Epidemic. That word has been used countless times to describe
the spate of mass shootings carried out since the massacre at Colorado’s
Columbine High School in April 1999. It’s a word that not only implies
but demands a connection between disparate events that have taken place
in every corner of the United States over the past 20 years.
may seem obvious that several thousand cases of flu that all occur
within a relatively short span of time would constitute an epidemic. But
a mere coincidence in time does not an epidemic make. The cases must be
related; there must be a common transmission vector.
For some who
use the word “epidemic” to refer to mass shootings, that vector seems
obvious: It’s Americans’ widespread ownership of guns. But one of the
reasons why the gun-control debate is so contentious is that guns, like
viruses in the case of the flu, are the weapons used, but they aren’t
the vector themselves. Remove any particular model of gun — or ban all
guns altogether — and the evil at the heart of mass shootings will
As Christians, we understand this; we know the story of
Cain and Abel. And yet we can’t look at the string (another word that
implies a connection) of mass shootings since Columbine and not sense
that something has changed.
As the 20th anniversary of the
Columbine massacre approached, several studies attempted to determine
whether there is a connection between Columbine and subsequent
shootings. Is there, in other words, a transmission vector that
justifies the use of the word “epidemic”?
The answer increasingly appears to be “yes.”
as one of the Columbine killers was fascinated by Adolf Hitler and the
genocide of the Jews during World War II, and both were obsessed with
Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing, researchers have found
that an entire generation of school shooters and other mass killers have
been inspired by the Columbine shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.
explicitly have dedicated their own murderous sprees to them. Others
have not said as much, but printed materials on Columbine have been
found among their personal effects. Their browser histories show records
of visits to the darkest corners of the internet, where subsequent mass
murders are ranked against the “standard” of 13 deaths that Harris and
Klebold established, “hypothetical” plans for shootings inspired by the
two are detailed, and “fan fiction” featuring Harris and Klebold is
In the wake of the recent mass shootings in Gilroy,
California, El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, both researchers and
journalists have taken note of a similar transmission vector: the
website 8chan, where the El Paso shooter posted a manifesto and an
announcement of his coming shooting spree minutes before he pulled the
trigger for the first time.
In his manifesto “The Inconvenient
Truth” — a noxious stew of race theories, Luddism and socialist
economics and apocalyptic environmentalism — the El Paso shooter states
that he was inspired by the Christchurch (New Zealand) shooter, who,
following the example of earlier shooters, posted his own manifesto on
the 8chan website before he began his massacre. That manifesto was
repeatedly reposted, alongside memes featuring the body counts in
Christchurch and other mass shootings, urging potential future mass
murderers to “beat the high score.” That the Christchurch shooter used a
helmet cam and livestreamed his massacre is itself confirmation that
mass murder has become “gamified” and a social media phenomenon.
vector is clear: Like pornography, fantasies of murder have a powerful
effect on young minds exposed to them. Such fantasies cannot be indulged
without doing great damage, as we have seen in a similar way: a recent
study found that the Netflix show “13 Reasons Why” led to a 28.9%
increase in suicide among American children ages 10 to 17 in the month
after its release.
Our imagination is powerful: Feed it well, and
it can spur us to desire the grace to become saints. Feed it fantasies
of death and despair and we should not be surprised at the result.
This editorial was originally printed in Our Sunday Visitor, a national Catholic newsweekly, and was used with permission.