Two mass shootings in three days. Are these copycat crimes?
Do two consecutive mass shootings in California suggest that older men will be the next generation of mass murderers?
Don’t count on it, experts say. The 72-year-old, who killed 11 people in Monterey Park, and the 66-year-old, who allegedly murdered seven people near Half Moon Bay, may have committed the crimes within 48 hours and 400 miles of each other. But they will likely remain outliers in a growing population of younger offenders.
The reason: Although older men are quick to catch contagious diseases, they appear to be virtually immune to the kind of contagion that leads to vigorous mimicry rituals.
“We don’t see a lot of 60- and 70-year-olds committing mass murder, and when they do, it’s usually a homicide within a family,” said Jack McDevitt, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston.
Suicides tend to occur in clusters that suggest contagion, McDevitt said, but there’s little evidence that murders or mass shootings follow such a pattern.
More importantly, he added, is one of criminology’s most established findings: when it comes to crime in general, and violent crime in particular, men tend to “mature” from criminal activity.
This pattern can also be observed in mass shootings.
A database maintained by Northeastern University’s Department of Criminology shows the 72-year-old man who fired bullets into a ballroom dance studio in Monterey Park on Saturday night and died the next day from a self-inflicted gunshot wound was the second-oldest perpetrator of a mass murder the last few years. The 66-year-old, who is accused of shooting dead seven people in San Mateo County on Monday afternoon, would also be among the oldest mass murderers.
This database dates back to 2006.
That both men were Asian and immigrant puts them in an even smaller society. Since 1967, a database of mass shootings maintained by the Violence Project has revealed that 11 out of 172 perpetrators — about 6.4% — were of Asian descent. Nine of these mass shooters had immigrated to the United States from Asian birthplaces.
Overall, 15.1% of the Violence Project’s mass shooters were immigrants.
Although it differs in methodology and in the range of data it covers, a mass murder database maintained by Northeastern University, USA Today, and the Associated Press tells a very similar story. It found that from 2006 until just before the two California shootings, 34 out of 535 incidents — also 6.4% — were committed by perpetrators identified as Asian or Pacific Islanders.
But it’s the age of California’s two newest mass shooters that has surprised researchers the most. An elderly person has not carried out a mass shooting in the US since a 64-year-old video poker player fatally shot 58 attendees at a music festival in Las Vegas in 2017
Violence in general, and mass murder in particular, is largely the domain of young and middle-aged men, said Emma Fridel, a professor of criminology at Florida State University and a contributor to the Northeastern database. In recent decades, the median age of mass murderers — defined as those who kill four or more people in a single incident with any weapon — has ranged from 30 to 32, she said.
(They are also predominantly male: In the Violence Project’s database of 172 mass shooters, all but four were male, and two of the four females acted in partnership with a male.)
“A key trait we see common in mass murderers is this externalization of guilt,” Fridel said. “You tend to collect injustices.”
Despite their highly visible role in school shootings, adolescents and young adults are not the demographic most likely to be involved in mass murder; They are generally too young to have accumulated enough grievances to drive them to such violence, she said.
On the other end of the spectrum, older men tend to have “developed the coping skills to deal with life’s frustrations,” she added.
Though they may harbor many ailments, they seem to have reached old age safely precisely because they have found less violent ways to deal with their anger and disappointment.
“Mass shooters don’t get old because they usually can’t stand it for long,” says Fridel.
If aggression is a general motive for mass murder, a shooter’s choice of location may provide more specific clues as to the circumstances that prompted him to do so, experts say.
In that regard, experts, including McDevitt, see the two men’s crimes as slightly different. The Monterey Park shooter’s choice for the Star Ballroom suggests disappointing social connections may have motivated his actions. The shooting in San Mateo County appeared to target the suspect’s co-workers or employers, which could indicate problems with money or labor relations.
“Two tragedies in a row leads people to look for patterns that may not exist,” Fridel warned. “We’re still talking about rare cases.”
The Violence Project database shows that 31% of mass shootings took place in a workplace, and about 22% in a bar, restaurant, or apartment — locations that suggest a shooter might be motivated by failed relationships or interpersonal or group hatred .
But such distinctions pale next to the most common factor that unifies all mass shootings, said Dr. Amy Barnhorst, a UC Davis psychiatrist who studies gun violence.
“So many people struggle with entitlement, hate, anger and disappointment,” Barnhorst said. “What defines a mass shooting is the weapon.”
Add a gun to the mix, and “all these different paths that start in different places merge into one place where the anger and resentment lead to gunfire rather than a punched wall or bar fight,” she said.
Again, the demographics in the two California shootings appear consistent with some warning signs of potential violence, but are at odds with others.
A 2018 internet poll conducted by researchers from UC Davis and Harvard University estimated that 4.2 million adults in California owned a firearm. A disproportionate number of these gun owners – 43% – were aged 60 or older.
Given this finding, it is not surprising that the two shooters might have owned guns. However, gun ownership appears to be less common among Asian Americans: In a state where Asians and Pacific Islanders make up about 16% of the population, the survey found that only 9% of gun owners identified their ethnicity as anything other than white. Black or Latino.
The overwhelming majority of these gun owners “are very law-abiding, responsible gun owners,” Barnhorst said. “It only takes one to give them a bad name.”