The tragic mass shooting at a historic black church in Charleston fits an all-too-familiar pattern in modern America where the most entrenched class is prone to violence.
When Dylann Storm Roof ended Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina and unleashed a hurricane of bullets, he secured himself a place in the dark history of young, white American males who kill strangers indiscriminately. Of course, we’ve known for some time that most violent crimes are committed by young people, and that men are more violence-prone than women, but in recent cases like Roof’s, Sandy Hook’s Adam Lanza, and the Aurora Theater’s James Holmes, it seems like this newer breed of psychopath is more dangerous than its predecessors.
When trying to decipher gun violence, it’s tempting to focus on impoverished minority neighborhoods defined by structural woes like mass incarceration, poverty, lack of education, and so on. But research shows that mass shootings are primarily committed by white males—the most privileged class in society. So why are they the ones who snap? And is calling them “mentally ill” a way to avoid talking about race?
“If you look at how the James Holmes case has played out, it’s amazing how the themes [of other shootings] line up,” true-crime author Stephen Singular, who collaborated with his wife, Joyce, on the new book The Spiral Notebook: The Aurora Theater Shooter and the Epidemic of Mass Violence Committed by American Youth, tells VICE. “Most of these young white shooters—they’re not underprivileged, they have so many advantages, particularly in the Holmes case. He was dealing with an inner reality that he didn’t know how to contend with.”
As Mother Jones reported, “Since 1982, there have been at least 70 mass shootings across the country… Forty four of the killers were white males. Only one of them was a woman.” So white men have been responsible for about 63 percent of mass shootings in that span, despite comprising a far smaller portion of the total population. And while the motives for mass murder vary from perpetrator to perpetrator, since the Columbine school shooting in 1999, there has been a remarkable consistency—if not uniformity—in the age, gender, and race of the people who carry out these egregious crimes.
According to FBI arrest data, the peak ages for violent crime is 16–24. “This is a period of substantial transition in an individual’s life, when they’re less likely to have significant attachments in their life that deter them from criminal violence,” Pete Simi, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Nebraska, tells VICE. “Those of us who are not committing crimes on a regular basis, [it’s] largely because there are constraints in our lives—we have things to lose.”
When attempting to prove Holmes was insane at the time of the Aurora, Colorado, movie-theater shooting in April, his defense team pointed out that he was the typical age at which schizophrenia tends to present itself in young men—teens to late 20s.
In their book, the Singulars write that Holmes knew he was ill before the shooting, had sought out therapy—where he admitted having obsessive, homicidal thoughts—and was given medication as a remedy. “If you look at the list of mostly male shooters, they were all on some type of antidepressant or anti-anxiety drugs,” Stephen Singular says.
The Singulars looked at a number of factors that could potentially unwrap the complexity of young male shootings, particularly the issue of young males experiencing a crisis of masculinity in the 21st century. “Holmes didn’t want to tell his parents about what he was going through because he didn’t want to appear weak,” Stephen Singular says.
“I think we’re dealing with how we socially construct masculinity, and the extent to which being masculine means being aggressive,” adds Simi, the criminologist. “It’s not a simple cause and effect, but it certainly sets up a context that makes men much more likely to engage in violent behavior.”
A 2013 study at the University of Washington looked at the disproportionately high numbers of mass killings—defined as having at least three or more victims during a single episode—committed by young white men in America, and found a correlation between feelings of entitlement among white males and homicidal revenge against a specific demographic.
“Among many mass killers, the triple privileges of white heterosexual masculinity which make subsequent life course losses more unexpected and thus more painfully shameful ultimately buckle under the failures of downward mobility and result in a final cumulative act of violence to stave off subordinated masculinity,” the authors wrote.
This would certainly fit with the case of Elliot Rodger, an economically privileged, sex-obsessed 22-year-old who killed six people in May 2014, citing revenge against women who rejected him as a motive. Both 20-year-old Sandy Hook killer Lanza and 23-year-old Tuscon killer Jared Loughner also shared a misogynistic rage toward their victims.
Of course, there is relatively little mystery surrounding Roof’s motives. His fear that black people have come to “rape our women” and are “taking over the country” are both traditional expressions of racism in America, and serve as textbook examples of killings motivated by white privilege and feelings of emasculation.
“There’s a feeling of entitlement that white men have that black men don’t,” Alan Fox, a professor at Northeastern University and co-author of Extreme Killing, told the Washington Post in a 2012 interview. “They often complain that their job was taken by blacks or Mexicans or Jews. They feel that a well-paid job is their birthright. It’s a blow to their psyche when they lose that.”
Roof was reportedly unemployed at the time of the shooting, having previously worked in landscaping.
Since the tragic killings in South Carolina last Wednesday, there have been a series of polarizing op-eds arguing about whether Roof should be declared a racist, terrorist, or mentally ill—suggesting that these three designations are mutually exclusive. But Roof’s alleged belief that gunning down a roomful of innocent people would start a race war is something most people would consider profoundly delusional. Indeed, it is strikingly similar to the plan behind the Tate-Labianca murders organized by Charles Manson—a young, white criminal whose bona fide lunacy is rarely questioned.
“You can easily look at the Manson family as a race-motivated terrorist group,” says Professor Simi.
Though Manson’s apparent madness did not grant him immunity from prosecution, as there is a difference between “insanity” (which is often a legal term) and being “mentally ill” (a medical one), Simi believes it’s probable that Roof had an undiagnosed mental illness. Still, that doesn’t mean the 21-year-old is not legally responsible for the crime. It’s likely, Simi adds, that Roof’s extreme racist ideology simply exacerbated an already ailing brain.
“I’m sure he felt that [anger] to his bones, and I’m sure it bothered him for a long time,” Simi says, noting the connection between stress and mental breakdowns. “I think if we could have monitored his physiological data over that time, you could see changes. When you take on these views, it changes how you think and feel. A driver cuts you off and the driver happens to be African American, and that’s evidence that they’re taking over the country, and the person experiences extreme stress.”
The idea that focusing on mental illness skirts the responsibility of being a privileged white male and stigmatizes anyone with a brain disorder fails to acknowledge the universality of that ailment. “We all have mental health issues to some extent,” Simi says.
This does not mean that we are all potential killers, or that any killer with a mental illness can be dismissed as merely “insane.” Racism, misogyny, and entitlement—and the violence they inspire in certain number of young, white men—can be both a sincere manifestation of their bigotry and an expression of a mental illness.
After all, what’s crazier than straight-up racism?