Our Narrative of Mass Shootings Is Killing Us

Stories are where people have always gone to find meaning. We need to tell a new one.

An assault rifle encircled by an infinity symbol
The Atlantic; Getty

About the author: Elliot Ackerman is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and author of the novel Red Dress in Black and White. He is a former Marine who served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Civilization’s oldest stories are war stories. From the Epic of Gilgamesh to The Iliad and The Aeneid, our attractions to war and to storytelling have often been entwined. We tell ourselves stories to impose order on chaotic events in our lives, to force a narrative onto the inconceivable. And what’s more inconceivable than slaughter, whether it arrives in the form of the Trojan War, the Holocaust, or the murder of 19 children by a teenage gunman in Uvalde, Texas?

Mass shootings in America have started to adhere to a predictable—even ritualized—sequence of events. We see the headline; there’s an initial estimate of the dead, which creeps upward as more details emerge; and we learn the name of the devastated community. Perhaps a day passes, maybe two, but the familiar argument soon surfaces as to whether the solution to the scourge of mass shootings is stricter gun laws or better mental health (as though the two are mutually exclusive). Simultaneously, we learn the grim details of the shooting itself, and at the center of those details is the protagonist: the shooter.

In war, the victors write the history, placing themselves in the middle of the story as the good ones, the heroes. In narratives surrounding mass shootings, this dynamic is turned on its head. In Columbine and Sandy Hook, the bad guy sits at the center of the narrative. In Uvalde, we already know the name of the shooter. We know about his grandmother, about the truck he drove to the scene and crashed in a ditch, about the Facebook messages he posted before the attack, and about what his peers thought of him. We know more about the AR-15 he carried to the scene than the team of Border Patrol agents who killed him. We don’t know those agents’ names, but photos of the shooter have already graced the front pages of some newspapers. In a nation that worships celebrity (and infamy is a form of celebrity), the stories we tell ourselves about mass shootings contribute to the phenomenon.

What story does someone tell themselves when they decide to become a mass shooter? Grievance and alienation seem common themes. A classmate described the Charleston, South Carolina, Baptist-church shooter as having “a darkness to his life,” while a classmate said of the Newtown, Connecticut, shooter that “he just didn’t really connect.” The unmet desire on the part of many of these murderers to be at the center of a narrative, as opposed to on its periphery, is a unifying thread. Yes, easy access to firearms and a national mental-health crisis contribute to the incidence of mass shootings, but we’re already debating those issues vigorously. We pay far less attention to the ways in which our culture metabolizes narratives and makes sense of them.

In Poetics, Aristotle defines stories as acts of imitation. He explains that storytelling comes naturally to people from childhood because imitation “is how we learn our earliest lessons in life.” The reason we delight in storytelling, according to Aristotle, is “that we all enjoy understanding things.” But the link between storytelling and imitation has created a contagion of mass shootings across America. The next potential mass shooter is, right now, surely watching the coverage of Uvalde.

In 2015, researchers from Arizona State University and Northeastern Illinois University conducted a study of contagion in mass killings and shootings. The researchers found a measurable increase in the likelihood of a second mass shooting for 13 days after an initial mass shooting. (The Uvalde shooting occurred 10 days after the shooting in Buffalo, New York.) They also determined that an individual school shooting, on average, incited 0.22 more shootings; that is, for every five school shootings, a sixth would take place that would not otherwise have occurred. Both social and traditional media were also found to drive this contagion. Some activists are trying to highlight this problem, which falls outside the typical left-versus-right ideological debate about mass shootings. Groups like No Notoriety, which was founded by the parents of a victim of the 2012 mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado, advocate for “responsible media coverage for the sake of public safety.” The group’s website promotes a six-point media protocol that includes “Recognize that the prospect of infamy serves as a motivating factor for other individuals to kill and inspires copycat crimes.”

Young people—particularly young men—often have a strong desire to be heroes. During the height of the Syrian civil war, the Pentagon stood up a task force to study and counter the Islamic State’s online recruitment strategy. At the time, U.S. officials were struggling to understand the potency of these efforts, not just in the Middle East but also in Western Europe. Despite the cultural isolation that many aggrieved Muslims felt in Europe, Pentagon planners were puzzled as to why so many would abandon a relatively comfortable existence to flock to the Islamic State’s banner and take part in a quixotic crusade in the Middle East.

The answer to the question should have been obvious, particularly to American war planners. Despite the risk of death, despite the atrocities, the Islamic State was selling a story, offering young men the chance to be the protagonist, the hero—or even the antihero—in a quest to create a new nation. The breathless and at times befuddled Pentagon statements on the Islamic State’s recruitment practices were remarkable to read, when those practices hewed so closely to those of the U.S. military, which had persuaded an entire generation of young men like me to fight a quixotic crusade in the Middle East after 9/11 to create new democratic nations in the region. Watching the narrative take shape, yet again, around this latest mass shooter, a narrative in which he is the protagonist, is unsurprising. Why an outcast living in a society that prizes notoriety would commit an atrocity that promises it is no great mystery.

Is it possible to change this narrative? To tell a different story?

After the July 2016 Bastille Day attacks in Nice, several French news organizations, exhausted by the string of mass killings in their country, shifted their coverage. They refused to reprint images from Islamic State propaganda or to publicize the name of the murderer. In an editorial titled “Resisting the Strategy of Hate,” Le Monde announced that it would “no longer publish photographs of the perpetrators of killings, to avoid the potential effect of posthumous glorification.”

No American-media consensus exists on how to cover mass shooters. Is the French approach not worth considering? Although some American newsrooms avoid republishing the images and names of shooters, many others continue to do so. In a study on mass shootings and media contagion, Jennifer Johnston, a psychology professor at Western New Mexico University, found that “identification with prior mass shooters made famous by extensive media coverage … is a more powerful push toward violence than mental health status or even access to guns.” A heightened awareness of the narratives we apply to mass shootings needs to be considered as a tool to combat this phenomenon, alongside attention to mental health and gun control. Murderous rage is not unique to America, but the expression of that rage is culturally determined, and so requires cultural countermeasures.

A sickness is sweeping our land; one of its symptoms is these shootings. A certain subset of young men is trying to bring meaning to their lives through gun violence. Stories are where people have always gone to find meaning. We need to tell a different story; the current one is killing us.