Notoriety” movement created by family members of shooting victims ask law enforcement agencies and the media to deny mass shooters the excessive attention and move their focus to the victims and any heroes emerging from such situations.
According to Professor Lankford, the amount of attention mass murderers receive is more than that afforded to Nobel Prize and Academy Award winners, offering a “reward” for acts which do not require special skills. Some shooters, he says, indulge in “terrible delusions of grandeur”, seeking “fame and glory through killing”.
He warns that such perpetrators often study previous attackers’ strategies. The more detailed profiles of attackers are published, the more role models the next fame-hungry copycat can study, and the greater the promise of notoriety. Many criminologists agree that if we deny potential attackers this kind of fame, they are less likely to offend.
Randy Borum, professor of Intelligence Studies at the University of South Florida, agrees that the media should report mass attacks differently, for example not giving details of the methods or the specific weapons used. He recommends that the perpetrator’s name should not be released immediately. He furthermore rejects the label of the “lone wolf” which in some ways romanticises or glorifies mass homicide.
Perhaps we, consumers of social and mass media, should also withdraw some attention. Being informed about every detail of a morally deranged shooter’s life does not prevent similar massacres. It is only natural to wonder what kind of people commit such crimes, but it seems wise to deny them the notoriety they crave and leave their social media accounts alone.
Perhaps we should simply give mass shooters a perpetrator number and let potential imitators know that there will be no fame or photo. Once killers surrender their humanity, they are no longer worthy of a name by which they can be remembered.