Douglas Kellner: Dangerous New Dimension to Mass Shootings in America

Trump’s vilification of immigrants and a rampant gun culture fuel recent epidemic of mass killings.

In April of 2007, Douglas Kellner was on his way to deliver a talk at Virginia Tech when he was notified that the university was closed due to a mass shooting that had just occurred on campus, killing 32 and wounding 17. Kellner, who is a UCLA Distinguished Professor of Education, Gender Studies, and Germanic Languages and a scholar of media and film, was horrified and fascinated. 

“I was researching media spectacle at the time,” he recalls. “I started reading about [the shooting] … and thinking about Columbine and other school shootings and the key ideas just hit me. 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. These young men who were in crisis… resolved it through these shootings and it became a media spectacle.” 

Professor Kellner is now 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 is the inaugural George F. Kneller Philosophy of Education Chair in the division of Social Sciences & Comparative Education at UCLA, and a 2003-04 Fellow of the Sudikoff Family Institute for Education & New Media (now the Sudikoff Institute Public Forum).  He is also the co-author, with TEP faculty advisor Jeff Share, of the recent book, “The Critical Media Literacy Guide: Engaging Media and Transforming Education.” 

Professor Kellner discussed with Ampersand the still-prevalent gun culture in the United States, the need for better mental health interventions and regulation of weapons, and the elasticity of the Constitution when it comes to a matter of life or death for those it serves.

Ampersand: What factors of mass killings have changed the most – whether it involves the media, gun control, families, or schools – with recent events?

Douglas Kellner: 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 ten hours from the Dallas area all the way to El Paso. That’s a long drive across nothing, just the desert. So, imagine ten 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?

Kellner: 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.

&: How do the extreme leftist views of the Dayton shooter – who on Twitter, called out the El Paso shooter as a White supremacist and a terrorist – bode badly for those who oppose Trump’s views?

Kellner: This is the thing about the larger picture of what’s created divisions and increased violence in this country, and that is the divisive nature of Trump’s rhetoric. It puts both sides against each other. It creates hate for immigrants and Latinos and liberals and the media in Trump’s community. But, you can say that just as strikingly on the other side, the anti-Trump [sentiment] – I’ve never seen anything like it. CNN, which was pretty neutral in the presidential election, has been increasingly anti-Trump. I’ve seen [broadcasts] where all day, they’re attacking Trump. Fox News is just a mouthpiece for Trump’s rhetoric and his hate speech, whereas MSNBC is as strongly anti-Trump as Fox is pro-Trump. There really is a division that I have never seen before and the media has contributed to it.

&: A target in a mass shooting would be an individual in a school or a public place, that has had some relationship with the shooter. Why don’t the killers just go after that individual?

Kellner: Well, that’s the whole thing with mass shootings – they’re a media spectacle. They make the person famous, and somehow, they express their rage in a way that individual shootings don’t. But, I think it’s more that they’ve [established] a tradition. The El Paso shooter was pretty much a copycat, and referred to some previous shooters. 

&: Shooters often end up killing themselves or being killed. What is their reward?

Kellner: Martyrdom. Why do these Islamic terrorists kill themselves? They have this notion of martyrdom. Either they’re going to go to heaven or become heroes of a certain group.

And copycats – we’re now seeing a lot of copycat shooters and what is really disturbing is that White nationalists might start copycatting [attacks] on Latinos or people of color, immigrant targets. And the White nationalism makes it patriotic and glorifies it [as] protecting the White race. 

&: How do the internet and other forms of media like video games pose a factor in these acts of mass violence?

Kellner: It’s one of the factors, but it’s not the major determinate. Trump blamed the El Paso shooting on video games and everyone said, this is ridiculous, there is no evidence, because in Japan and Korea, there is more intense video game culture and there are no mass shootings. On the other hand, the Newtown (Connecticut) shooter and quite a few of them were immersed in video game culture. So, I think it probably does contribute, and if I were a parent, I wouldn’t let my kids play these games. 

&: What are some societal changes that need to be made in schools, homes, and society? 

Kellner: 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?

Kellner: 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.

&: How is the fear level that has risen among kids in schools, as well as teachers and families impacting education overall?

There are studies of the growing fear among kids in schools. But it’s this last set of shootings where the term terrorism can apply. The last set of shootings – the three this summer – can be labeled as acts of domestic terrorism, and this is the first time I’ve used the word –  terrorism– for these shootings. I saw a report on CNN about how kids are afraid to go to school because they are afraid they are going to get shot. 

My partner, Rhonda Hammer, was just in a salon and there was a teacher telling story after story about how her students are afraid to come to school. There were also some mothers in the salon who said yes, they were afraid to send their kids to school. We’ve never had a situation where parents and teachers are afraid for their kids because there is such an epidemic of gun violence. One factor they mentioned was that they had been having all these drills about shooting and this absolutely terrifies the kids. And when they see these shootings on television within a week, this just freaks the kids out. Already they’re scared during these drills. But then they see the normalizing of three shootings in a week – it terrorizes them. 

&: How about the fear that a kid who grows up in this environment of fear would end up enacting mass violence themselves?

Kellner: That’s where it’s going to end, so this is where we have an urgent need for action. We have to demand of our politicians’ new gun laws. It’s insane that these assault rifles are allowed. They were banned in the Clinton era. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton banned them, and George W. Bush let the ban expire in 2004, so assault rifles were once again available. The statistics show that gun violence actually went down significantly when assault rifles were illegal. So, these assault rifles seem to have a dangerous, psychological impact on imbalanced young men. 

&: Do media companies have a responsibility through their products when they contribute to a violent culture?

Kellner: 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.

&: How can we look at this from the standpoint of critical media literacy?

Kellner: This is definitely a new challenge for critical media literacy. Jeff Share and I, in our book, “The Critical Media Literacy Guide,” have stressed the need to critique violence in the media. We were talking mostly about entertainment – films, TV programs. Now, the new task for critical media literacy is critiquing extremist discourse, which is violent discourse on the internet. The internet has become the radicalizing force for a lot of these shooters. Again, this last set of shootings were influenced by right-wing extremism, by these hate groups.

I’ve always been a libertarian, believing completely in free speech, yet I’m coming to think that these hate sites should be banned. I think it’s crazy that the Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, these sites that glorify gun violence are allowed to promote hate and violence… this is sick. And it’s dangerous. We see the effects of this – it has consequences that we know all too well. We need to take action.

&: What about the Second Amendment?

Kellner: If you look at it, it always talked about guns and a well-regulated militia. From the very beginning, there has been the notion of regulation and the Supreme Court has held up all kinds of regulation. So, I don’t see the Second Amendment as absolute, just like I don’t see the First Amendment as absolute. In both cases, there need to be qualifications in certain contexts. And historically, our notions of both free speech and gun rights have changed. Society is continually growing and evolving, and so our Constitution and the Bill of Rights is changing historical meaning in different eras, and I think most people accept that.

&: Other nations seem to have better controls over online content that is potentially harmful. How do you draw the line in the United States between freedom of speech and endangering the public?

Kellner: I think human life and survival trumps freedom of speech. If hate speech is endangering human lives and it is known to cause things like the shootings or acts of violence, we have every necessity to deal with this. This has to do with what we were talking about earlier. People who engage in this kind of speech … need help. We need to help them. You’re not abridging freedom of speech – you’re helping young people deal with their demons and their problems. 

This really puts freedom of speech in a different context, we need to rethink this. It’s not an absolute as some of us once thought it was.