As I write this blog, we are in mourning once again for the 7 killed by last weekend’s attack on a college Halloween party. Over 20 more were injured by the gunman, who was killed outside of a movie theater by police. To date, 4 of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in America have taken place in Texas. In just the past 2 years, 65 innocent Texans have died as a result of gun violence.
No one wants this to continue, but it’s been nearly impossible for people to agree how to stop mass shootings. People looking for solutions are also looking for somewhere to pin the blame. For the past few weeks, Todd Phillips’ Joker (2019) has been the subject of many articles about the landscape of gun violence in America. But can a movie really lead to a shooting?
At first, the worry over attacks inspired by Joker seemed misplaced—after all, the film wasn’t even out in theaters when the first articles appeared. Then, the reports started popping up: Fort Sill, OK, warned commanding officers that dark web posters had threatened a theater shooting. The theater in Aurora, CO where the tragic 2012 The Dark Knight Rises shooting happened took heed of early complaints and decided they wouldn’t screen the movie at all. Both AMC and Landmark theaters banned masks, costumes, and weapons for the duration of Joker showings, and police in Los Angeles, New York, and Texas decided to provide additional security at theaters. Even the FBI has come forward with news that they are monitoring threats.
Thankfully, no mass shooters have attacked theatergoers, nor have any violent attackers invoked the Joker of Phillips’ film to explain their actions. Some reporters have identified links between Joker’s main character and a group of young, single men who call themselves “incels.” These groups have been linked to past mass violence and even police have been warned they may be dangerous.
Joker, writers suggested, might give these groups a main character they saw as one of them. If they sympathized, might they reach the same conclusion he did in the film—that the world was mad, and violence the only answer? So far, and thankfully, this theory has not played out.
The Making of a Mass Shooter
Or has it? Though the Greenville shooting of this weekend didn’t directly invoke Joker, it’s difficult to not see parallels. The shooter had been fired the day of his rampage, much like the way the loss of his job led Joker’s main character to start a downward spiral. After hitting a low, he begins to question the world, and lash out with violent acts. Last weekend’s shooting took place at a Halloween party; though it’s not reported whether the shooter was wearing a costume, crime scene photos with discarded masks evoke the creepy, violent clown in the film. And, the shooter’s confrontation with the police—where he was killed—took place outside a movie theater.
We will never know what inspired the shooting, but the parallels are chilling, especially in the wake of the many debates about the film and its message on violence. Maybe the part we need to pay attention to is the similarity between Joker’s main character, this weekend’s shooter, and the many who have come before him. Lonely people have existed before; people who have lost their jobs, people who have been ridiculed. The Joker subtype isn’t new. In fact, perhaps the film was inspired by the mass shooter profile more than the other way around.
Copycats Aren’t Caused by Movies
Media has been an easy target for people who want to blame cultural change for crimes, but one thing we know is that if a mass shooter cites an inspiration, it is likely another who has committed the crime before them. Media coverage of violent attackers directly correlates to the likelihood of “copycat” shootings by others who want the same fame. For these shooters, the more harmful their attack, the better, as bigger tragedies spark more coverage. Strict media guidelines on mass violence are more likely to curb these copycat shooters than the refusal to screen a movie.
What’s the Best Way to Keep Communities Safe?
An undercurrent in these fears of violence, both from Joker and the Greenville shooting, is a feeling of being lost and left behind by society. Our fast-moving culture requires individuals to constantly adapt and, often, those who are in the worst positions don’t have the resources or ability to do so.
Our criminal justice system is another important part of that removal or denial from culture. Once you’ve been convicted, your permanent record labels you a “criminal” even if you just made one mistake. Though you may be able to clear your record, many crimes don’t even allow that reprieve regardless of one’s rehabilitation. Violent crime is serious, but everyone deserves a strong defense and the chance to improve their lives. Maybe instead of jumping right to criminal charges, fines, and jail time for every infraction, we should help people try to get back on their feet.
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