Americas

Two mass shootings just days apart. Experts call it a return to normal.

Spring has arrived, and the American disease that lay dormant during the pandemic — deprived of oxygen by the intense national focus on the presidential election — has made a bloody return.

In less than a week, two gunmen separated by 1,400 miles have taken 18 lives. And experts who study and chronicle mass killings warned Tuesday that there could be more as the nation reverts to a more normal way of life.

"This is a moment in time when we're finally coming out after months of hiding in the shadows from Covid, and I deeply fear we're going to see another spate of mass shootings," said Seamus McGraw, author of "From a Taller Tower: The Rise of the American Mass Shooter," which is being published next month by the University of Texas Press.

The troubled young men who have been responsible for most mass killings did not go away — they went into lockdown with the rest of the country, McGraw said.

"It's harder for us to see the warning signs, because now we're all underground and we've all been exhibiting the kinds of stresses that signal these things," he said.

Mike Lawlor, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven in Connecticut, echoed McGraw.

"It is clear this wasn't happening during the pandemic," said Lawlor, an expert on criminal justice policy who served in the Connecticut House for 24 years. "While overall crime went down during the pandemic, shootings and homicides and domestic violence actually went up. But now we're switching back to what was happening before, to that kind of senseless mass killing. It could very well be a buildup of pent-up frustration by some emotionally disturbed people."

Lori Ann Post, director of the Buehler Center for Health Policy and Economics at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, researches mass shootings, which she defines as "four or more deaths in a single setting."

"The last mass shooting was in February 2020, and then it went dormant for a long, long time," Post said. "This marks a return to mass shooting events."

That's not to say crime took a holiday during the pandemic. While the number of burglaries, larcenies and drug offenses dropped significantly last year, the number of homicides, gun assaults and aggravated assaults jumped in a survey of 28 cities conducted by University of Missouri-St. Louis Professor Emeritus Richard Rosenfeld, a former president of the American Society of Criminology. Domestic violence cases also appeared to rise.

In 2019 "we pretty much had a mass shooting once a week," said Christopher Herrmann, an assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York. "Normal for the United States, unfortunately, is a mass shooting once a week."

President Joe Biden appeared to acknowledge that sad fact as he honored the victims of Monday's mass killing in Boulder, Colorado, so soon after the shootings that killed eight people at Atlanta-area spas last week.

"While the flag was still flying half-staff for the tragedy, another American city has been scarred by gun violence and resulting trauma," Biden said Tuesday. "I even hate to say it, because we've been saying it so often: 'My heart goes out.'"

See something, say something was the mantra before the pandemic, when law enforcement and public health experts urged parents and friends to keep a lookout for troubled young people exhibiting antisocial behaviors.

"And it was effective," McGraw said. "People were paying attention to the behavioral indicators, and there were interventions. In one case, a mother in Indiana turned in her son when he was on the way to a middle school to shoot it up."

But during the Covid-19 lockdowns, "not only have there been fewer opportunities to commit mass killings," but "you've had people who were not visible," McGraw said. "Also, everybody has been dealing with some form of depression, so the signs were less visible."

In addition, McGraw said, "there was a remarkable surge in gun purchases toward the end of the Trump administration."

Related:“Whichever way this election goes, it could get really scary, and it could get bloody,” said a 61-year-old woman who started taking shooting classes this summer. “I want to be armed and dangerous.”

Last week in Georgia, the churchgoing man accused of killing eight people at Atlanta-area spas — most of the victims were Asian American women — told investigators that he suffered from a sex addiction and that they were a "temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate," authorities alleged.

Police in Colorado were still investigating Tuesday and had yet to determine a motive for the mass shooting at a King Soopers grocery store in Boulder, in which 10 people died, including Police Officer Eric Talley.

"The motives are almost always bull—," said McGraw, a former newspaper reporter. "These guys may be racists, they may be homophobes, they may be misogynists, they may be all these things. What they are, most of all, is narcissistic, weak-minded murderers."

The fact that two mass killings happened just days apart shocked none of the experts.

"I'm not the least bit surprised, because there is a copycat element to all of this," McGraw said. "There is an element of ego gratification to this. They all want to be the most lethal killer. Numbers matter to these guys."

That is partly why police have been reluctant to divulge many details about what happened.

"This is the point in a mass shooting when myths are created," McGraw said. "A lot of misinformation becomes urban legend that gets disseminated."

Post said that with the pandemic appearing to be on the wane and the question of who sits in the White House having been settled for now, she fears that more troubled gunmen craving notoriety, as well as revenge for perceived slights, will soon emerge.

"What fuels this is other people getting notoriety in the media," Post said. "It greases the wheels for other mass shooters."

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