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James T. Hodgkinson showed all the signs before he shot Rep. Steve Scalise:
James Alan Fox, Opinion columnist June 15, 2017
The St. Clair County,
Illinois Sheriff says deputies warned James T. Hodgkinson in March that it
was dangerous to fire a gun near homes. Hodgkinson has been identified as
the man who shot at Republican Congress members on a baseball field. (June
Illinois man displayed common factors among mass shooters, but
many people do without becoming killers.
Wednesday's shooting at a
Republican Congressional baseball practice adds a stunning element to the
spate of high profile attacks that have shocked the nation over the past
several years. After shootings at a Colorado cinema, a Connecticut
elementary school, a South Carolina church, and a Florida nightclub,
Americans are wondering whether there is any place or activity that is
immune from gun violence.
Despite the uniqueness of the location and
individuals injured, there is much about the ballfield shooting that is
absolutely textbook. Most obvious is the lack of randomness. Mass shootings,
with or without fatalities, are rarely indiscriminate in terms of victim
selection. Although the assailant, identified as 66-year-old James
Hodgkinson of Belleville, IL, wasn't gunning for specific people, he clearly
sought to harm a specific group of people: Republican lawmakers whom he felt
were destroying American society, favoring the rich over average folks like
him. As is typical, his was a planned attack against a perceived enemy, an
attempt to "win one for the little guy."
Beyond the apparent
motivation, the gunman's background and mindset reflected in his Facebook
posts and letters to his local newspaper match the five factors identified
time and time again in episodes like this. Thus, although the nature of the
location and target may be unusual, there is nothing at all surprising in
what we are learning about the perpetrator of this despicable act.
history of failure and disappointment: Successful people do not commit a
rampage no matter what kind of grudge they harbor. Mass shooters tend to
have suffered repeated and long-term frustrations such that life becomes
rather miserable. Suicide (including suicide by cop) may be contemplated,
but only after others feel pain as well. Hodgkinson failed to finish his
education, let his business license lapse, suffered significant personal
tragedy in his foster child's suicide, and had a record of repeated arrests.
Externalization of blame: Mass shooters rarely take responsibility for
their failures, but consider others as blameworthy. They see themselves as
"the good guy" seeking justifiably to punish "the bad guys." The desire for
revenge becomes all-consuming. Hodgkinson constantly complained about
conservatives and especially the Republican approach to taxation. In his
mind, Republicans were ruining the nation.
Social isolation: Mass
shooters typically lack a support system. They tend not to have others
around to help them through the hard times and to put needed perspective on
their sense of alienation and persecution. Hodgkinson had been living in
Virginia for months, cut off from his wife and friends back home in Illinois
who might otherwise have provided support.
Precipitating event: Given
the background of failure and the tendency to blame some enemy, a
significant loss or dispute can become the final straw. At that point, the
assailant makes the decision to take matters and guns into his own
hands. In light of the ongoing pollical upheaval in Washington, much
centered around President Donald Trump whom Hodgkinson especially condemned,
there was no lack of events that would have inspired him to act.
Access to a deadly weapon: Once the decision is made to attack, the would-be
assailant must have access to a deadly weapon and be comfortable using it.
Hodgkinson was a gun owner and skilled at handling the semi-automatic rifle
he chose to turn the Virginia ballfield into his personal battlefield.
Although Hodgkinson may be prototypical, there is nothing predictable or
foreseeable about his crime. There are countless Americans who are failing,
frustrated, bitter, comfortable around firearms, and even post hateful words
online, yet very few would seriously consider committing an act of mass
violence. There is a large haystack of citizens who feel left behind and
vociferously blame politicians for their own troubles, but not many who
would turn their anger into aggression.
In the wake of this latest
tragedy, there will likely be talk about rounding up guns or the people who
scare us with their ideas and words. However, in our society there is
generally nothing illegal about gun carrying or speaking out in the
strongest of terms. The personal freedoms that we cherish in this country
come with the price, sometimes, sadly, a rather painful one.
James Alan Fox is the Lipman
Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University
and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors. He is co-author of
Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder. Follow him on