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A police officer walks in front of a police car and a dark-colored tent.
A tent covers the body of the alleged gunman at Michigan State University. AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

Michigan State murders: What we know about campus shootings and the gunmen who carry them out

A gunman opened fire at Michigan State University on Feb. 13, 2023, killing three people and injuring five others before taking his own life.

A lot is still unknown about the campus attack. Police have yet to release a motive and said the 43-year-old man responsible did not have any known connections to the university.

While rare, campus attacks are not unheard of in the U.S. In November 2022, three members of the University of Virginia football team were shot and killed on campus, and four University of Idaho students were stabbed to death in their off-campus residence.

Criminologists David Riedman of the University of Central Florida and James Densley, at Metropolitan State University, maintain databases of mass shootings in the U.S. The Conversation asked them how the latest attack fit with the pattern of such attacks in the past.

How frequent are campus shootings at colleges and universities?

No agency is tracking every U.S. campus shooting in real time, and defining them can be difficult because many higher education institutions are intertwined with the surrounding community. For example, Michigan State University has over 50,000 students enrolled and more than 11,000 residing on its main campus, which is made up of more than 8 square miles (21 square kilometers) of contiguous urban, suburban, industrial and rural areas.

Technically, a shooting in the parking lot during a college football game attended by 100,000 people or at a residence that leases to college students could be classed as a college or university shooting.

We do, however, have data on mass shootings on campus.

There have been nine mass shootings in or around college or university settings since 1966, according to The Violence Project database, which defines a mass shooting as one in which four or more people are murdered in public in a single incident. This would not include the Michigan State University shooting at this stage, or many other incidents in which fewer people than four were killed. It also doesn’t include the 1970 Kent State massacre in which four students were shot dead by the Ohio National Guard.

The most deadly of these mass shootings was the 2007 attack by a student at Virginia Tech in which 32 people were killed. Since then, there have been five more mass shootings, the last being in 2015 when a 26-year-old student at Umpqua Community College near Roseburg, Oregon, fatally shot a professor and 8 students in a classroom.

In all the campus mass shootings in the database, the gunman was a man, with an average age of 28. The youngest was 22 and the oldest was 43. Six of the nine perpetrators were nonwhite.

What do we know about campus shooters in general?

College and university shooters typically have a prior connection to the campuses they target. For example, a shooter who killed three people and wounded three others at the University of Alabama in Huntsville in 2010 was a biology faculty member with a history of violence who had recently been denied tenure.

It is unclear why the latest shooter targeted Michigan State, and because he died on the scene, we may never know for sure.

But the fact that he took his life after the attacks is not unusual. Five of the nine college mass shooters in our data died by suicide. Our research shows mass shootings are often a form of suicide driven by despair.

Mass shooters also tend to be boys and men in a noticeable crisis who communicate intent to do harm in advance. If family, friends and co-workers know the warning signs of violence and how to report them, there is an opportunity to stop it from occurring. In December 2021, for example, students at Embry-Riddle University warned campus officials of violent threats a fellow student had made on Snapchat and helped avert a potential shooting tragedy.

Was the police operation typical of similar shootings?

Between the first alert at 8:31 p.m. telling Michigan State students to “run, hide and fight” where necessary, and the police news conference confirming the gunman’s death at 12:20 a.m., a lot of misinformation circulated online amid confusion on campus.

There were two shootings within minutes at Berkey Hall, an academic building on the northern part of campus, and the MSU Union Building, west of Berkey Hall, but police also received calls about shots fired at seven other campus locations. Law enforcement were sent scrambling across the university campus only to find no other evidence of shootings.

Police also responded to reports of men on campus with rifles that turned out to be plainclothes police officers, and the name and photo of an alleged suspect circulated online that turned out to be false.

Mass public shootings are chaotic scenes, and the confusion at Michigan State was similar to the 2017 Las Vegas Harvest Festival shooting in which 60 people were killed by a single gunman. In that attack, officers received dozens of incorrect reports about who and where the shooter was.

This loss of what is known as a “common operating picture” – a single, consistent, display of relevant information – was cited as one of the critical issues for first responders to address in the 9/11 Commission Report released in 2004. It continues to be an issue today, exacerbated in part by social media.

What can college students and staff do today?

The immediate focus should be on providing services for survivors, and the families of those who died. The trauma of experiencing or witnessing a shooting can have lasting psychological impacts, including post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression. Survivors may also face physical injuries, long-term disabilities and financial burdens related to medical treatment and recovery.

Mass shootings have far-reaching and devastating effects that extend to communities and society as a whole, including increased fear and anxiety, social isolation, and a sense of helplessness and despair. Supporting the survivors and victims of mass shootings means providing them with the resources and support needed to heal and recover, while also working to prevent future acts of gun violence.

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