Will mass shootings ever stop?

On the microsociology of mass killings in rampages


How do you explain high-profile but rare violent events such as mass killings by ordinary, non-criminal individuals? The fact that the perpetrators are gun owners, victims of bullying, introverted personalities or those who have failed in their careers does not help to explain this, as the factors involved are very broad. A stronger indication is that such attacks are covertly prepared by one or two individuals and then carried out by them against randomly selected people who represent a hated collective identity. The mass murderer disguises himself, chooses a crime scene and a certain time and thereby gains an emotional dominance that is essential for the crime. Such perpetrators usually amass many more weapons than they can use in an attack; The purpose of this arsenal is on the one hand to intimidate others, on the other hand it gives the perpetrators themselves symbolic and emotional support. Surprisingly, mass killings often end with the perpetrators giving up or killing themselves as soon as they are decisively countered. These mass murderers develop a deeply hidden backstage of their actions on which they obsessively plan their attack and seek to overcome their social inferiority and isolation through a sense of hidden excitement. Your actions may be described as insane, but such pathologization does not help explain it. Rather, what is referred to as mental illness is a consequence of the processes taking place on the backstage and is thus socially constructed.


Spectacular but very rare violent events such as mass killings by habitual non-criminals cannot be explained by factors which are very widespread, such as possession of firearms, being a victim of bullying, an introvert, or a career failure. A stronger clue is clandestine preparation of attack by one or two individuals, against randomly chosen representatives of a hated collective identity. The mass killer chooses a setting, costume and timing to establish emotional dominance as precursor to physical casualties; Such killers typically amass far more weapons than they actually use, and rely on them both for intimidation and for their own symbolic-emotional support. Mass killings end surprisingly often by surrendering, or committing suicide, once confronted by firm resistance. Mass killers develop a deep back-stage, obsessed with planning their attack, overcoming social inferiority and isolation by an emotion of clandestine excitement. Their actions might be described as mental illness, except that the clinical label adds no further explanatory power - their violent mental illness is socially constructed by just these processes.


Comment expliquer les événements violents choquants mais rares tels que les tueries commises par des personnes ordinaires sans passé criminel? Le fait que les auteurs de ces actes possèdent des armes, soient victimes de harcèlement moral, aient une personnalité introvertie ou subi un échec dans leur carrière ne peut tenir lieu d'explication étant donné qu'il s'agit là de facteurs trèsus largement ré . Un indice plus probant est que de telles attaques sont préparées en secret par un ou deux individus avant d’être mises à execution contre des personnes choisies au hasard représentant une identité collective haïe. Le tueur se déguise, choisi un lieu et un moment précis et acquires ainsi la supériorité émotionnelle indispensable au passage à l’acte. De tels tueurs accumulent généralement bien plus d’armes qu’ils ne peuvent en utiliser lors de l’attaque. La raison d’être de cet arsenal est d’une part d’intimider les autres, d’autre part d’apporter aux tueurs eux-mêmes un soutien symbolique et émotionnel. This is tueries se terminent fréquemment par la reddition ou le suicide de leurs auteurs dès qu’une résistance résolue leur est opposée. Ces tueurs de masse se construisent une arrière-scène au tréfonds d’eux-mêmes sur laquelle ils préparent leur attaque de manière obsessionnelle et cherchent à surmonter leur infériorité sociale et leur isolation par un sentiment d’excitation cachée. Leurs actes peuvent être qualifiés comme relevant de la psychiatrie mais une telle pathologisation ne contribue pas à leur explication. Ce qui est qualifié ici de trouble psychique est plutôt la conséquence de processus se déroulant sur cette arrière-scène et, par là même, socialement construits.


  1. 1.

    Polls in the United States show that Liberal Democrats are most likely to watch TV shows where comedians target conservatives; Conservatives prefer to watch broadcasts of college football games, a sport of ritualized violence; see Experian Simmons 2012.

  2. 2.

    See Collins 2008, pp. 409 ff., Who analyzes the last dialogues of suicide bombers, including a recording from the cockpit of one of the machines from September 9, 2001.

  3. 3.

    Think of the Comic-Con in Holmes' hometown of San Diego, which happened just a week before the Aurora rampage.

  4. 4.

    From 1992 to 2000, 234 students were killed in schools and 24,406 outside schools in the United States. That's less than one percent. See DeVoe et al. 2004.


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  1. University of Pennsylvania, 3718 Locust Walk, 19104-6299, Philadelphia, PA, United States of America

    Randall Collins

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Correspondence to Randall Collins.

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Translation from the American by Jürgen Mackert

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Collins, R. On the microsociology of mass killings in rampages. Berlin J Sociol23, 7-25 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11609-013-0207-6

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  • Mass killings · Killings in schools · Deeply hidden backstage · Gun ritual · Emotions of violence


  • Mass killing School killing Deep backstage Gun ritual Violent emotions


  • Tueries · Tueries en milieu scolaire · Arrière-scène cachée profondément · Rituel armé · Emotions liées à la violence