Researchers work to understand mass shootings

It is now well known that in the United States, the frequency of mass shootings has been steadily increasing, particularly over the past two decades. Readiness for such crises has become part of the American experience, and Wayne State University researchers at the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPCS) are dedicated to understanding why.

CPCS Director Pontus Leander, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology and the Saperstein Professor of Science, Technology, Peace, and Public Policy, has made gun violence research an urgent priority of CPCS, which has promoted scholarship related to diplomacy and conflict resolution for decades. Two mass shooting incidents in Michigan - Michigan State University in 2023 and Oxford High School in 2021 - created a new urgency.

"The Oxford and MSU tragedies reminded us all of just how close to home this is for us," Leander said. "As researchers, we cannot ignore that."

In the days after the Oxford and MSU shootings, CPCS sent follow-up surveys to hundreds of Americans who had previously answered a general survey about attitudes towards violence, asking for their thoughts and concerns.

"We teamed up with researchers at another university to launch an emergency response survey to figure out what Americans thought motivated the gunman, what might have enabled the shooting, what they were concerned about and what they think this could or should mean for gun rights," Leander said.

These surveys avoided contacting people who live in communities where the shootings occurred. Rather, they sought nationwide trends in people's motivations, beliefs and attitudes, to look for areas of consensus.

So often

Because mass shootings occur so much more frequently in the U.S., Leander said responsible research must consider whether something in American culture encourages them.

"Is it because of access to firearms?" Leander asked. "Is it because of our media environments? Or something about our cultural values that has somehow been distorted and corrupted in the minds of some people, or some combination?"

Leander said he and his colleagues explore the psychology that leads shooters to commit their crimes.

"What do the shooters believe it's going to do for them?" Leander asked. "Is it the attention they're after? Validation? Can we ask what's going on in our society? And what's going on with the way people are feeling and thinking about life that mass shootings become perceived as an option for them - or worse, the only option?"

Frustrating as the prevalence of gun violence may be and the riddle behind finding a shooter's motivations, Leander said he fears Americans could be becoming numb to the news of another mass shooting.

"We can all be looking at this in shock and horror," Leander said. "But what bothers me is, what if that shock isn't there anymore?


In addition to gun-related research, CPCS examines other forms of violence including war, domestic abuse, extremism and interpersonal conflict. Leander said he joined Wayne State in 2021 because the newly endowed Saperstein Professor of Science, Technology, Peace, and Public Policy position at CPCS allows critical access to powerful research tools.

"With an endowed chair, we have the capacity to respond immediately and conduct the research that must get done," Leander said. "Especially as psychologists, we need to know what people are thinking in the moment, or in the aftermath of these crises. That is the flexibility that an endowed professorship gives."

As a psychology professor, Leander leads courses on the psychology of social behavior and interdisciplinary research methods in psychology. Other CPCS professors examine peace and conflict through other academic lenses including anthropology, criminology, economics and international relations.

"In everything, we ask if there are common situations that keep popping up, that get people thinking in terms of violence, as opposed to some other kind of response," Leander said. "If we can identify situational influences, which go beyond any one person - to the level of society and culture, then maybe we can think about interventions and how a person can make a difference."

Despite the persistence of violence throughout human history, Leander believes knowledge can lead to progress and suggests that even small changes can lead to larger shifts in culture.

"CPCS can help someone take their skills and knowledge into the world and say, 'These are the situations in which violence happens, and here's why it happens,'" Leander said. "They can start changing the culture of an organization, or maybe a city or country, so that those situations are less likely to arise as often as they do now. And then, then we have hope."

Give peace a chance

CPCS welcomes donors and sponsors who would like to establish or endow student, faculty and research support in a general or specialized field of peace and conflict studies, including gun violence research. Contact Allison Egrin at 313-577-9635 or for more information.

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