News of another tragic campus shooting, this time at Northern Illinois University, makes me wish I knew more about criminology and crime prediction, and I have been looking for and at literature on the subject. We know that some crimes generate copycat crimes, but it is hard to say in advance which ones do so. If, some years ago, airline hijackings triggered imitations, perhaps because the media coverage was a draw or because it became the implicitly agreed-upon battlefield between terrorist groups and some governments, then that was an important thing to know as soon as possible because precautions could be taken to reduce the incidence of the crime or to reduce the loss of life once underway.
Campus shootings seem different and, in a way, more difficult. Perpetrators (like hijackers) must expect to die in the act, and indeed it may be that most of the plotters would plan simpler suicides except for the fact that they see a way to go out in a blaze of mayhem, which they seem to find appealing. If so, one strategy might be to try and encourage (which is to say substitute towards) more conventional suicides in order to avoid the murdering of innocents. I do not propose that we censor the media, but reports of these killings do provide a great deal of information about the killers, and too little about the victims. I can now recall many details about the Virginia Tech shooter, and also about one post-office shooters, but I regret to say that I remember very little about the victims. We might try to cut down on this coverage of the killer-suicider, and emphasize the victims more, so that would-be plotters might prefer to die in solitude. One might be tempted to say that we ought to hope for more coverage of the lives and death of solitary suicides, if that will encourage substitution away from mass shootings, but that runs the grave risk of encouraging more suicides. Current news coverage seems aimed at the question of whether we can predict who these killers will be. if we can, then of course it is a good idea to share information and contemplate what steps might have been taken to ward them off. But if our best guess, or science, is that prediction is close to impossible, as is my impression from the reading I have done, then we may do much more harm than good by proceeding as if our task is to understand what drove these people to their crimes and deaths.
Finally, there is the question of straightforward deterrence. If high school and college campus shootings become regular events, we will face the familiar question of gun control versus armed guards or citizenry. Again, I am merely a consumer of that literature, but so long as the perpetrators plan to take their own lives, as they seem to, deterrence is awfully difficult. Campuses and buildings might be secured, as they are in Israel, with bags checked at each entrance. This is a serious cost, and not one we will find many campuses doing unless things get much worse. Moreover, the killings we have experienced are generally committed by persons who would have access to campus because they are students. Large-scale security operations generally wave through most regulars and focus attention on guests. We must hope that our tragedies will be, at worst, intermittent rather than multiplied. This is very sad, and sadder still because while we hope for improvement, there seems to be very little we can do to bring improvement about.