Where’s the trigger? Using structural determinism to explain copy-cat shootings

By Stuart Smith

The chance of a mass shooting encouraging a copy-cat attack in the US is 20%-30% and lasts for 13 days. It cannot be known when or why they will attack but once an attack has taken place, the chance of another rises significantly. This is a phenomenon which best seems to be explained using a threshold model with structural determinism, as described by Gladwell.

In the case of a copy-cat attack, there need not be a gradual build-up of pressure over time. They may have all the motivation, weapons and mental instability but require something to tip them over the edge. These will be the people who are hovering just below the threshold, or beginning to move away from it. For the shooter there is no gradual positive feedback making a shooting more and more likely the longer time goes on. What is required is a critical juncture – a trigger. For copy-cat shooters, as the mainstream media love to find and make a deal out of, these are usually examples of long causes with short outcomes.

Once the first shooting takes place, a chain has been set in motion where we do not know when but know that another shooting is far more likely to occur.

What is important here is that the path of a person near the threshold would never necessarily lead to them shooting anyone- they could live their whole lives depressingly close, but never meeting. So their ‘path’ before a shooting was not subject to gradual pressures leading them to an attack. However, there is a possible way path dependent processes could become relevant after the shooting. Once the shooter’s mental state changes, they have a seed in their brain that this kind of action is possible and they may start planning or fantasising their own attack. I can see how negative and positive reinforcement could enter as a major mechanism here.

Explaining the Keystone XL pipeline rejection: a Historical Institutionalist analysis.

By Stuart Smith

In November 2015, Barack Obama, rejected the proposal to build an extension to a pipeline which would facilitate tar sand oil exports from Canada to southern USA. The pipeline would offer little economic advantage for the US and would cause little environmental damage, yet the debate was intense and the decision historical – mainly due to its symbolic significance. This makes it an interesting case, as certain approaches of historical/social scientific analysis would struggle to explain the outcome.

I believe the approach of Steinmo (2008), Historical Institutionalism, is particularly useful here. It takes the institutional change at hand and places it into the historical context of the time. On the merits and cons of the proposal alone, Obama would most likely not even have become involved in the decision. However, some unusual factors which would only be revealed through historical context, can explain the outcome:

  1. The environmental movement in the US had made it the posterchild of the climate change movement (even though this pipeline on its own would only add 0.01% to US emissions).
  2. Obama and Joe Biden are nearing the end of their terms and would like to leave a legacy but also have less fear of using their full collective power on issues they consider important.
  3. Obama was one month away from beginning climate change talks at the COP21 summit in Paris, and would be expected to lead on the international stage

The most important institution which was utilised by Obama was the presidential veto, which allowed him to reject the proposal based on his personal judgement. This means there is an element of self-interest which has to be considered, and HI allows for this. It also allows for informal, exogenous pressure on the president from the international community.

So a combination of having the institutional framework, the context of an upcoming summit, a winding-up presidency, and a desire to be remembered led to this decision. Many approaches would fail to produce a convincing narrative without accounting for such a diverse group of factors, demonstrating the usefulness of Steinmo's work.