We’ve almost become numb to the horror of mass shootings as their frequency has increased in the last several years. But the mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine, should hold particular resonance with West Virginians: Maine has a deep-rooted gun culture built around hunting and sport shooting. It doesn’t require a permit for concealed carry. It doesn’t have “red flag” laws. In fact, it has very few gun laws at all. But it’s also a state with comparatively little violent crime.
But this is not an editorial about mass shootings. Not really. This is an editorial about suicide.
Because, according to research of Jillian Peterson and James Densley — which analyzed mass shootings since 1966 as well as the life histories of 180 shooters — a mass shooting is just a large-scale suicide.
As Peterson said in an interview: “We see this common pathway … [that] seems to start with really significant early childhood trauma. … Over time, that individual becomes angry, becomes isolated, becomes hopeless. There’s a lot of self-loathing there. Many of them are suicidal and attempt suicide before doing a mass shooting. Then that self-loathing kind of turns outward and it becomes ‘whose fault is this?’ ‘Who do I blame for the fact that I feel this way?’ So school shooters blame their school. Workplace shooters blame their workplace. Other people blame religious groups, or racial groups, or women. … then they go into this act knowing it’s their final act. So they’re kind of actively suicidal, planning to die in the act.”
The shooter in Lewiston was hospitalized for mental health crises (the Washington Post reports he’d begun having paranoid delusions, some centered around the bowling alley and restaurant he later targeted); he threatened to shoot up a military base; he left a note behind with the passcode to his phone and bank account numbers, ostensibly for his loved ones; and he was ultimately found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at a recycling facility where he had previously worked.
And what does all this have to do with West Virginia?
Most of West Virginia’s gun-related deaths are suicides — 70%, compared to the national average of 54%. Which isn’t surprising. According to a Harvard Public Health special report, in 2010, “About 85% of suicide attempts with a firearm end[ed] in death.” Unsurprisingly, the report also found that states with higher gun ownership had higher rates of gun-related suicide.
Time is also a factor. In 2001, a group of researchers surveyed people who survived near-fatal suicide attempts. “Asked how much time had passed between when they decided to take their lives and when they actually made the attempt, a startling 24% said less than 5 minutes; 48% said less than 20 minutes; 70% said less than one hour; and 86% said less than eight hours.”
This is why easy access to guns is like throwing gasoline on a fire: More guns plus more access to guns equals more gun-related deaths. Period. But in places with strong gun cultures, like Maine and West Virginia, reducing the number of firearms probably won’t happen. So we must look at other solutions.
Peterson and Densley’s research on mass shooters indicate red flag laws can help reduce gun-related violence and deaths. Most mass shooters — like most people contemplating suicide — show warning signs beforehand. Red flag laws allow family, friends or law enforcement to petition the court to temporarily take away someone’s firearms if that person is believed to be a danger to themselves or others.
Maine only has a “yellow flag” law. As the Associated Press reports, a yellow flag law allows law enforcement to detain someone they believe to be a threat, but it “requires police first to get a medical practitioner to evaluate the person and find them to be a threat before police can petition a judge to order the person’s firearms to be seized.” But few families want to have their loved one detained by police, then forcibly evaluated.
When we take all of this together — West Virginia’s high suicide rates, easy access to firearms and permissive gun laws; plus the research that indicates mass shootings are elaborate suicides — it isn’t a stretch of the imagination to think a mass shooting could happen here.
After all, no one expected it to happen in Maine.