Study Examines U.S. Public Opinion of ‘Would-be’ Mass Shooters

Gavel, Handcuffs, Gun, Justice, Criminal Justice, Law, Law Enforcement

The study sheds light on public opinion about “would-be” mass shooters, particularly regarding their mental health status.

By gisele galoustian | 5/1/2024

The unpredictable and widespread threat of mass shootings can affect anyone anywhere. Interrupting the process of planning and conducting a mass shooting is a matter of public safety. However, the public’s willingness to both “see something” and “say something,” especially when loved ones or associates are involved, hinges on whether the informant believes the criminal justice system will handle the situation effectively and fairly.

Making authorities aware of potential threats often depends heavily on those personally connected to “would-be” mass shooters – families, friends, as well as teachers and co-workers – to report concerning behaviors of people they may be reluctant to perceive as truly dangerous. Understanding public opinion about would-be mass shooters, particularly regarding their mental health status, is imperative. 

In a first-of-its-kind study, researchers from Florida Atlantic University’s College of Social Work and Criminal Justice analyzed responses to an online “opt-in” survey of 247 participants who mirrored the demographic make-up of the United States. Researchers evaluated the relative roles of offender age and mental health status in shaping public opinion about how defendants in such cases should be treated: through punishment, rehabilitation or “balanced justice,” which involves both. The study is the first to assess the principles of balanced justice.

Results, published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, show significant public support of both a balanced justice approach and rehabilitation approach versus punishment for both juveniles and adults, with and without a mental illness, who plan a mass shooting.

Nearly 57% of respondents supported a balanced justice approach to punishing juveniles with a mental illness who plan a mass shooting compared to 61.7% who supported a punishment-oriented approach for juveniles who plan a mass shooting without a mental illness. Similarly, for adult offenders, 56.2% of respondents supported balanced justice for those with a mental illness, and 65.3% supported punishment for those without a mental illness.

“Mass shootings represent one of the most prominent and extreme crimes in contemporary American society, eliciting strong opinions, even for would-be mass shooters,” said Lincoln Sloas, Ph.D., senior author and an associate professor in FAU’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. “Although the public has increased its support for punitiveness in recent years, our study finds that the public is more open to rehabilitation when given options.”

In addition to assessing public support for balanced justice, the study measured how respondents’ underlying beliefs about treatment and reform relate to sanctioning preferences.  Respondents who believed offenders were more deserving of treatment were more supportive of rehabilitation or a balanced justice approach versus punishment only, regardless of offender age or mental health status.  Furthermore, respondents who believed current treatments are effective were less supportive of a punishment-only approach.

“When given more details on sanctioning preferences, the public is more likely to be supportive of using balanced justice for both juvenile and adult would-be mass shooters, with or without a mental illness, if they believe they deserve access to treatment services,” said Gabriel Cesar, Ph.D., co-author and an assistant professor in FAU’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. “These results may further tap into the dimensions of deservedness, redeemability and ‘mental health’ in the context of mass shootings.”

History shows that mass shooters often display behaviors that suggest they may be planning a mass shooting, although not all of them do.

“The pathway to violence is often identified in hindsight, but significantly more challenging to predict beforehand,” said Sloas.

Importantly, people who witness these behaviors often are reluctant to report their concerns to authorities, particularly if they mistrust the police or are unsure how the criminal justice system will respond to their report.

“Believing that a loved one who may be planning a mass shooting will receive proper treatment and be rehabilitated could make the public more likely to report concerning behavior,” said Sloas. “In this way, public opinion could impact an individual’s willingness to ‘say something’ to law enforcement when they ‘see something.’”

Other study findings related to respondent demographics show that members of the public who identified as less religious were more likely to support rehabilitation than punishment. Further, white respondents were less likely than non-white respondents to support rehabilitation than punishment, and in some analyses, older respondents were less likely than younger respondents to support rehabilitation than punishment.