When the Victim Is to Blame


Mass shootings is not a topic that anyone wants to dwell on. Long after the details of a rampage killing have faded from most people’s memories, however, the mere name of the place it occurred can bring it all back: Sandy Hook, Aurora, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Columbine. In the wake of the shooting at the Washington, DC, Naval Yard on September 16 the topic, sadly, is again in the news. How do sociologists study this troubling issue, and do they have anything to teach us about these awful, but thankfully rare, events?

First, the feeling of being a victim is one common thread among most mass shooters. Feeling victimized can lead to anger, hatred, and a desire for revenge; if consumed by their victimhood, people “are capable of doing the most atrocious acts and feel justified doing them,” says one psychologist. Such an attitude is itself evidence that one is mentally disturbed. And as media reports often emphasize, a background of mental illness has been common to the psychological makeup of a number of mass killers. This fact, however, raises an important caution that applies to many forms of analysis: correlation does not prove causation.

To understand this maxim, consider that tens of millions of persons have mental problems; however, the number of them that turn to violence, let alone mass murder, is very small. Likewise, of the approximately 190 million firearms in the US civilian population, a tiny fraction of them (or their owners) are involved in mass shootings. To date, every mass shooter has been a male and many have been avid consumers of violent media or videogames; this does not mean, however, that “being a male” is an indicator of anything. Nor is being a consumer of such media. Some correlations just do not provide useful clues. To return to the idea of victimization, many people are indeed victims of one bad thing or another; needless to say, they don’t all become rampage killers. One reason is that they don’t go through life thinking like a victim.

Image credit: © Hans Neleman/Getty Images

Related Links

  • Our Misguided Obsession with Bullies
    This provocative blog, written in the wake of the Washington Naval Yard shooting in September, focuses on the notion of victimhood, and how we may be missing the mark in our attempts to understand mass shootings.
    (Source: Psychology Today, September 17, 2013)
  • Thinking Sociologically about Mass Shootings
    This article reviews the set of issues, from the role of violent media and games to the accessibility of weapons, that are regularly discussed in responses to a mass shooting.
    (Source: Everyday Sociology, January 13, 2013)
  • How Should We Classify the Sandy Hook Killings?
    This article by a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware reflects on the media coverage of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in January 2013 and compares the way our classification of mass murders has changed over time.
    (Source: Reason.com, June 16, 2013)
  • Clues to Mass Rampage Killers: Deep Backstage, Hidden Arsenal, Clandestine Excitement
    This in-depth study exposes the hidden plotting and amassing of weapons that are common features of most mass murderers in recent years.
    (Source: The Sociological Eye, September 1, 2012)


  1. katalina says:


  2. moses says:


  3. Caroline says:

    This is really and very wrong.

  4. Sara says:

    this wrong

  5. Friday McCormick says:

    I don’t think that most of them would want revenge.