In 2007, Douglas Kellner, UCLA distinguished professor of education, gender studies and Germanic languages, and a scholar of media and film, was researching media spectacle when the mass shooting at Virgina Tech occurred. The shooting left 32 dead and 17 wounded. This led him to think about Columbine and other school shootings.
“It’s been the same idea for every one of these shootings — that we have an out-of-control gun culture and a crisis of masculinities,” said Kellner, who also holds the George F. Kneller Philosophy of Education Chair in the division of Social Sciences & Comparative Education at UCLA. “These young men who were in crisis … resolved it through these shootings and it became a media spectacle.”
Now, Kellner is examining the newest aspect of mass killings in the Trump era — the role of racism that motivates troubled individuals to kill. He is currently working on a second edition of his 2008 book, “Guys and Guns Amok: Domestic Terrorism and School Shootings from the Oklahoma City Bombing to the Virginia Tech Massacre.”
Kellner discussed the still-prevalent gun culture in the United States, the need for better mental health interventions and regulation of weapons and the media’s contributions to violent culture.
What factors of mass killings have changed the most — whether it involves the media, gun control, families, or schools — with recent events?
There is one major thing that has changed in the last two years. All of the previous shootings were rather divorced from sociopolitical factors. In other words, they were mainly individual crises of young men. They could be crises of their family, of their school, or their community.
Most of the mass shootings have been distinguished by the fact that they are somewhat random — that the shooters aren’t really targeting any particular people. This is true in most of the mass school shootings, although sometimes the school shooters have a particular individual that’s part of the room, and some of the school shooters are anti-women. What they all have in common is their immersion in gun culture, that has really been accelerated. For example, we saw three [shootings] in the last month, in [Gilroy] California, El Paso, and Dayton, Ohio.
The toxicity of gun culture has created a new factor that we have never seen before, that was a major factor in the last few shootings, and that was the election of Donald Trump, and in particular, Trump’s rhetoric [on immigrants]. There haven’t been particular racist school shootings before, or acts of domestic terrorism.
The El Paso shooting … was completely different from any of the other acts of domestic terrorism [or] school shootings, because it was targeting Latinos and immigrants. The shooter made it explicit in the manifesto that he wrote that he was influenced by Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-Mexican [sentiments] and he targeted [them]. The shooter drove nine or 10 hours from the Dallas area all the way to El Paso. That’s a long drive across nothing, just the desert. So, imagine 10 hours of driving, thinking about what you’re going to do. He had to have some extreme motive and it was fueled by Trump. So, this is my new worry, that there will be others who are likewise motivated.
How do you explain an event like this in a state whose overall culture includes a longstanding Latino and Mexican heritage?
Again, I think it’s Trump. I taught for 25 years at the University of Texas at Austin, and one of the striking things to me was how well Latinos, Anglos and African Americans got along, at least in Austin and the more progressive metropolitan [areas]. I don’t recall any shootings of Latinos by some racist shooter. This was from 1973 to the mid-1990s, just before I came to UCLA. So, there’s been a big shift.
And the immigrant communities are terrorized. This was clearly an act of terrorism and has terrorized the people of El Paso and immigrants throughout the country. I’ve seen article after article on how afraid Latinos and immigrants are in certain parts of the country after these shootings.
What are some societal changes that need to be made in schools, homes and society?
We have a gun culture like no other country in the world, where it’s part of male socialization in some parts of the country. In a lot of cases, [rural areas] have better gun safety training than in urban areas where there isn’t such a developed gun culture. I grew up in Southern California and I never saw a gun. But, I went to high school in Virginia, and I had all these Southern neighbors who were amazed that I never shot a gun or gone hunting. So, they took me out and I just decided that I didn’t like guns.
The mother of the El Paso shooter actually called the police and told them she was worried that her son has this gun collection and that she was afraid that he was going to do something to hurt himself or other people. And of course, the police didn’t do anything about it. What needs to be done is that we need to take these threats of gun violence very, very seriously when there is a report like this. But we need changes in the gun laws as well. This is insane, that we have these assault rifles that anyone can get … on the internet or at gun shows without a background check.
There is again serious talk about background checks and red flag warnings, but nobody has done after the last decades of shooting, despite calls for rational gun control. But it is conceivable with the presidential elections and the general elections that if Congress doesn’t do anything, some of them could be voted out. I see a possibility that there could be some [new] gun laws. Few people are against background checks or red flag laws except the NRA and some gun fanatics.
How about mental health care and the fact that many kids who are noted to have emotional problems are still mainstreamed into regular classrooms?
This is a whole other issue in and of itself. Obviously, it overlaps with the guns. There is some degree of mental health disturbance among the shooters and it’s clear that this should be an issue in whether or not people [can] get guns. In other words, if they have documented mental health issues, they shouldn’t get a gun.
More generally as a society, we really need to take mental health problems more seriously. And this really relates to schools in a big way since there have been so many school shootings, often by high school students. In education, we really need to address issues like masculinity, guns, and mental health. If schools see kids acting out, they [need to] have resources to address these issues. You have to have mental health professionals in the high schools. There are counselors and psychologists of different sorts, but they really have to have a mental health background.
Do media companies have a responsibility through their products when they contribute to a violent culture?
Absolutely, the media is part of the environment that has traditionally glorified guns. The Western is a dominant American genre, but also [in] crime dramas and detective [films], guns are shown as the solution to social problems. Only documentaries show guns as a problem. All of the networks in the last few weeks have had good documentaries on gun violence. The media is aware that they have that responsibility and have produced these documentaries and had some good discussions.
There is another new factor and this goes back to our earlier discussion of the El Paso shootings and the recent spate of shootings. In my analysis, I put a big blame on Trump. I want to put equally big blame on White nationalism, and it’s partly because of Trump because he embraced White nationalist groups that supported him. Previously, White nationalism was seen as something out of the American mainstream so it wouldn’t be covered in the media. It’s been there forever, but in terms of normalizing it and in terms of the media reproducing it, this is a new feature. And you have a whole network — Fox News — that’s trumpeting Trump’s racist rhetoric — I didn’t intend a pun but it’s a good one.
Click here to read the full Q&A in Ampersand, the magazine of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.