While there's much to be learned about the reasons for the San Bernardino shooting on Wednesday, one thing has become quite apparent: This was planned. The tactical gear, the bombs, the weaponry. The couple who did this clearly spent real time plotting this out. There's a common thread in most mass shootings that get this level of national news coverage — from Sandy Hook, Aurora, to even Friday's Planned Parenthood shooting. Every instance suggests someone who spent some time plotting out their massacre in advance.
But while this is the public image of a mass shooting, it may not be an entirely accurate one. As Christopher Ingraham at the Washington Post wrote yesterday, mass shootings happen on a more than daily basis in our gun-soaked country. They have to be pretty spectacular anymore to get national news coverage, something that some of the more famous shooters clearly understood and planned for. But if you dig into the more day-to-day mass shootings (I can't believe I had to write that), compiled by the ironically named Guns Are Cool board at Reddit, what becomes clear is that the typical mass shooter is not a terrorist or even a "lone wolf" motivated by the promise of fame through infamy, a la Seung-Hui Cho or Elliot Rodger.
Instead, your average mass shooting seems to be motivated by a personal vendetta, and it's often an impulsive act.
This calls into question one of the favorite theories that has started to float around to avoid the discussion of gun control — that we can stop mass shootings by refusing to cover them in the media. That theory assumes that mass shooters are motivated by the thirst for attention and not giving it to them will discourage them. While it's true some mass shooters are motivated by the lure of infamy or because they are terrorists who want attention for their cause, looking over this database shows that, in reality, your average shooter is just an asshole who had way too easy access to a gun.
I clicked around at random — really, truly, covered my eyes and everything — and after eliminating the ones with no suspect, here are the 10 I clicked in the Guns Are Cool list:
"TULSA, Oklahoma -A barber is dead and three other men wounded after what police call a 'vendetta' shooting in north Tulsa. It happened at the Gifted Hands Barber Shop at 1219 North Sheridan Road."
"Three people are dead and one person is critically injured following a shooting on a Long Island street, police said. Police say the shooter walked up and fired 16 rounds into a parked Chevy Trailblazer just before midnight on Wednesday on Davidson Street and Troy Avenue in Wyandanch, according to Suffolk County police." (Apparent gang shooting.)
"Two men were killed and two officers wounded Monday afternoon in a shootout outside a Monterey County Target, authorities said. The shooting occurred about 2:45 p.m. in the Sand City Target parking lot in the 20400 block of California Avenue, when officers confronted two people with outstanding warrants, said Sand City police Chief Brian Ferrante."
"Police say an overnight shooting in Savannah left one man dead and sent four other people to a hospital early Friday. Two of the shooting victims are children." (Domestic violence.)
"Four people were shot after a home invasion in Brooklyn Center early Wednesday morning." (Relatively rare case of a non-personal shooting, but included because again, these were chosen at random.)
"LOS CHAVEZ, N.M. (KRQE) – New Mexico State Police are investigating a double homicide that took place early Sunday morning involving biker gangs."
"A man shot and killed three people and injured a fourth in Moscow, Idaho on Saturday afternoon." (Domestic violence.)
"Boston police say six people were wounded, one seriously, in a shooting outside a party in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood Friday night. Police said the shooting followed a fight at a party on that apparently moved into the street."
"An argument at a southeast Fresno house party early Saturday exploded into a shooting that left two people dead and two wounded with the suspects at large, police said."
"IMPD: 4 shot in apparent dice game gone bad"
"One man was killed and three injured in a shooting in the Jordan neighborhood on the city's North Side early Saturday morning, police said." (Drug-related.)
"Gunfire erupted Sunday among rival biker gangs in Waco, Texas, leaving at least nine people dead, according to police." (Biker gang shootout.)
Again, these are cases chosen at random, excluding any stories where suspects had not been caught yet. Mass shootings, along with the similar crime of murder-suicide, are usually personal in nature and not the random or politicized shootings that come to mind when we think of "mass shootings." They usually happen after very little planning or even at the spur of the moment. In nearly every case, the assailant is a man trying to assert dominance over others, whether they are rival gang members, a woman he's trying to force into submission, or just some dude who said something nasty to him at a party. There are multiple victims because the shooter either had a problem with all of them, shooting them was a way to hurt the main victim (such as when shooters kill children to hurt the mother), or because they were bystanders.
This will to dominate is what the more personal mass shootings have in common with the more impersonal ones that tend to get national news coverage. The goals are just smaller. Whereas a more typical shooter might shoot up his ex-wife and her co-workers to punish her for not wanting to be with him, more ambitious shooters like Elliot Rodger will rampage among strangers to punish women, collectively, for the same thing. Or perhaps an average shooter will unleash at a party because he thinks someone disrespected him, but your more grandiose types, modeling themselves on the Columbine killers, want to kill the world for not giving them the deference they feel due.
Whether personal or impersonal, mass shootings share two common features in nearly all cases: An overblown sense of entitlement and way too easy access to guns. Easy access to guns is a critical reason for some of the more famous, planned out rampages, of course, but it may be an even more relevant factor with the everyday mass shooting. After all, your typical mass shooting is a hothead who just went off. The reason said hothead had a gun is because we live in a culture that's swimming in them.
More than that, the gun industry directly markets to men who are insecure and have a will to dominate that finds expression in gun ownership. Unfortunately, those are exactly the same two traits that you find in hotheads who react to perceived slights by blowing their tops. In a country where guns are heavily marketed to the people who are most likely to mishandle them, we really shouldn't be surprised that we have the mass shooting problem that we do.