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Abstract

Between 2016 and 2017, Americans suffered 3 of the deadliest mass shootings in modern history by a lone gunman: the Orlando nightclub shooting, the Las Vegas strip shooting, and the Texas church shooting. We studied American gun owners in the wakes of these tragedies, theorizing that a byproduct of the salience of mass shootings is to increase the salience of guns as means of individual empowerment and significance. We hypothesized that this increase in salience would be especially relevant in the context of thwarted goals, because such individuals may be seeking a compensatory means to interact more effectively with their environment. In 4 studies of U.S. gun owners (N = 2,442), we tested whether mass shooting salience interacted with thwarted goals to predict justification to shoot suspected criminals, as well as ideas about armed vigilantism and perceptions that guns are means of empowerment. The thwarting of goals was either experimentally induced via failure on an achievement task (Study 1), or measured via perceptions of disempowerment in society (Studies 2-4). Mass shooting salience was measured via perceptions of mass shooting threat, as well as temporal proximity and social proximity to specific mass shooting events. Across studies, results indicated an interaction between thwarted goals and mass shooting salience; temporal proximity yielded mixed results. Altogether, thwarted goals motivate people to seek effectiveness and mattering, and guns are more likely to be perceived as means to such ends when mass shootings loom large in the mind. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2019 APA, all rights reserved).
Running head: MASS SHOOTINGS AND POWER
Mass Shootings and the Salience of Guns as Means of Compensation for Thwarted Goals
N. Pontus Leander1
Wolfgang Stroebe1
Jannis Kreienkamp1
Maximilian Agostini1
Ernestine Gordijn1
Arie W. Kruglanski2
In press, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
1. University of Groningen, Department of Social and Organizational Psychology
2. University of Maryland College Park, Department of Psychology
Corresponding author: N. Pontus Leander, Social and Organizational Psychology, 2/1 Grote
Kruisstraat, 9712 TS Groningen, The Netherlands. Email: n.p.leander@rug.nl
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Abstract
Between 2016 and 2017, Americans suffered three of the deadliest mass shootings in modern
history by a lone gunman: the Orlando nightclub shooting, the Las Vegas strip shooting, and the
Texas church shooting. We studied American gun owners in the wakes of these tragedies,
theorizing that a by-product of the salience of mass shootings is to increase the salience of guns
as means of individual empowerment and significance. We hypothesized that this increase in
salience would be especially relevant in the context of thwarted goals, because such individuals
may be seeking a compensatory means to interact more effectively with their environment. In 4
studies of U.S. gun owners (N = 2,442), we tested whether mass shooting salience interacted
with thwarted goals to predict justification to shoot suspected criminals, as well as ideas about
armed vigilantism and perceptions that guns are means of empowerment. The thwarting of goals
was either experimentally induced via failure on an achievement task (Study 1), or measured via
perceptions of disempowerment in society (Studies 2-4). Mass shooting salience was measured
via perceptions of mass shooting threat, as well as temporal proximity and social proximity to
specific mass shooting events. Across studies, results indicated an interaction between thwarted
goals and mass shooting salience; temporal proximity yielded mixed results. Altogether,
thwarted goals motivate people to seek effectiveness and mattering, and guns are more likely to
be perceived as means to such ends when mass shootings loom large in the mind.
Keywords: Mass shootings; guns; motivation; empowerment; social influence
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Mass Shootings and the Salience of Guns as Means of Compensation for Thwarted Goals
Nietzsche once famously warned that anyone who fights with monsters should take care
not to also become a monster, for “…when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into
you” (1886). This adage suggests that there is danger to allowing a threat to occupy the mind, in
that people may begin to mirror the threat and assimilate its corrupting features.
A century later, mass shootings regularly appear in media headlines and researchers
report increases in both the deadliness and frequency of such violence (Cohen, Azrael, & Miller,
2014; Krouse & Richardson, 2015). There are even potential contagion effects, in the sense that
mass shootings are often followed by a brief period of similar incidents of violence in the
community (Towers, Gomez-Lievano, Khan, Mubayi, & Castillo-Chavez, 2015). Accordingly,
psychologists note that media sensationalizing of mass shootings could be spreading dangerous
ideas about guns – namely, that they are means to achieve personal power, fame, or significance
(Bushman et al., 2016; Perrin, 2016). So far, however, there is little psychological research
testing these claims. Furthermore, beyond the extreme cases in which certain individuals get
inspired to engage in copycat violence (by becoming mass shooters themselves), there could also
be a more general process in which people seek to appropriate the symbolic power of guns to
address their own psychological needs. Research is needed to explain the general process
through which other individuals, for whom mass shootings loom large in the mind, come to see
guns as a means to empower themselves.
The pursuit of symbolic power, via guns, may be especially important in the context of
thwarted goals. The thwarting of goals can stimulate a shift towards more assertive means to
interact with the environment as part of a compensatory effort to reestablish a sense of
effectiveness and mattering (Kruglanski et al., 2013; 2014; Leander & Chartrand, 2017); such
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motivated responses can even fuel efforts to empower oneself through aggression and violence.
In this vein, Kruglanski and colleagues’ (2013) quest for significance model proposes that
various psychological needs (e.g., for efficacy, achievement, control, respect, etc.) are all
subsumed by a generalized need for effectiveness and mattering. When this need is frustrated by
personal failure, broadly defined, it motivates individuals to restore significance via whatever
means seem most promising for that purpose. Whereas violence is not the only means to feel
empowered and significant, it is a rather direct and primordial means. Based on a modification of
significance quest theory, the present work argues that the specific form of violence must fit the
value system of the individual’s group. Although violent extremists might expect their ingroup to
value terrorist acts against unarmed civilians, U.S. gun owners will be aware that society abhors
the killing of innocent people. Thus, gun owners will mainly seek to empower themselves
through societally valued narratives involving guns – such as shooting criminals, engaging in
vigilantism, and protecting the innocent. Such narratives may provide a sense of efficacy and
respect—and hence significance.
Thwarted Goals and the Search for Means of Compensation
The present research examines how the salience of mass shootings shapes gun owners’
perceptions of their guns and their affordances, especially in the context of thwarted goals.
Research increasingly suggests that guns are often perceived by their owners as sources of
empowerment, particularly against insecurity and perceptions of a threatening world (Jiobu &
Curry, 2001; Mencken & Froese, 2017). We theorize that when a mass shooting is highly salient,
gun owners who are struggling with failure and hardship, and, thus, seeking to empower
themselves, may unintentionally assimilate or appropriate the idea that guns offer power and
hence bestow significance on their owners.
Our model is rooted in the idea that human beings have a basic psychological need to
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have effective interactions with their environment. This need goes by many names: White (1959)
described it in terms of competence or effectance (see also Deci & Ryan, 2000; Sheldon, Elliot,
Kim, & Kasser, 2001); Bandura (1997) described it in terms of self-efficacy and wanting to
exercise agency upon the world; control motivation theorists describe it in terms of establishing
personal control over outcomes (e.g., Kay, Sullivan, & Landau, 2014); and power theorists
describe it as a general striving for agency (i.e. personal power; van Dijke & Poppe, 2006). What
binds these concepts is the idea that people want to believe in their capability to produce clear
effects in their environment. When this need is threatened, such as when one’s normative goal
pursuits are thwarted, individuals seek alternative means to empower themselves and
demonstrate that they are a force to be reckoned with.
Guns may provide such a means. We base this idea on past work suggesting that thwarted
goals increase willingness to consider aggressive or violent behaviors, because they provide a
sense of efficacy. For example, if one cannot restore efficacy directly in a thwarted goal domain,
one can restore it indirectly by engaging in unrelated acts of displaced aggression (Leander &
Chartrand, 2017). People may be especially likely to turn to guns because thwarted goals (and
disempowerment generally) increase their willingness to consider means that promise to restore a
sense of power. For example, mass shooters often appear to be motivated by chronic or
situational goal obstructions (e.g., frustrated achievement goals, negative social interactions,
aggrieved sense of success entitlement, etc., Bushman, 2017; Lankford, 2016; Levin & Madfis,
2009); in some cases, mass shooters may target symbols of their disempowerment (e.g., schools,
workplaces, groups) in a displaced attempt to restore a sense of power or control.
The notion that thwarted goals motivate the compensatory pursuit of symbolic power,
through violent means, connects to and extends Kruglanski and colleagues’ Quest for
Significance theory of violent extremism. To date, research into significance quest theory has
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mainly examined the special case of how significance loss increases individuals’ susceptibility to
violent radicalization and attraction to terrorist groups (Kruglanski, Chen, Deschesne, Fishman,
& Orehek, 2009; 2013; Webber at al., 2018). We presently investigate the possibility that the
same general model could be applied to everyday gun owners. If guns are indeed symbols of
individual empowerment (Jiobu & Curry, 2001; Mencken & Froese, 2017), then it is conceivable
that Americans who own guns (i.e., those who have the means available) may turn to them when
their goals are thwarted. However, it may take an external stimulus, such as a mass shooting, to
increase the salience of using guns to increase their sense of effectiveness and mattering.
Process Considerations and Moderators
The premise of our model is that when a mass shooting looms large in the mind, it
heightens the salience of guns as a means of personal empowerment. The means-appropriation
process we propose is akin to other processes of assimilation and social contagion, whereby mere
exposure to a behavior, such as violence, can suffice to activate or heighten the salience of
similar (violent) ideas in the perceiver’s mind; this, in turn, increases the likelihood that the
individual will adapt and apply those ideas to their own situation (e.g., Huesmann, 2012). Our
prediction that thwarted goals will facilitate the process is in harmony with past work suggesting
that assimilation and social contagion are often moderated by the motivational self-relevance of
the salient behavior (e.g., Aarts, Gollwitzer & Hassin, 2004; Weingarten et al., 2016). For
example, in a study on blame contagion, Fast and Tiedens (2010) found that observing someone
blame others for failure, ostensibly to protect their self-image, mainly only increased perceivers’
subsequent blaming if they had an unmet need to protect their own self-image. We accordingly
argue that goal-thwarted individuals have an unmet need for power, so when confronted with the
power of a mass shooter, they are more sensitive to the idea of using guns to empower
themselves.
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We further predict that mass shootings must be sufficiently salient for goal-thwarted
individuals to demonstrate any such means-shift towards guns. It is presently unclear how
assimilation could occur from threatening figures, especially given past work suggesting that
assimilation and social contagion effects are moderated by social closeness to the actor (e.g.,
interpersonal closeness or ingroup membership, Leander, Shah, & Chartrand, 2009; Loersch,
Aarts, Payne & Jefferis, 2008). Most people may not feel socially close to a mass shooter. Yet,
there are other forms of psychological closeness that may produce similar effects: Liberman and
Trope (2014) theorize that social closeness is but one dimension of a more general principle of
psychological distance between the self and any given person, object, or event. According to the
theory, different dimensions of distance are positively correlated in the mind: spatial proximity
corresponds with perceptions of interpersonal closeness (Maglio & Polman, 2014), probability of
an event corresponds with expectations of it occurring in close temporal, spatial, and social
proximity (Wakslak, 2012); even emotional intensity increases perceptions of an event’s
psychological proximity (Van Boven, Kane, McGraw, & Dale, 2010). When applied to threat
perceptions, the severity of the threat posed by a stranger or outgroup predicts estimates of its
physical closeness (Cole, Balcetis & Dunning, 2013; Xiao & Van Bavel, 2012), and reactions to
a disease threat are stronger when manipulating various dimensions of proximity to the threat
(spatial, temporal, social, or probability, White, Johnson, & Kwan, 2014). Thus, people need not
be socially close to the perpetrator of a mass shooting to be influenced; other dimensions of
psychological distance may suffice – such as the salient threat of being in a mass shooting,
spatiotemporal proximity to an attack, or even social closeness to the victims of a recent attack.
The Present Research
We conducted four studies on American gun owners to examine how thwarted goals
interact with salience of mass shootings to increase ideas about assertive gun use. The present
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research was conducted between June 2016 and November 2017, when Americans suffered three
of the deadliest mass shootings by a lone gunman in modern U.S. history: the 2016 Orlando
nightclub shooting (49 killed, 53 wounded), the 2017 Las Vegas strip shooting (58 killed, 851
wounded and injured), and the 2017 Texas church shooting (26 killed, 20 wounded). We studied
U.S. gun owners in the wakes of these tragedies, theorizing that the psychological influence of
mass shootings will often be a product of thwarted goals interacting with psychological
proximity to such violence. That is, first, the perceiver must be sufficiently motivated to be
searching for means to address their psychological needs for efficacy and significance; second,
mass shootings must be sufficiently vivid or salient to invoke the idea of using guns as means to
such ends. We further theorized that the salience of a mass shooting need not inspire ideas about
copycat violence per se to be influential; such salience could merely increase ideas about using
guns to pursue psychological needs unrelated to safety – such as an unfulfilled desire to
experience effective interactions with the environment and to show the world that one matters.
Salience of mass shootings was operationalized via different dimensions of psychological
proximity, including individual differences in the perceived threat of mass shootings generally
(i.e., perceived realness of such threats to the self), as well as temporal proximity and social
proximity to specific mass shooting events. The external thwarting of goals was either
experimentally induced (Study 1) or measured via generalized sense of disempowerment in
society (Studies 2-4). We predicted that the external thwarting of goals and the salience of mass
shootings would interactively affect endorsement of assertive gun use. We further predicted that
the increase would be mediated by perceptions that guns are means of personal empowerment
and ideas about vigilantism. The theoretical model is presented in Figure 1.
All data were collected before analysis and all manipulations and exclusions are reported.
The full surveys are available in the supplemental material. Study 1 was an exploratory study,
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conducted in response to the Orlando Nightclub shooting in 2016, and it focused on establishing
the interaction of thwarted goals and the perceived threat of mass shootings. Study 2 was
conducted one year after the Orlando Nightclub shooting (but before the 2017 mass shootings in
studies 3 and 4); it served as a conceptual replication in which we additionally explored whether
perceived temporal proximity to mass shootings moderates the predicted effect. Study 3 was
conducted in response to the 2017 Las Vegas strip shooting using an objective measure of
temporal proximity to the mass shooting (namely, days since the attack). Study 4 was conducted
in response to the 2017 Texas church shooting using a measure of social proximity to the
shooting (namely, whether participants were frequent churchgoers). These factors could increase
psychological proximity and, thus, the salience of mass shootings, and thereby increase the
likelihood of assimilating ideas that guns are means to power and, thus, significance.
Study 1: Orlando Nightclub Shooting
Study 1 was conducted in the days immediately following the 2016 Orlando nightclub
shooting, in which a gunman killed 49 people and wounded 53 others at the Pulse nightclub in
Orlando, FL. At the time, it was the deadliest mass shooting by a lone gunman in modern U.S.
history. The aim of the study was to test whether the salient threat of mass shootings interacts
with thwarted goals to predict participants’ subsequent ideas about assertive gun use. We first
measured gun owners’ perceived likelihood of being present in a mass shooting. We then
instantiated a thwarted goal through a manipulation of failure on an achievement-oriented
cognitive task. The main dependent measure was justification to shoot a suspected home intruder
– a violent narrative relevant to gun owners, but one that is unrelated to the threat of mass
shooters per se.
We hypothesized that failure would interact with mass shooting threat, in that failure only
increases justification to shoot among those for whom mass shootings are highly salient.
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However, we theorized that the reason for such moderation was based on mass shootings giving
rise to ideas that guns are means of empowerment. Therefore, we further predicted that the
increased justification to shoot would be mediated by a corresponding increase in the perception
that guns are means of personal empowerment, which would illustrate that the attraction to the
violent narrative of stopping a suspected criminal is linked to compensation for an unrelated goal
failure experience.
Method
Participants. Participants were recruited online via the market research firm Qualtrics
Panels. We recruited 450 male American gun owners to ensure sufficient statistical power to
detect small effects of our two predictors: the failure manipulation and mass shooting threat
salience. Power was maximized by focusing on gun owners (the relevant subpopulation) within
3-10 days of the Orlando mass shooting (a relevant context).
1
A prescreening questionnaire
further ensured that participants were at least minimally aware of the Orlando shooting, in
addition to being gun owners (“Do you own a gun?”, yes/no).
2
We focused on men because they
are more likely than women to own guns (Gallup, 2013). Participants were otherwise stratified
based on region of country, age, education, and income to ensure a broad sample across the
1
To maximize power, via our methods, our questionnaires were developed in consultation with
two gun-industry professionals to minimize biased language and terminology; we also used
dependent measures directly relevant to gun use and validated our indicator of thwarted goals
either with a manipulation check (Study 1) or construct validity tests (Studies 2-4).
2
It is possible that some participants reported minimal awareness of the Orlando shooting simply
because the pre-screen question informed them about it. We dropped this screening criterion
from future studies and simply measured their levels of knowledge of the event. In Study 3, just
1.05% of the participants reported no knowledge of the Las Vegas shooting; excluding these
participants had no bearing on any of the results. In Study 4, all participants reported at least
some knowledge of the Texas shooting.
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United States. Twenty-three additional respondents were excluded for providing unusable data
(e.g., straight lined responses, nonsensical text entries).
3
Procedure. The informed consent form stated that our purpose was to assess beliefs,
attitudes, and experiences regarding gun ownership, the use of firearms, and the Orlando mass
shooting. Participants first completed a questionnaire battery that included our moderator
variable (mass shooting threat salience), which was assessed in counterbalanced order with what
types of guns they owned and their reasons for gun ownership. The survey also included
questions speculating on the gunman’s motivations and what might have prevented the shooting.
Participants then completed the task failure manipulation and the dependent measures.
Mass shooting threat. The proposed moderator, perceived likelihood of being present
during a mass shooting, was added to the end of a scale measuring perceived lifetime risk of
assault (Stroebe et al., 2017a).
4
In this scale, participants are asked, “What do you estimate is the
likelihood the following will happen in your lifetime (in your future)?” This question is followed
by ratings of perceived likelihood of various types of violent crime (being mugged, violently
attacked, or having one’s home invaded by an armed burglar, each rated 1 = not at all to 7 =
extremely likely); to explore our mass shooting prediction we added a new item, “You will be
present during a mass shooting” (M = 2.69, SD = 1.67). Scores on the mass shooting item were
3
We did not expect the predicted effects to replicate among gun non-owners; however, when we
conducted Study 1, we also conducted a similar study on gun nonowners (N = 471). In brief,
none of the reported effects were replicated in the nonowner study (see Supplemental Material
for full results). This is hardly surprising because nonowners do not possess the relevant means
(guns), they may not be familiar with the sense of power a gun affords, and some might even be
ideologically opposed to gun use by private citizens (Gallup, 2013; Stroebe et al., 2017a). We
reflect on our samples and their generalizability in the General Discussion.
4
It so happened that in the days leading up to the Orlando tragedy, we had collected data for a
study on gun ownership and fear of crime (N = 404). The prior study used the same methods
reported here but did not measure mass shooting threat specifically. It yielded no direct effects of
failure or interactions of failure and perceived lifetime risk of assault (see supplemental
analyses). This helps to suggest that the specific threat of mass shootings needs to be salient.
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significantly lower than the general measure of violent crime threat (M = 2.69 vs. M = 3.51,
t(449) = -12.59, p < .001), so we treated it as a separate moderator.
Failure task manipulation. To induce a thwarted achievement goal (and, thus, a need for
empowerment), participants were randomly assigned to receive an impossible (vs. easy)
cognitive test. Past research observed that achievement goals can be experimentally thwarted by
manipulating whether participants are asked to work on difficult (vs. easy) puzzles from Raven’s
(1962) Progressive Matrices (Bongers, Dijksterhuis, & Spears, 2009). It was presented as a test
of general cognitive ability, and that “Higher cognitive ability is linked to a person's intellectual
capacity, career potential, and frequency of goal success across the lifespan.” Participants in the
failure condition (vs. control/success) were instructed “…the standard is to solve each puzzle
in 12 (vs. 36) seconds. Therefore, if you do not answer a given puzzle, you will be given a new
one after about 17 (51) seconds.” The test itself included nine puzzles from Raven’s Progressive
Matrices (Raven, 1962). Participants in the failure condition received two puzzles of medium
difficulty, then five puzzles that were too hard to realistically solve in 17 s, and finally two
impossible puzzles. Participants in the control condition instead received nine easy puzzles.
Before each puzzle was a loading screen with a stylized image of a brain and other subtle cues to
imply a context of intellectual achievement.
Manipulation check. Participants then rated their affect and general attitudes towards
guns, neither of which had any impact on the present results. We nevertheless examined the
affect ratings to ensure that the failure manipulation was indeed experienced as aversive.
Participants rated their hostile affect (angry, irritated, frustrated, α = .89), anxiety (tense, anxious,
nervous, α = .86), and quiescence (calm, relaxed, serene, α = .79, see Schaefer, Nils, Sanchez, &
Philippot, 2010). As to be expected, the failure manipulation increased hostile and anxious affect
and decreased quiescent affect (all Fs > 9.29, ps < .002, ηp2 = .02-.06). This suggests the failure
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manipulation was successful at producing an aversive psychological state. Self-reported affect
otherwise had no bearing on the results and will not be discussed further.
5
Dependent measures. We had predicted that any increased justification for gun use
would be mediated by a corresponding perception that guns are empowering. Prior to assessing
the main dependent measure, we assessed the extent to which participants perceived guns as
means to increase their efficacy. Participants were asked, “How effective is gun possession as a
means of…” and then rated various uses for guns. The variable of interest was “Personal
empowerment” (rated 1= not effective at all to 7= extremely effective, M = 4.56, SD = 1.93). The
empowerment item was appropriately embedded among several other items to minimize
suspicions regarding our interest in empowerment.
The main dependent variable measured justification to shoot; that is, the extent to which
participants believed it was justified to discharge a firearm in a potential home invasion scenario
(Stroebe et al, 2017a). Participants first read: “If a person encounters an intruder, in his home, in
the middle of the night, how justified is it for him to…” and on separate screens, they rated
“…fire a warning shot to scare off the intruder” (1= Not at all justified to 7= Totally justified)
“…shoot and wound the intruder”, “shoot and kill the intruder”, plus two controversial uses
based on “stand-your-ground” laws, “shoot the intruder, even if the intruder is already trying to
flee the home”, and “…shoot the intruder, even if the homeowner is otherwise alone and can get
out safely” (overall M = 5.12, SD = 1.32, α = .80). Participants subsequently completed
questionnaires and were fully debriefed at the end of the study.
Results
5
That the failure manipulation led to shifts in self-reported affect, but the affect measures did not
predict subsequent endorsement of violence, is consistent with the results of Leander and
Chartrand (2017). They argue that when thwarted goals increase displaced aggression, it is often
a product of motivation, not negative affect per se.
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A regression analysis predicted the belief that guns are empowering from the failure
manipulation, perceived likelihood of being present during a mass shooting (standardized), and
their interaction. Results indicated no direct effect of failure per se, B = 0.10, 95% CI [-0.08,
0.27], t(446) = 1.07, p = .286, but rather a direct effect of perceived likelihood being present
during a mass shooting, B = 0.36, 95% CI [0.19, 0.54], t(446) = 4.07, p < .001, which was
qualified by a theoretically consistent two-way interaction with the failure manipulation, B =
0.21, 95% CI [0.03 0.38], t(446) = 2.31, p = .021. As illustrated in Figure 2 (left panel), simple
slopes analyses indicated that failure increased beliefs that guns are empowering only at higher
levels of perceived likelihood of being present during a mass shooting (1 SD), B = .30, 95% CI
[0.05, 0.55], t(446) = 2.39, p = .017, and not at lower levels of perceived likelihood (-1 SD), B =
-0.11, 95% CI [-0.36, 0.14], t = -0.88, p = .380.
A second regression analysis indicated the same pattern for justification to shoot. Results
again indicated no direct effect of failure per se, B = 0.07, 95% CI [-0.05, 0.19], t(446) = 1.20, p
= .230, but rather a direct effect of perceived likelihood of being present during a mass shooting,
B = 0.17, 95% CI [0.05, 0.29], t(446) = 2.73, p = .007, which was qualified by a two-way
interaction, B = 0.19, 95% CI [0.07, 0.31], t(446) = 3.13, p = .002. As illustrated in Figure 2
(right panel), simple slopes analyses indicated that failure increased justification to shoot at
higher levels of perceived likelihood of being present during a mass shooting (1 SD), B = 0.27,
95% CI [0.10, 0.44], t(446) = 3.06, p = .002; failure had no effect at lower levels of perceived
likelihood (-1 SD), B = -0.12, 95% CI [-0.29, 0.05], t(446) = -1.37, p = .173.
We theorized that any increase in justification to shoot would be because of thwarted
goals increasing motivation to empower oneself and mass shootings increasing the salience of
using guns as means to such ends. As such, the observed increase in justification to shoot should
directly correspond with the increased belief that guns are empowering. A moderated mediation
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analysis tested whether the two-way interactions on both dependent variables were related
(PROCESS Model 8, 5000 resamples, bias-corrected bootstrap CIs, Hayes, 2012). The overall
index of moderated mediation was reliable, B = .0.04, 95% CI [0.01, 0.09]. Tests of the
conditional indirect effects indicated a reliable indirect effect (failure à belief that guns are
empowering à justification to shoot) at 1 SD perceived likelihood of being present during a
mass shooting, B = .30, 95% bias-corrected bootstrap CI [0.03, 0.27], but not at -1 SD perceived
likelihood, B = .09, 95% CI [-0.08, 0.27].
6
The increased justification to shoot was mediated by
an increased belief that guns are empowering.
Discussion
Results supported our hypotheses: failure interacted with mass shooting threat to predict
increased justification to shoot a suspected home intruder, and the increased justification to shoot
was mediated by a corresponding increase in perceptions that guns are means of empowerment.
Note also that, although there was a direct effect of mass shooting threat on both variables—
potentially implying a general effect of mass shooting threat, it was qualified by the two-way
interaction. Especially under conditions of failure and higher mass shooting threat did
participants show increased empowerment beliefs and justification to shoot.
The results are, consequently, in line with our theorizing: First, there had to be an
external goal obstruction to motivate a search for means to increase one’s efficacy over the
environment. Second, mass shootings had to be a sufficiently looming threat to make salient the
idea of using guns as means to such ends. This suggests that the social psychological impact of
mass shootings may include making salient and accessible the idea that guns are a means to
empowerment.
There were also limitations of the first study. First, although the failure manipulation
6
The full pattern of mediation is in Figure S1 (supplemental analyses).
MASS SHOOTINGS AND POWER
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appeared to increase motivation for empowerment, it may also have caused fatigue or self-
regulatory depletion, which can impair inhibition of violent impulses (e.g., DeWall, Baumeister,
Stillman, & Gailliot, 2007). Although the pursuit of empowerment and reduced inhibition may
not be entirely independent (e.g., Smith, Jostmann, Galinsky, & Van Dijk, 2008), fatigue is an
alternative mechanism. A different instantiation of thwarted goals could help to provide
convergent validity that a subjective sense of goal frustration is indeed a predictor of the process
we are testing.
A second limitation is that the present study did not account for temporal proximity to the
Orlando shooting. Our model assumes that the threat of mass shootings need only loom large in
the mind to increase ideas about using guns as means of psychological empowerment. However,
it is unclear how and whether temporal proximity to the Orlando shooting contributed to the
results. In the present study, 70% of the data were collected on a single day, just 3 days after the
shooting, and there was no moderating effect of time. This is not inherently problematic for our
model, but it means that proximity is assumed. In Studies 2 and 3 we, consequently, sought to
assess the stability of the effects in conceptual replications and also test whether a boundary
condition of our model is indeed temporal proximity to a mass shooting, be it merely perceived
(Study 2) or actual number of days since a high-profile shooting occurred (Las Vegas, Study 3).
Study 2
A cross-sectional study was conducted about a year after the Orlando nightclub shooting.
The first aim was to replicate the main finding of Study 1 – that thwarted goals and the salient
threat of mass shootings interactively increase ideas about gun use. The second aim was to
increase the convergent validity and ecological validity of our model.
The present study sought to assess participants’ thwarted goals and corresponding need
for empowerment via their subjective sense of disempowerment in society; that is, a belief that
MASS SHOOTINGS AND POWER
17
external societal forces have made it harder for them to function effectively. A subjective sense
of goal thwarting at the societal level should produce the same pattern of results as the situational
goal thwarting used in Study 1, with the assumption that the predicted pattern should not be
idiosyncratic to any single operationalization of significance loss. Our reasoning is in harmony
with prior work on significance quest theory, which indicates that different instantiations of
failure, be it experimentally induced or measured in real world professional, economic, and
relational domains (cf. Jasko, Lafree, & Kruglanski, 2016; Webber et al, 2018; Webber &
Kruglanski, 2017), can all strengthen support for violence against an outgroup and/or unleash
aggression against the perceived enemy of one’s in-group.
Measuring disempowerment in society may be especially relevant for understanding
surges in support for gun use by private citizens: criminologists have long theorized that social
forces can thwart goals by blocking access to legitimate means for goal pursuit, or creating
conditions of perceived inequity, which lead people to turn to violence as an alternative means to
interact with the environment (Agnew, 1992). Social psychologists have accordingly theorized
that perceived group disadvantage, alienation, and relative deprivation increases endorsement of
violent action to reestablish personal significance (e.g., Kruglanski et al., 2009). However, our
model assumes that a person’s reference group determines the types of violent action that are
deemed competent and appropriate. U.S. gun owners under economic distress often derive a
sense of moral empowerment from their guns (Mencken & Froese, 2017), suggesting a desire to
use such violence for a good cause. The economically disadvantaged may also tend to defend
and justify the social and economic system they are struggling in, leading them to redirect or
displace their frustrations at convenient scapegoats (Azevedo, Jost, & Rothmund, 2017). As
such, societal disempowerment may facilitate ideas about more assertive gun use, but for average
gun owners it will probably be manifested in normatively heroic narratives of gun use against
MASS SHOOTINGS AND POWER
18
suspected violent criminals.
The main dependent variable was justification to shoot a suspected home intruder, but we
added a second dependent variable assessing willingness to engage in heroic vigilantism against
a range of “bad guys” in society. This could involve empowering narratives of drawing or
discharging a firearm to save a helpless victim, overpower a gunman, or scare off suspected
troublemakers. Disempowered individuals may be drawn to such narratives not simply because
they are violent, but because they invoke notions of effectiveness and success (Kruglanski et al.,
2013; Kruglanski et al., 2014; Kruglanski, Jasko, Chernikova, Dugas, & Webber, 2017). A
willingness to be the “good guy with a gun” implies acting heroically, and part of the appeal of
heroes is that they help people overcome social-psychological threats (Kinsella, Ritchie, & Igou,
2015). Whereas justification to shoot a home intruder focuses on how assertive or aggressive one
might be in a self-defense scenario, vigilantism involves a more expansive narrative of heroic
action rather than being purely about self-defense per se.
We hypothesized that disempowerment in society would interact with mass shooting
threat to predict justification to shoot a home intruder and willingness to engage in vigilantism.
However, in contrast to Study 1, which was conducted in the immediate aftermath of a deadly
mass shooting, this study was conducted outside the context of a high-profile mass shooting. We
were, therefore, concerned that even if people reported high levels of mass shooting threat, the
lack of a recent shooting would minimize the salience of such violence. To assess whether
temporal proximity to a mass shooting was an important determinant of its salience, we
measured the perceived likelihood that another mass shooting would happen in the United States
within the next month. We expected that the two-way interaction of disempowerment and mass
shooting threat would be further qualified by perceived temporal proximity to another attack.
Method
MASS SHOOTINGS AND POWER
19
Participants. There were 875 American handgun owners who were recruited online via
the market research firm Qualtrics Panels. Participants were again recruited based on region of
country, age, education, and income to get a broad sample across the U.S.A. The sample differed
from that of Study 1: first, we only recruited handgun owners (i.e., pistols, revolvers) because
handguns are optimal defensive weapons due to their portability and concealability. Second, this
sample included both men (n = 432) and women (n = 443); gender did not moderate the results
and will, therefore, not be discussed further. Third, we sought to double the sample size to
accommodate the additional moderator (perceived proximity to the next mass shooting) while
maintaining acceptable statistical power. Forty-five additional respondents were excluded for
providing unusable data (i.e., straight lining, duplicate IP addresses, and nonsensical text entry
responses), and two more had missing data on critical variables.
Procedure. The informed consent stated that our purpose was to assess beliefs, attitudes,
and experiences regarding handgun ownership and the use of firearms. There was no
experimental manipulation, so we focus on the hypothesis-relevant variables below; the full
survey is available in the supplemental materials. At the end of the survey, participants were
debriefed about the nature of the study.
Disempowerment in society. Three items assessed the external thwarting of goals: “Not a
lot is done for people like me in America” (rated 1= disagree strongly to 5= agree strongly), “If I
compare myself against other Americans, my group is worse off” (rated 1= disagree strongly to
5= agree strongly), and “Recent events in society have increased my struggles in daily life”
(rated 1= not at all to 5= a great deal). There was also a fourth item, meant to be reverse coded
(“People like me are appreciated in America”), but including it undermined scale reliability so
we created an index for disempowerment in society with only the three items (α = .71, M = 2.97,
MASS SHOOTINGS AND POWER
20
SD = 0.95, with two missing).
7
Scale validation was conducted following the guideline of Flake,
Pek, and Helman (2017), which provides options for establishing substantive, structural, and
external validity. With regards to substantive validity, the aim was to convey a subjective sense
of goal thwarting; accordingly, each item explicitly assessed perceptions of disadvantage and
struggle blamed on broader societal forces. The structural and external validity of this three-item
scale were tested post-hoc via an independent sample of 654 U.S. adults from Amazon’s
Mechanical Turk. Full details are included in the supplemental analyses, but in brief, structural
validity was established first via item analyses, then by a factor analysis indicating that the three
items successfully loaded onto a single construct, which was structurally independent of other,
potentially related constructs. Finally, scale reliability tests indicated good reliability (α = .78)
with interitem correlations ranging from r = .46 to r = .66. External validity was then established
via structural equation modelling, in which the scale correlated appropriately with other scales
pertaining to lacking power and seeking power. Specifically, disempowerment in society
predicted a lower sense of power (β = -0.39, 95% CI [-0.48, -0.30], p < .001, see Anderson,
John, & Keltner, 2012); yet, supporting our idea that disempowerment increases sensitivity to
perceiving power in others, the scale predicted higher perceptions that a mass shooter possesses
power (β = 0.12, 95% CI [0.01, 0.24], p = .04, see Magee, 2009). Altogether, the scale validation
supported our use of this scale as an indicator of thwarted goals and a corresponding search for
means of empowerment.
Mass shooting threat. For the main moderator, participants reported the perceived
likelihood of being present during a mass shooting (1= not likely at all to 5= very likely) and the
extent to which they worried about being present in a mass shooting (rated 1= never worry to 5=
7
We separately assessed the perceived risk of losing one’s job, but this item had no bearing on
the results, nor did it hang together with perceived disempowerment.
MASS SHOOTINGS AND POWER
21
worry constantly). Similar to Study 1, these items were embedded among other risk perceptions
and worries over violent crime. The two items pertaining to likelihood and worry of being
present during a mass shooting were combined into a single scale (α = .79, M = 2.64, SD = 1.15).
Perceived temporal proximity of mass shootings. The additional moderator of mass
shooting salience was measured with a single item, “What do you estimate is the likelihood that,
in the next month, a mass shooting will occur somewhere in the USA?” (rated 1= not likely at all
to 5= extremely likely, M = 3.81, SD = 1.08).
Dependent measures. The main dependent measure, justification to shoot, was a
shortened version of the home intruder vignette used in Study 1: “If you encounter an intruder, in
your home, in the middle of the night, how justified is it to…” On separate screens, they rated
three responses “…shoot the intruder“…shoot the intruder, even if the intruder is already trying
to flee the home”, and “shoot the intruder, even if you are otherwise alone and can get out
safely”, each rated 1= not at all justified to 5= totally justified (M = 3.70, SD = 1.03, α = .75).
The second dependent measure was willingness to engage in gun-related vigilantism
(“vigilantism”). Participants read, “Might you ever consider drawing or discharging a firearm
to…”, and then rated each of three items, “Save a vulnerable stranger in distress”, “Stop an
active shooter situation”, and “Deter intimidation by troublemakers,” on a five-point scale
(labeled Definitely not, Probably not, Might or might not, Probably yes, Definitely yes; M =
3.76, SD = 0.81, α = .64). Scale validation was again conducted in accordance with the
guidelines of Flake et al. (2017), with full details provided in the supplemental analyses.
8
With
regards to substantive validity, each item was meant to convey a proactive intervention with guns
rather than an act of self-defense per se. Structural validity was ensured via item analyses, factor
8
Scale validation was conducted using the data collected for Study 3 (Las Vegas); in that study,
we also only recruited handgun owners and, thus, the vigilantism items would be self-relevant.
MASS SHOOTINGS AND POWER
22
analysis, and reliability tests. In brief, the three items loaded reliably onto a single construct that
was independent of an established scale pertaining exclusively to the right to kill in self-defense
(i.e., to defend one self, one’s family, and/or one’s home, Cohen & Nisbett, 1994). External
validity was demonstrated by showing that, unlike the right to self-defense scale, the vigilantism
scale was positively correlated with beliefs about extrajudicial gun use, such as a right to take the
law into one’s own hands against suspected violent criminals, or to shoot a suspected perpetrator
of a mass shooting who has already surrendered. Altogether, the scale validation supported our
use of this scale as an indicator of vigilantism.
Results
The focal aim was to replicate the two-way interaction pattern observed after the Orlando
tragedy, but we added perceived temporal proximity to the next mass shooting as a moderator.
There were only small positive correlations between all the independent variables (see Table 1),
so we proceeded with the planned analyses. Separate regression analyses predicted vigilantism
and justification to shoot from disempowerment in society (standardized), perceived threat of
mass shootings (standardized), perceived proximity to the next mass shooting (standardized), and
all possible interactions.
Effects on justification to shoot. Full regression results are reported in Table 2. There
was a positive direct effect of temporal proximity, B = 0.09, 95% CI [0.01, 0.17], t(867) = 2.13,
p = .034, but not the hypothesized two-way interaction of disempowerment and mass shooting
threat, B = 0.02, 95% CI [-0.05, 0.09], t(867) = 0.58, p = .564. Instead, there was a three-way
interaction of disempowerment, mass shooting threat, and temporal proximity to the next mass
shooting, B = 0.10, 95% CI [0.03, 0.16], t(867) = 2.84, p = .005. As illustrated in Figure 3 (top
panels), our predicted two-way interaction of mass shooting threat and disempowerment was
only observed among those who strongly believed another mass shooting would occur in the next
MASS SHOOTINGS AND POWER
23
month. This interpretation was supported by probes of the three-way interaction, which indicated
a positive simple interaction of disempowerment and mass shooting threat at 1 SD perceived
proximity to the next mass shooting, B = 0.12, 95% CI [0.03, 0.21], t(867) = 2.51, p = .012, but
not at -1 SD perceived proximity, B = -0.07, 95% CI [-0.18, 0.03], t(867) = -1.40, p = .162.
Effects on vigilantism. Full regression results are in Table 3. There was a positive direct
effect of disempowerment in society, B = 0.11, 95% CI [0.05, 0.17], t(867) = 3.51, p = .001,
which was qualified by the predicted two-way interaction of disempowerment and mass shooting
threat, B = 0.06, 95% CI [0.003, 0.12], t(867) = 2.06, p = .040. The two-way interaction was
further qualified by a three-way interaction with perceived temporal proximity to the next mass
shooting, B = 0.08, 95% CI [0.02, 0.13], t(867) = 2.86, p = .004. As illustrated in Figure 3
(bottom panels), the overall pattern of the data for vigilantism resembled the pattern for
justification to shoot. A probe of the three-way interaction again indicated a positive simple
interaction of disempowerment and mass shooting threat only at 1 SD perceived proximity to the
next mass shooting, B = 0.13, 95% CI [0.06, 0.21], t(867) = 3.70, p < .001, and not at -1 SD
perceived proximity, B = -0.02, 95% CI [-0.10, 0.07], t(867) = -0.39, p = .700. Disempowerment
mainly only predicted vigilantism at higher levels of perceived mass shooting threat and
proximity.
The effects on vigilantism also mediated the effects on justification to shoot: A mediation
analysis using PROCESS (Model 12, 5000 resamples, bias-corrected, Hayes, 2012), tested the
indirect effect (disempowerment à vigilantism à justification to shoot) at different levels of
mass shooting threat and temporal proximity. Results indicated that the indirect effect of
disempowerment was reliable at higher levels of threat and temporal proximity: There were no
reliable indirect effects at -1 SD mass shooting threat, irrespective of temporal proximity (all
confidence intervals crossed zero). Even at 1 SD mass shooting threat, the indirect effect was
MASS SHOOTINGS AND POWER
24
unreliable at -1 SD temporal proximity B = .0.01, 95% CI [-0.02, 0.04]. However, the indirect
effect was reliable at 1 SD mass shooting threat and 1 SD temporal proximity, B = .0.06, 95% CI
[0.03, 0.09].
9
The overall index of moderated-moderated mediation was marginally reliable, B =
.0.01, 95% CI [0.00, 0.03]. The increased justification to shoot was at least partly explained by
increased ideas about vigilantism.
Discussion
The hypothesized interaction of disempowerment and the salient threat of mass shootings
on justification to shoot was only fully supported when including perceived temporal proximity
to the next mass shooting as an additional moderator. Apparently, the perceived threat of mass
shootings had to be seen as a proximal or imminent threat to prompt a reaction. This is consistent
with findings of Study 1, wherein the threat was proximal (i.e., measures were taken immediately
after a high-profile mass shooting), as well as with other previous research suggesting that
perceived proximity to a threat magnifies responses to the threat (White et al, 2014). Therefore,
in line with our theorizing, disempowerment increases justification to shoot only to the extent
that mass shootings are highly salient. Furthermore, the effects on justification to shoot
corresponded with ideas about vigilantism, which is consistent with work showing that people
who experience inefficacy or failure become attracted to violent narratives and notions of
heroism, presumably because they depict efficacy and success (Kinsella et al, 2015; Kruglanski
et al., 2013).
Altogether, Studies 1 and 2 suggest that a byproduct of mass shootings looming large in
the mind is to facilitate more assertive and expansive ideas about using guns to protect oneself
and one’s community. This was especially the case among those who reported disempowerment
9
The indirect effect remained reliable as long as both moderators were at least ~0 SD or greater.
The full pattern of mediation is in Figure S2 (supplemental analyses).
MASS SHOOTINGS AND POWER
25
in society—those whom we theorize to be goal thwarted and thus motivationally ready to
empower themselves via (heroic) violent action. With the basic pattern established, we
proceeded to test our model in response to another high-profile mass shooting, wherein we
sought to replicate the moderating effects of mass shooting threat and temporal proximity.
Study 3: Las Vegas Strip Shooting
On October 1, 2017, a few months after Study 2 was conducted, a gunman in Las Vegas
opened fire into a crowd of up to 22,000 attendees of a country music festival, killing 58 people
and wounding/injuring 851. It surpassed the Orlando nightclub shooting as the deadliest mass
shooting by a lone gunman in U.S. history. We thus sought to conduct our survey again to assess
the predicted interaction of mass shooting threat and thwarted goals, which were operationalized
via the same variables used in Study 2.
We also sought to examine the effects of temporal proximity more closely in the present
study. We thus hypothesized that any two-way interaction between disempowerment in society
and mass shooting threat would be further qualified by participants’ proximity to the Las Vegas
shooting, operationalized as the number of days that had transpired between the shooting and
their date of participation in the study. We collected the data within 9-23 days of the Las Vegas
shooting to ensure that the event was still being covered by national media outlets throughout the
entire data collection period.
10
However, research on mass shooting contagion (i.e., an initial
surge in similar violence in the community) suggests that it typically only lasts an average of 13
days before decaying (Towers et al., 2015). To test for such a decay over time, we assumed the
two-way interaction pattern of thwarted goals and the salient threat of mass shootings would
10
The Las Vegas strip shooting remained in the national media headlines throughout the data
collection period. A LexisNexis analysis of media stories about the shooting in top national news
outlets (such as CNN, Fox News, etc.), ranged from 108 on the first day of data collection to 11
on the last day of data collection (see Figure S4 in the supplemental material for details).
MASS SHOOTINGS AND POWER
26
initially be stronger and then weaken over time. Altogether, our first aim was to replicate the
two-way interaction between societal disempowerment and mass shooting threat. Our second
aim was to test how temporal proximity to the shooting further moderates the predicted effect.
Method
Participants. There were 858 American handgun owners who were recruited online via
the market research firm Qualtrics Panels (509 men and 349 women). Participants were recruited
by region of country, age, education, and income to get a broad sample across the United States.
An additional one hundred twelve respondents were excluded for providing unusable data
(straight lining, duplicate IP addresses, or nonsensical text entry responses). Note that, whereas
all the data for the Orlando shooting were collected within 3-10 days, data collection for the Las
Vegas strip shooting was spread between 9 and 23 days, giving more room to test decay over
time.
11
Procedure. The questionnaire was based on that used in Study 2 and thus had the same
key independent and dependent variables. However, similar to Study 1 (following the Orlando
nightclub shooting), the survey included initial questions speculating on the gunman’s
motivations and what might have prevented the shooting. The first independent variable was
disempowerment in society (M = 2.91, SD = 0.90, α = .62); the second independent variable was
mass shooting threat (M = 2.36, SD = 1.07, α = .78). These variables represent our core model
with regards to our hypothesized interaction. To test whether proximity to the Las Vegas
shooting had a stronger initial effect that decayed over time, we assessed the number of days that
transpired between the shooting and each participant’s date of participation (range: 9-23 days, M
11
There were two large spikes in data collection on October 12 (n = 302) and October 18 (n =
267) that led to high kurtosis. Results were virtually unchanged when we re-coded the data into
the three periods marked by the spikes (period ending October 12 [coded -1]; period ending
October 18 [coded 0]; and afterwards [coded 1]).
MASS SHOOTINGS AND POWER
27
= 14.87, SD = 3.80). The dependent variables were justification to shoot a home intruder (M =
3.72, SD = 1.00, α = .74) and willingness to engage in vigilantism (M = 3.75, SD = 0.84, α =
.69). Correlations between variables are in Table 4.
Results
Effects on Justification to shoot. Full regression results are presented in Table 5. The
significant results were a positive direct effect of disempowerment in society, B = 0.14, 95% CI
[0.07, 0.21], t(850) = 3.82, p < .001, and a three-way interaction of disempowerment, mass
shooting threat, and days since the Las Vegas shooting, B = 0.08, 95% CI [0.02, 0.16], t(850) =
2.43, p = .015. The direct effect of disempowerment was not specifically predicted, nor did the
overall pattern of the data conform to our a priori expectations: As illustrated in Figure 4 (top
panels), the expected two-way interaction of disempowerment and mass shooting threat was not
initially stronger; in fact, the two-way interaction only emerged later, during the second half of
our measurement period. Before that, in the days immediately following the Las Vegas tragedy,
disempowerment alone sufficed to increase ideas about gun use: that is, disempowered gun
owners reported higher justification to shoot regardless of individual differences in mass
shooting threat.
In other words, close temporal proximity to the Las Vegas shooting did not exacerbate
the predicted two-way interaction per se, it subsumed any effects of threat. This interpretation
was supported by probes of the simple two-way interactions and simple slopes: At -1 SD days
since the Las Vegas shooting (higher proximity), there was a positive simple effect of
disempowerment, B = 0.21, 95% CI [0.11, 0.32], t(850) = 3.89, p < .001, and no simple
interaction of disempowerment and threat, B = -0.05, 95% CI [-0.15, 0.05], t(850) = -0.99, p =
.325. This again suggests that in the days immediately following the shooting, disempowerment
directly predicted justification to shoot regardless of individual differences in mass shooting
MASS SHOOTINGS AND POWER
28
threat. However, at 1 SD days since the Las Vegas shooting (lower proximity), there was no
simple effect of disempowerment per se, B = 0.07, 95% CI [-0.03, 0.17], t(850) = 1.41, p = .158,
but rather a positive simple interaction of disempowerment and threat, B = 0.11, 95% CI [0.03,
0.19], t(850) = 2.61, p = .009. Altogether, the direct effect of disempowerment only occurred at
especially high proximity to the shooting; it eventually gave way to the predicted interaction
pattern between threat and thwarted goals.
Effects on Vigilantism. Full regression results are presented in Table 6. Again, the
significant results were a positive direct effect of disempowerment in society, B = 0.09, 95% CI
[0.03, 0.15], t(850) = 2.95, p = .003, and a three-way interaction of disempowerment, mass
shooting threat, and days since the Las Vegas shooting, B = 0.07, 95% CI [0.01, 0.12], t(850) =
2.38, p = .018. As illustrated in Figure 4, the overall pattern was similar to that for justification to
shoot.
12
Probes of the simple two-way interactions and simple slopes indicated that, at fewer
days since the Las Vegas shooting (-1 SD), there was a positive simple slope of
disempowerment, B = 0.11, 95% CI [0.02, 0.20], t(850) = 2.35, p = .019, and no simple
interaction of disempowerment and threat, B = -0.05, 95% CI [-0.13, 0.03], t(850) = -1.17, p =
.242. By 1 SD days since the Las Vegas shooting, the simple slope of disempowerment was no
longer significant, B = 0.08, 95% CI [-0.01, 0.16], t(850) = 1.82, p = .069; instead, there emerged
a positive simple interaction of disempowerment and threat consistent with what we observed in
the previous studies, B = 0.08, 95% CI [0.01, 0.15], t(850) = 2.39, p = .021.
We observed slight evidence of mediation between vigilantism and justification to shoot,
in a pattern befitting the aforementioned analyses. The mediation analysis was conducted using
12
The simple slopes of disempowerment in society were not as consistently reliable for
vigilantism as for justification to shoot. Specifically, at -1 SD days since the shooting, the simple
slope of disempowerment was unexpectedly nonsignificant at 1 SD threat (p = .30). However, all
other relevant simple slopes were reliable and the overall pattern of the data was consistent.
MASS SHOOTINGS AND POWER
29
PROCESS (Model 12, 5000 resamples, bias-corrected, Hayes, 2012), testing the indirect effect
(disempowerment à vigilantism à justification to shoot) at different levels of mass shooting
threat and temporal proximity. At 1 SD days since the shooting, wherein we observed a simple
two-way interaction of disempowerment and threat, there was a reliable indirect effect at 1 SD
threat, B = .0.05, 95% CI [0.02, 0.10], but not at -1 SD threat, B = .0.00, 95% CI [-0.05, 0.04]. At
-1 SD days since the shooting, wherein there was only a direct effect of disempowerment (and no
interaction), the indirect effect was reliable when averaging across threat, B = 0.17, 95% CI
[0.05, 0.30]; however, the stability of the mediation varied overall.
13
The overall index of
moderated-moderated mediation was marginally reliable, B = 0.02, 95% CI [0.00, 0.05]. The
increased justification to shoot was at least partly explained by increased ideas about vigilantism.
Discussion
We originally predicted a two-way interaction of disempowerment and the salient threat
of mass shootings, and further predicted that this interaction would be exacerbated by close
temporal proximity to the Las Vegas strip shooting and then weaken over time. That is not what
we found: For a brief period after the Las Vegas strip shooting, disempowered gun owners
reported higher levels of both vigilantism and justification to shoot, regardless of individual
differences in mass shooting threat. Only later did the pattern of the data conform to the
predicted two-way interaction observed in the previous studies.
The initial direct effect of disempowerment was surprising and inconsistent with what we
observed after Orlando (Study 1). It suggests that high proximity to the Las Vegas shooting
subsumed any chronic individual differences in mass shooting threat, making it salient even to
those who typically perceive a low threat of mass shootings. Was the Las Vegas shooting simply
13
At -1 SD days since the shooting, the reliability of the indirect effect corresponded with the
mixed reliability of the simple slopes (see previous footnote). The full pattern of mediation is in
Figure S3 (supplemental analyses).
MASS SHOOTINGS AND POWER
30
more influential? If so, it was not due to higher levels of temporal proximity or threat: First, the
Las Vegas study was less temporally proximal to the shooting than the Orlando study (i.e., 70%
of the Orlando data were collected just 3 days after the shooting); second, the Las Vegas study
participants did not report higher threat of mass shootings than the Orlando study participants.
14
If Las Vegas was more influential, it was for reasons other than temporal proximity or individual
differences in perceived threat of mass shootings.
Perhaps there was another dimension of psychological proximity we had not yet
considered—namely, a greater sense of social proximity to the Las Vegas shooting than the
Orlando shooting. U.S. gun owners tend to be older and relatively conservative (Pew, 2017); the
Las Vegas strip shooting accordingly targeted a country music festival wherein the victims
ranged from 20-67 years in age; in contrast, the Orlando shooting targeted a gay nightclub and
the victims were mostly in their 20s and early 30s. Social proximity to the Las Vegas shooting
could have made it more salient to our respondents than the Orlando shooting. If this were the
case, then the salience of any high-profile mass shooting may be heightened not just by temporal
proximity or perceived threat, but also by social proximity to the target victims or specific
location of the attack. We thus sought to conduct a final study to test whether social proximity to
a given mass shooting moderates the effects of societal disempowerment.
Study 4: Texas Church Shooting
On November 5, 2017, barely a month after the Las Vegas strip shooting, a gunman
opened fire in a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, killing 26 people and wounding 20. It was
the fifth deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history by a lone gunman. The Texas church shooting
14
After harmonizing the Orlando seven-point scale to match the Las Vegas five-point scale, a t-
test yielded no differences: MOrlando = 2.13, SD = 1.11, MLas Vegas = 2.21, SD = 1.08), t(1306) = -
1.32, p = .187, 95% CI [-0.21, 0.04].
MASS SHOOTINGS AND POWER
31
received far less media coverage than Las Vegas,
15
but given that the tragedy occurred at a
church during its Sunday service, we proceeded to test whether social proximity to the victims or
location of the attack moderated the predicted effects. Frequent church attendees may experience
a church shooting to be especially self-relevant and vivid, at least when compared to gun owners
who rarely or never attend church. We, therefore, tested whether participants’ frequency of
church attendance moderated their reactions to the Texas shooting. We hypothesized a two-way
interaction, theorizing that gun owners who experience disempowerment in society and who also
attend church relatively frequently (vs. less frequently) would be most willing to engage in
vigilantism.
One advantage of testing whether church attendance frequency moderates the effects of
disempowerment is that church attendance is not a likely predictor of the pursuit of
empowerment via guns (e.g., Mencken & Froese, 2017); we accordingly assume that church
attendance frequency is not a typical predictor of mass shooting salience. Church attendance
frequency should only be a relevant moderator in the specific context of a church shooting.
Given that the Texas church shooting occurred only 12 days after we had stopped data collection
of the Las Vegas mass shooting, we decided to recontact the same participants for a brief survey.
Recontacting the Las Vegas participants afforded the opportunity to conduct a discriminant
validity test to ensure that church attendance frequency only moderates responses to the Texas
church shooting and not the Las Vegas strip shooting.
Method
Participants. There were 259 handgun owners (176 men, 83 women), who had originally
participated in the Las Vegas shooting survey, who were successfully recontacted via Qualtrics
15
Details of the reduced media coverage are in Figure S4 in the supplemental materials.
MASS SHOOTINGS AND POWER
32
Panels between 10 and 20 days after the Texas church shooting. An additional seventeen
participants were excluded for providing unusable data (straight lining, duplicate IPs).
Procedure. The informed consent was updated to indicate that participants were
contacted for this study as a follow up to a previous study you participated in.”
16
For our first
independent variable, disempowerment in society, we used participants’ responses from the Las
Vegas survey (M = 2.85, SD = 0.91, α = .63). For the proposed moderator, church attendance
frequency, participants were asked, “About how often do you attend church (or other organized
religious service)?” (rated 1= never, 2= Rarely / almost never, 3= at least once a year, 4= at least
once a month, and 5= at least once a week, M = 3.10, SD = 1.53).
Our dependent variable, willingness to engage in vigilantism, was re-assessed in the
Texas survey (M = 3.87, SD = 0.85, α = .68). We did not reassess justification for gun use due to
time constraints, making vigilantism our sole dependent measure in this study. Altogether, each
participant had one score for disempowerment in society, one score for frequency of church
attendance, and then a repeated measure of vigilantism (auto r = .40, p < .001).
17
Correlations
between variables are displayed in Table 7.
Results and Discussion
An initial regression analysis predicted vigilantism after the Texas church shooting from
disempowerment in society (standardized), church attendance frequency (standardized), and their
two-way interaction. Results indicated no direct effects of disempowerment, B = 0.02, 95% CI [-
0.09, 0.13], t(255) = 0.31, p = .757, or church attendance frequency, B = 0.05, 95% CI [-0.06,
16
Similar to the Orlando and Las Vegas studies, this survey also included initial questions about
the gunman’s motivations and what might have prevented the shooting. The full survey is
available in the supplemental materials.
17
Did vigilantism scores generally increase between Las Vegas and Texas? Although a repeated
measures t-test suggested an increase, t(259) = 2.02, p = .045, h2p = .016, this effect was only
marginally significant in all our regression analyses.
MASS SHOOTINGS AND POWER
33
0.15], t(255) = 0.85, p = .397; rather, there was a significant two-way interaction, B = 0.12, 95%
CI [0.01, 0.23], t(255) = 2.23, p = .026. As illustrated in Figure 5 (left panel), frequency of
church attendance moderated the effects of disempowerment after the Texas church shooting.
Simple slopes analyses indicated a positive effect of societal disempowerment only at 1 SD
church attendance frequency, B = 0.14, 95% CI [0.01, 0.27], t(255) = 2.07, p = .040, and not at -
1 SD church attendance frequency , B = -0.10, 95% CI [-0.27, 0.07], t = -1.21, p = .227. This
suggests that social proximity to the Texas church shooting moderated the association between
societal disempowerment and endorsement of gun-related vigilantism.
It remains possible that the moderation by church attendance frequency reflects some
other process, unrelated to social proximity to the church shooting. For example, individual
differences in Christian nationalism predicts opposition to gun laws, presumably as part of a
progun sociopolitical narrative (Whitehead, Schnabel, Perry, 2018). However, if church
attendance frequency reflects such a progun narrative, then it should moderate the effects outside
the specific context of a church shooting. Given that we had recontacted participants from the
Las Vegas shooting survey, we were afforded the opportunity to test whether church attendance
frequency only moderated reactions to the Texas church shooting and not the Las Vegas strip
shooting. We first confirmed in a separate regression analysis that the aforementioned two-way
interaction of disempowerment and church attendance remained significant when controlling for
vigilantism scores from the Las Vegas shooting, B = 0.12, 95% CI [0.03, 0.22], t(254) = 2.47, p
= .014. We then conducted an analysis based on a mixed model, entering vigilantism scores from
Las Vegas and Texas as a repeated measure (vigilantism-RM), and entering perceived
disempowerment (standardized) and church attendance frequency (standardized) as between-
subjects factors. Results indicated a two-way interaction between vigilantism-RM and
disempowerment, F(1, 255) = 4.36, p = .038, and importantly, a three-way interaction of
MASS SHOOTINGS AND POWER
34
vigilantism-RM, disempowerment, and frequency of church attendance, F(1, 255) = 4.46, p =
.036. All other effects were nonsignificant (see Table 8). As illustrated in Figure 5, church
attendance frequency only moderated reactions to the Texas church shooting.
Subsequent analyses indicated no additional moderating effects of temporal proximity or
general mass shooting threat, the latter of which had not changed between Las Vegas and Texas
(MLasVegas = 2.26, SD = 1.04, MTexas = 2.34, SD = 1.12), t(258) = 1.27, p = .203, 95% CI [-0.05,
0.20]. The lack of additional effects could be because the Texas shooting was of a lower profile
in the media (e.g., it was overshadowed by the recent Las Vegas shooting), but the lack of
additional effects could also be due to the smaller sample size we recruited in this study.
18
Altogether, in the wake of the 2017 Texas church shooting, only frequent church
attendees demonstrated the predicted effect. The results suggest that even a less high-profile
shooting, such as the Texas church shooting, could still increase ideas about vigilantism among
those for whom such a shooting is socially proximal to the self – and hence more salient.
General Discussion
Guns are instruments of empowerment that have been used by heroes and villains
throughout U.S. history and in popular media, dating at least as far back as the American frontier
and the American Revolutionary War. In recent decades, the United States has witnessed a new
type of villain in the form of mass shooters, with the last few years seeing some of the deadliest
mass shootings in modern American history, including Newtown (2012), San Bernardino (2015),
Orlando (2016), Las Vegas (2017), Sutherland Springs (2017), and during the initial writing of
this article, the high school shooting in Parkland (2018); then, during editorial revisions of this
18
Another question is whether participants were influenced by news that an armed civilian
confronted and shot the perpetrator as he left the church. Perhaps participants may have
identified with him (i.e., they were looking for a hero), or perhaps the effects were moderated by
their perceptions of this hero rather than by the threat of the gunman. We did not observe
evidence of such identification processes (see supplemental analyses).
MASS SHOOTINGS AND POWER
35
article, there was the high school shooting in Santa Fe (2018), and later the synagogue shooting
in Pittsburgh (2018) and the bar shooting in Thousand Oaks (2018). Yet, little is known about the
psychological influence of mass shootings on a society that owns hundreds of millions of guns;
in fact, there is relatively little psychological research on gun owners in general. The present
research thus offers a rare glimpse into the psychology of gun ownership, especially with regards
to how the salience of mass shootings subtly alters people’s ideas about guns.
We conducted studies in the wakes of the Orlando, Las Vegas, and Sutherland Springs
shootings. To our knowledge, the present research is the first attempt to follow multiple high-
profile mass shootings in an effort to develop a model that explains the psychological process
through which people turn to guns and seek power. We specifically focused on how, when, and
why mass shootings are likely to increase ideas about assertive gun use among those whose goals
are thwarted. By testing over two thousand gun owners, at different points in time, and after
multiple mass shooting events, we were able to test three candidate moderators of mass shooting
salience: perceived threat, temporal proximity and social proximity. Each of these factors
theoretically increase the psychological proximity of mass shootings, and thus the extent to
which they loom large in the mind.
For the thwarted goal, we either manipulated failure on an achievement task (Study 1) or
measured perceived disempowerment in society (Studies 2-4). The dependent measures included
perceptions of guns as means of empowerment (Study 1), justification to shoot a home intruder
(Studies 1-3), and willingness to engage in heroic vigilantism (Studies 2, 3, and 4). A relatively
consistent finding was that thwarted goals and a sense of threat interactively increased self-
reported justification and willingness to use a gun to protect oneself and others (Studies 1, 2 &
3). When the salient threat of mass shootings was high, goal thwarted (disempowered)
individuals showed stronger effects than those who were not goal thwarted.
MASS SHOOTINGS AND POWER
36
Results were less consistent with our specific indicators of psychological proximity.
Whereas the general measure of mass shooting threat moderated the effects in Studies 1-3, this
was not the case in Study 4 (the less high-profile Sutherland Springs shooting), wherein only
social proximity (church attendance frequency) moderated the results. Temporal proximity to a
mass shooting yielded mixed results: Each study varied in terms of its exact temporal distance
from a mass shooting event, and whereas imagined temporal proximity appeared to qualify the
predicted interaction of thwarted goals and mass shooting threat in Study 2, immediate proximity
to the Las Vegas shooting (Study 3) apparently subsumed any individual differences in general
mass shooting threat. Temporal proximity had no effect in Study 4 (Texas).
19
Different
dimensions of proximity interacted with thwarted goals, but not consistently. This highlights a
problem with research on real life events, as compared to experiments conducted in a laboratory.
Whereas a skilled experimenter might be able to precisely manipulate theoretical variables in the
laboratory, events in the real world often vary in uncontrolled ways. However, despite
inconsistencies across studies, we infer two broad themes stemming from these data: First, it is
mainly goal-thwarted (disempowered) gun-owners who are likely to be drawn towards violent
ideas, as indicated by their endorsement of more assertive and expansive gun use to protect
against violent criminals. Second, such ideas were strongest when mass shootings were salient.
Theoretical Implications
We theorized that people would be most likely to assimilate ideas from mass shootings in
19
We do not necessarily limit our model to the specific moderators we tested, as they are merely
meant to reflect salience. Future studies could focus on the media sources that inform people
about mass shootings, with the idea that some sources may be more influential than others.
Similarly, there may be other types of proximity – such as physical proximity, that moderate
salience. Our use of a national sample only allowed us to assess physical proximity coarsely – by
participants’ state of residence, so our margin of error in distance from the attack were enormous
(i.e., each state representing hundreds/thousands of miles), and thus it did not moderate the
results. Effects of proximity probably need to be assessed more narrowly, such as by surveying
people within the same city of a mass shooting, or by access to local news coverage.
MASS SHOOTINGS AND POWER
37
the context of thwarted goals—that is, when they are highly motivated to seek substitute means
of empowerment and significance. Our model is rooted in the idea that human beings have a
basic psychological need for effective interactions with their environments, that thwarted goals
exacerbate this need, and that people then search for another, potentially more violent, means to
address the need. We drew from past research that thwarted goals motivate a search for a more
aggressive means to increase one’s efficacy or personal control over the environment (Leander &
Chartrand, 2017), and guns could represent such a means (Mencken & Froese, 2017; Shepherd &
Kay, 2017). High-profile shootings seemed likely to increase the salience of guns as means to
power and significance for three reasons: first, they inflict mass casualties that effectively turn
numerous human targets into helpless victims; second, media sensationalizing imbues the
perpetrators of the deadliest mass shootings with great fame and significance; third, mass
shootings might heighten inferences that there is a need for armed protagonists to fight against
criminal elements in society.
We argue that psychological proximity to mass shootings mainly serves to increase the
salience or accessibility of guns as means to address a threatened psychological need. This
conclusion is supported by the interaction effects between thwarted goals (i.e., stimulating a need
for empowerment/significance) and mass shooting salience (i.e., which prompts the idea to use
guns as means of power/significance restoration). The interaction is consistent with a Proximity
X Value model of motivation (Liberman & Trope, 2014). It is also consistent with social
cognitive theories on the interface of motivation and mental accessibility, in that the extent to
which any given stimulus (such as salience of a mass shooting) will influence a person’s thought
processes and behavior depends on its motivational self-relevance (Eitam & Higgins, 2010). We
do not specify that it is the stimulus content of the mass shootings that facilitates ideas that guns
are means to power/significance. Perhaps goal-thwarted individuals come up with these ideas
MASS SHOOTINGS AND POWER
38
themselves – that is, they infer from the context an opportunity to act in a manner consistent with
their underlying motivations.
The present research also suggests that “assimilation” can be an umbrella term for
different processes: there can be assimilation via imitation (i.e., copycat behavior) or assimilation
via appropriation (i.e., incorporating the means into one’s own preexisting tendencies). We
further argue that the average law-abiding gun owner is likely to appropriate the idea that guns
afford symbolic power in a manner that fits into their own preferred narratives. However, it
remains unclear whether the observed process corresponds with any specific narrative – such as
to engage in frontier justice, protect the community, fight fire with fire, or just prove to society
that guns are a force for good. Not only might such narratives mask or sterilize a motivation to
engage in violence, but it could be that these narratives are the true source of empowerment and
mass shootings merely afford the opportunity to enact them. For example, significance quest
theory suggests that a person’s social network or ingroup only rewards the enactment of certain
narratives (Kruglanski et al., 2013, 2014; Webber & Kruglanski, 2017), so people who seek
effectiveness and significance may favor the narratives likely to be valued by their group.
Other theoretical considerations
We had also considered an alternative interpretation: that mass shootings simply add to
an already-threatened sense of efficacy or significance; thus, increasing a general aggressive
response. However, if various threats (disempowerment, mass shootings) merely pool together
into a global sense of threat, then we should have observed additive effects of thwarted goals and
mass shooting salience, rather than interactive effects. Indeed, our theoretical explanation – that
thwarted goals increase the search for alternative means of power (and hence significance) –
explains why the effects primarily just occurred among the disempowered. Any alternative
explanation would accordingly need to explain why there is practically no effect among those
MASS SHOOTINGS AND POWER
39
who are not disempowered. Furthermore, if this were purely about global threat, then any other
threat variable in our dataset could have produced the same results, which was not the case. For
example, fear of crime can threaten one’s sense of control and agency (Tulloch, 2003), and our
surveys included such measures—namely, Perceived Lifetime Risk of Assault (Stroebe et al.,
2017a) and Belief in a Dangerous World (Duckitt et al., 2002), but these variables mainly only
yielded direct effects. An unpublished study conducted immediately prior to the Orlando
shooting also indicated little support for a fear of crime moderation hypothesis (N = 404 gun
owners, see supplementary analyses). The effects were specific to our mass shooting salience
variables and perhaps more precisely, real or imagined closeness to a high-profile mass shooting.
This also is theoretically consistent: the salience of mass shootings evokes specific ideas about
guns that other types of threat do not.
That said, we do not rule out similar appropriation effects if media outlets were to
sensationalize other forms of violent crime, or even other public displays of weapons as symbols
of power (e.g., a military parade). The basic model should generalize beyond the specific context
of guns and mass shootings because it is ultimately about how people use weapons to address
their basic psychological needs. The model could also provide a basis for explaining other
antagonistic forms of imitation, such as tit-for-tat retaliation or adopting an enemy’s tactics.
Practical Considerations
With regards to predicting who may be impacted by a given shooting, we observed that
frequency of church attendance moderated responses to the Sutherlands Springs church tragedy.
This may suggest that a mass shooting could transform just about any social affiliation a gun-
owner has – including one that is otherwise nonviolent (e.g., being a churchgoer) into a risk
factor for increased ideas about assertive gun use. With regards to explaining responses to mass
shootings, we only looked at ideas about assertive gun use and research is needed to assess how
MASS SHOOTINGS AND POWER
40
such ideas might manifest behaviorally. For example, after nearly every high-profile mass
shooting there is a predictable surge in gun sales – especially for guns that were used in the
shooting (e.g., AR-15 pattern rifles; “bump stock” accessories after Las Vegas). It is typically
assumed that the surge in consumer activity stems from concerns about self-defense or that such
products will soon be outlawed. However, these claims have been difficult to demonstrate
empirically (see, e.g., Stroebe, Leander, & Kruglanski, 2017b). Our theoretical model introduces
an alternative possibility: Mass shootings illustrate how specific gun products are means to
power and significance, thus, imbuing those products with psychological value. This could
explain a temporary surge in gun sales after mass shootings and perhaps certain surges in support
for expanding 2nd Amendment rights in the wake of a shooting.
Our dependent measures may already hint at where the effects would manifest: The
scenarios provided for our justification to shoot and vigilantism measures are analogous to recent
“Castle Doctrine” or stand-your-ground laws. Passed by numerous states, these laws
significantly expanded the legal justification to use lethal force based on a gun owner’s
subjective determination of imminent threat of harm to themselves or others. Critics claim such
“shoot first” laws incentivize the escalation of violence and some studies link the passage of such
laws to subsequent rises in homicides within the respective states (Cheng & Hoekstra, 2013;
Humphreys, Gasparrini, Wiebe, 2017). The present research further suggests that people’s ideas
about justified homicide may be influenced by incidental psychological factors, such as thwarted
goals and the salience of recent mass shootings, which may be unrelated to the specific threat
situation being assessed. Such factors may complicate legal frameworks designed around the
presumption of reasonable fear.
Limitations, Boundary Conditions, and Conclusion
There were limitations of this research. First, we focused on whether mass shootings
MASS SHOOTINGS AND POWER
41
increase ideas about assertive gun use, but other factors are likely required for violent ideas to
translate into violent action (see, e.g., Bushman et al., 2016; Levin & Madfis, 2009). The mere
possibility that average gun owners, in response to mass shootings, show shifts toward assertive
gun use is certainly noteworthy—and that the pattern is consistent with significance quest theory
may be considered alarming from the scholarly perspective that many violent extremists are,
themselves, motivated by a quest for significance (Kruglanski et al., 2013; Kruglanski et al.,
2014; Kruglanski et al., 2017). However, significance quest theory, as well as other social
psychological theories, also outlines numerous other critical antecedents, such as narratives,
norms, social networks, identitites, oughts, and ideals, that may be useful for distinguishing those
who will be drawn to violence from those who will not.
The effects were also limited to certain individuals. We focused on U.S. gun owners
because they possess the relevant means (guns) and presumably also the requisite firearms
experience and pro-gun ideology (Pew, 2017, Stroebe et al., 2017a). However, many gun owners
did not show any particular reaction, so one cannot assume these effects generalize to all – or
even most – gun owners. Furthermore, similar effects might be observed among specific gun
nonowners who are familiar with the sense of potency that having a gun instills and/or are
ideologically supportive of guns (per Footnote 3, we did not observe effects among nonowners
generally). For example, conservatives often perceive guns as means to establish control and
order (Shepherd & Kay, 2017), so there may be certain non-owners who are similarly influenced.
Another boundary condition is that the observed effects only seem to apply when there is
real or imagined proximity to a mass shooting. That our hypotheses about thwarted goals were
only supported in the context of a mass shooting fits past work suggesting that certain tempting
influences are highly context-dependent (Leander et al., 2009); it is also consistent with the
MASS SHOOTINGS AND POWER
42
present theory, whereby the efficacy or significance-bestowing properties of gun use requires the
appropriate circumstances.
With the limitations in mind, it is useful to consider how the present research contributes
to psychological theorizing on how violence begets violence—namely, that people can adopt or
appropriate the means of threatening figures, even if they intend to use those means differently.
Our findings add to a long history of psychological research showing how the mere presence of
guns can subtly escalate the potential for violence. For example, in a famous demonstration of a
“weapons effect”, Berkowitz and LePage (1967) observed that Midwestern male undergraduates,
who sat in a room with a shotgun and a revolver on the table (vs. some other object), delivered
stronger electric shocks to a confederate who had previously shocked them. Of interest to the
authors, a recent meta-analysis suggests that the weapons effect is mainly a cognitive influence
(Benjamin, Kepes, & Bushman, 2017), which is consistent with the present model to the extent
that mass shootings mainly spread ideas, scripts, or goal-means associations about guns, which in
turn could appeal to certain gun owners’ personal wants, needs and tendencies. Furthermore, it
may not just be mass shooters that spread such ideas: a recent study by Bushman (2017) shows
that regardless of whether the person holding the gun is a “good guy” (e.g., police officer) or a
“bad guy” (criminal), simply seeing images of others holding guns automatically increases the
cognitive accessibility of aggressive concepts.
Ultimately, the present research speaks to a potential danger of allowing a threatening
figure to occupy the mind, in that people may begin to mirror the threat and assimilate its ways.
We assume that most individuals who appropriate the symbolic power of guns will do so through
normative channels. However, one cannot assume that everyone who has access to a gun shares
the same commitment to law and order, capacity for restraint, and respect for human life. This
raises a final consideration: whether exposure to mass shootings produces contagion effects
MASS SHOOTINGS AND POWER
43
(Bushman et al., 2016; Perrin, 2016). Concerns about people imitating others’ violence go at
least as far back as London’s 1888 media-driven “Jack the Ripper” murders. So-called copycat
crimes are the imitation of violence, presumably because media sensationalizing leads troubled
individuals to see such behavior as a means to achieve similar outcomes for themselves
(Helfgott, 2015). When a mass shooting becomes salient to millions of people, it is easy to
speculate on how some may be tempted by the power a gun affords, even if they intend to use the
power for a good cause. However, the present research suggests that mass shootings need not
plant the seed of an idea for violent crime per se; they can be dangerous simply by facilitating
ideas that guns are means to address a threatened sense of efficacy or significance and thus tempt
the disempowered to consider more expansive ideas about when and how to use their guns.
To conclude, gun ownership may involve its own set of self-regulatory challenges.
Although people self-report that protection is the main reason, they own a gun (Pew, 2017), there
may be other motives for gun ownership that are implicit or not normative to admit – and a
societal danger of mass shootings may be that mere salience of them adds fuel to these hidden
motivations.
MASS SHOOTINGS AND POWER
44
Author Note
N. Pontus Leander, Wolfgang Stroebe, Jannis Kreienkamp, Maximilian Agostini, and
Ernestine Gordijn, Department of Social and Organizational Psychology, University of
Groningen; Arie W. Kruglanski, Department of Psychology, University of Maryland College
Park. N. Pontus Leander, Wolfgang Stroebe, Jannis Kreienkamp, Maximilian Agostini, and Arie
W. Kruglanski are members of the Center for Psychological Gun Research
(https://www.gunpsychology.org).
N. Pontus Leander developed the study concept. All authors contributed to the study
design and data collection. N. Pontus Leander, Maximilian Agostini, and Jannis Kreienkamp
performed the data analysis and all authors contributed to the interpretation. All authors
approved the final version of the manuscript for submission.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to N. Pontus Leander, Social
and Organizational Psychology, University of Groningen, 2/1 Grote Kruisstraat, 9712 TS
Groningen, The Netherlands. E-mail: n.p.leander@rug.nl
MASS SHOOTINGS AND POWER
45
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Table 1: Correlations of independent and dependent variables (Study 2, N = 875)
Variable
1
2
3
4
1. Perceived disempowerment in society
2. Perceived mass shooting threat
.35***
3. Perceived temporal proximity of mass shootings
.16***
.35***
4. Vigilantism
.19***
.10**
.09**
5. Justification to shoot a home intruder
.13***
.13***
.15***
.19***
*p < .05, **p<.01, ***p<.001
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Table 2: Summary of Multiple Regression Analyses on Justification to Shoot (Study 2, N = 875)
Variable
B
t
95% CI
Disempowerment in society
.06
1.53
[-.02, .14]
Threat of mass shootings (Threat)
.05
1.35
[-.03, .13]
Temporal proximity to next mass shooting (Proximity)
.09
2.13*
[.01, .17]
Disempowerment X Threat
.02
0.58
[-.05, .09]
Disempowerment X Proximity
.01
0.14
[-.07, .09]
Threat X Proximity
.02
0.63
[-.05, .10]
Disempowerment X Threat X Proximity
.10
2.84**
[.03, .16]
*p<.05, **p<.01, ***p<.001
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Table 3: Summary of Multiple Regression Analyses on Willingness to Engage in Vigilantism
(Study 2, N = 875)
Variable
B
t
95% CI
Disempowerment in society
.11
3.51***
[.05, .17]
Threat of mass shootings (Threat)
.01
0.43
[-.05, .08]
Temporal proximity to next mass shooting (Proximity)
.01
0.43
[-.05, .08]
Disempowerment X Threat
.06
2.06*
[.003, .12]
Disempowerment X Proximity
.06
2.00*
[.001, .13]
Threat X Proximity
-.05
-1.56
[-.11, .01]
Disempowerment X Threat X Proximity
.08
2.86**
[.02, .13]
*p<.05, **p<.01, ***p<.001
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Table 4: Correlations of independent and dependent variables (Study 3, N = 858)
Variable
1
2
3
4
1. Perceived disempowerment in society
2. Perceived mass shooting threat
.34***
3. Days since Las Vegas shooting
-.01
-.12***
4. Vigilantism
.11***
.07*
.07*
5. Justification to shoot a home intruder
.12***
.02
.01
.31***
*p < .05, **p<.01, ***p≤.001
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Table 5: Summary of Multiple Regression Analyses on Justification to Shoot (Study 3, N = 858)
Variable
B
t
95% CI
Disempowerment in society
.14
3.82***
[.07, .22]
Perceived mass shooting threat (Threat)
-.04
-1.04
[-.11, .03]
Days since Las Vegas shooting (Days since LV)
-.02
-0.44
[-.09, .05]
Disempowerment X Threat
.03
0.94
[-.05, .10]
Disempowerment X Days since LV
-.07
-1.95
[-.14, .001]
Threat X Days since LV
.03
0.94
[-.0.03, .10]
Disempowerment X Threat X Days since LV
.08
2.43*
[.02, .15]
*p<.05, **p<.01, ***p≤.001
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Table 6: Summary of Multiple Regression Analyses on Willingness to Engage in Vigilantism
(Study 3, N = 858)
Variable
B
t
95% CI
Disempowerment in society
.09
2.95***
[.03, .15]
Mass shooting threat (Threat)
.03
0.80
[-.04, .09]
Days since Las Vegas shooting (Days since LV)
.04
1.37
[-.02, .10]
Disempowerment X Threat
.02
0.60
[-.04, .07]
Disempowerment X Days since LV
-.02
-0.53
[-.08, .04]
Threat X Days since LV
.01
0.36
[-.05, .07]
Disempowerment X Threat X Days since LV
.07
2.38*
[.01, .12]
*p<.05, **p<.01, ***p≤.001
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Table 7: Correlations of independent and dependent variables (Study 4, N = 259)
Variable
1
2
3
4
1. Disempowerment in society
2. Frequency of church attendance
.08
3. Vigilantism after Las Vegas shooting (1 of 2)
.16**
.01
4. Vigilantism after Texas shooting (2 of 2)
.06
.04
.40***
**p<.01, ***p<.001
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Table 8: Study 4: Full results of the mixed model, testing the interaction of societal
disempowerment and frequency of church attendance on vigilantism after the Texas church
shooting and the Las Vegas strip shooting.
Variable
F
p
h
2p
Disempowerment in society (Disempowerment)
3.02
.083
.012
Frequency of church attendance (Frequency)
0.20
.654
.001
Repeated measure of Vigilantism (Vigilantism-RM)
3.45
.064
.013
Disempowerment X Frequency
1.61
.206
.006
Disempowerment X Vigilantism-RM
4.36
.038*
.017
Frequency X Vigilantism-RM
0.73
.395
.003
Disempowerment X Frequency X Vigilantism-RM
4.46
.036*
.017
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63
Figure 1.
Conceptual model about the interactive effects of thwarted goals and mass shooting salience on
justification for gun use, as mediated by beliefs that guns are means of personal empowerment.
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64
Figure 2.
Study 1 (Orlando nightclub shooting): Effects of the failure manipulation and perceived
likelihood of being present during a mass shooting (threat proximity), on beliefs that guns are
effective means of personal empowerment (left panel) and justification to shoot a home intruder
(right panel). The black line is the thwarted goal condition (experimental task failure); the gray
line is the control (experimental task success). Error bars are standard errors of the regression.
The Y-axis starts at the scale midpoint.
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Figure 3.
Study 2: Effects of disempowerment in society, mass shooting threat, and temporal proximity to
the next mass shooting, on justification to shoot a home intruder (top panel) and ideas about
vigilantism (bottom panel). Proximity (1 SD / -1 SD) is the extent to which participants believed
another mass shooting would occur in the USA in the next month. Black bars represent higher
societal disempowerment (1 SD), gray bars represent lower societal disempowerment (-1 SD).
Error bars are standard errors of the regression. The Y-axis starts at the scale midpoint.
MASS SHOOTINGS AND POWER
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Figure 4
Study 3: Effects of disempowerment in society, mass shooting threat proximity, and days since
the Las Vegas (LV) shooting, on justification to shoot a home intruder (top panel) and ideas
about vigilantism (bottom panel). Days since LV shooting separates the immediate effect (-1 SD)
from the eventual pattern (+1 SD), which differed among low-threat individuals. Black bars
represent higher societal disempowerment (+1 SD), gray bars represent lower societal
disempowerment (-1 SD). Error bars are standard errors of the regression. The Y-axis starts at
the scale midpoint.
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Figure 5
Study 4 (Texas church shooting vs. Las Vegas strip shooting): Effects of perceived
disempowerment in society and frequency of church attendance on the repeated measure of
vigilantism. Error bars are standard errors of the regression. The Y-axis starts at the scale
midpoint.
... The 3N model also makes a connection to violence by explicitly advancing the idea that one's social context determines the normative value of violence . Although the theory was originally developed to explain the special case of violent extremism, the model has been previously applied to normal populations: in a recent study of American gun owners, thwarted goals increased endorsement of armed vigilantism against suspected violent criminals, befitting modern gun culture narratives about armed heroism and frontier justice (Leander et al., 2019). This suggests the operation of a general self-regulatory process, wherein thwarted goals motivate individuals to endorse violent action when it is normatively valued. ...
... Achievement primes increase expectations of successful performance and the self-relevance of failure feedback (Custers, Aarts, Oikawa, & Elliot, 2009;Engeser & Baumann, 2014;Moore, Ferguson, & Chartrand, 2011). 6 The dependent measure is derived from prior research on how psychological threats affect the endorsement of guns, war, and violent extremism (Ein-Dor & Hirschberger, 2013;Leander et al., 2019;Webber et al., 2018). Immediately following the goal thwarting manipulation, participants read about the atrocities perpetrated by the Syrian regime during the Syrian Civil War (July 2013), and then rated their endorsement of either four violent interventions (Pilot 1a) or four nonviolent interventions (Pilot 1b). ...
... There were 403 male U.S. gun owners who were recruited online via the market research firm Qualtrics Panels. We focused on U.S. gun owners because they qualitatively differ from gun nonowners in that they are likely to perceive guns in a positive light and as means of personal control and individual empowerment (Leander et al., 2019;Stroebe, Leander, & Kruglanski, 2017; see also Shepherd & Kay, 2018). We focused on men because problems with gun violence are, overwhelmingly, a male phenomenon, and because men are the most likely to endorse symbolic reasons for gun carrying (Carlson, 2015;Stroud, 2016;Yamane, 2018). ...
Article
When thwarted goals increase endorsement of violence, it may not always reflect antisocial tendencies or some breakdown of self-regulation per se; such responses can also reflect an active process of self-regulation, whose purpose is to comply with the norms of one's social environment. In the present experiments (total N = 2,145), the causal link between thwarted goals and endorsement of violent means (guns and war) was found to be contingent on perceptions that violence is normatively valued. Experiments 1-3 establish that thwarted goals increase endorsement of violence primarily among U.S. adults of a lower educational background and/or men who endorse a masculine honor culture. Experiment 4 manipulates the perceived normative consensus of college educated Americans, and demonstrates that thwarted goals increase college educated Americans' endorsement of whatever norm is salient: prowar or antiwar. Generalizing the model beyond violent means, Experiment 5 demonstrates that goal-thwarted Europeans report increased willingness to volunteer for refugee support activities if they perceive strong social norms to volunteer. Altogether, these findings support a frustration-affirmation model rather than frustration-aggression, whereby thwarted goals increase compliance with perceived norms for behavior, which can increase endorsement of violent means such as guns and war, but also nonviolent charitable actions. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2020 APA, all rights reserved).
... Analogously, psychological research on public endorsement of violent extremism suggests that a deprived sense of significance (i.e., losses of control, worth, status, etc.), motivates individuals to embrace radical networks or social movements that espouse narratives of asserting superiority over other people and groups (26,27). A recent study suggests that frustrated individuals capitalize on mass shootings to pursue significance, observing that after mass shootings, disempowered US gun owners were the most likely to endorse heroic narratives of vigilante gun use against bad guys (28). ...
... Disempowerment. Participants completed a three-item scale assessing perceived disempowerment in society, which had previously been shown to predict US gun owners' pursuit of significance after mass shootings (28). The items were, "Not much is done for people like me in America" (rated 1 = disagree strongly to 5 = agree strongly), "When I compare myself to other Americans, my group is worse off" (rated 1 = disagree strongly to 5 = agree strongly), and "Recent events in society have increased my struggles in daily life" (rated 1 = not at all to 5 = a great deal; M = 2.62, SD = 1.05, α = 0.79). ...
Article
People may be sympathetic to violent extremism when it serves their own interests. Such support may manifest itself via biased recognition of hate crimes. Psychological surveys were conducted in the wakes of mass shootings in the United States, New Zealand, and the Netherlands (total n = 2,332), to test whether factors that typically predict endorsement of violent extremism also predict biased hate crime perceptions. Path analyses indicated a consistent pattern of motivated judgment: hate crime perceptions were directly biased by prejudicial attitudes and indirectly biased by an aggrieved sense of disempowerment and White/Christian nationalism. After the shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, disempowerment-fueled anti-Semitism predicted lower perceptions that the gunman was motivated by hatred and prejudice (study 1). After the shootings that occurred at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, disempowerment-fueled Islamoprejudice similarly predicted lower hate crime perceptions (study 2a). Conversely, after the tram shooting in Utrecht, Netherlands (which was perpetrated by a Turkish-born immigrant), disempowerment-fueled Islamoprejudice predicted higher hate crime perceptions (study 2b). Finally, after the Walmart shooting in El Paso, Texas, hate crime perceptions were specifically biased by an ethnonationalist view of Hispanic immigrants as a symbolic (rather than realistic) threat to America; that is, disempowered individuals deemphasized likely hate crimes due to symbolic concerns about cultural supremacy rather than material concerns about jobs or crime (study 3). Altogether, biased hate crime perceptions can be purposive and reveal supremacist sympathies.
... Instead of skepticism, firearm ownership in the United States seems to be a way to cope with perceived threats. In particular, a recent study (Leander et al., 2019) that experimentally thwarted the goals of American gun owners found that Americans were motivated to perceive firearms as compensatory tools to achieve their goals, especially when mass shootings were made salient in the participant's mind. Another recent, crossnational study on perceptions of firearms found that Americans perceived firearms (including handguns, hunting rifles, assault rifles, and even combat knives) as more protective than citizens of three European countries (Syropoulos et al., 2021). ...
Article
News outlets ran stories suggesting that firearm purchases in the United States might have increased during the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic. Such claims were made because gun stores were deemed essential businesses at the onset of the pandemic. However, there is no scientific evidence to validate this claim. We tested whether intentions to own a firearm actually increased at an unprecedented rate, by comparing the rate of increase in firearm checks (a conservative estimate of intentions to obtain a firearm) at the onset of the pandemic with the same time period in previous years as well as with significant events in recent American history. We defined the month of February as the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic in the United States because this was the month in which (a) the pandemic caught wider national attention, (b) the first official presidential address relevant to the Coronavirus was made, and (c) the CDC initiated its first measures to stop the spread of the virus. Understanding why (inclination toward) firearm ownership increases during times of national crises can help researchers and gun policy makers better understand the psychological needs driving firearm ownership, and potentially improve gun regulations and gun policies for the future.
... This confirms previous meta-analytic findings for identity and extends them for morality. 42 Theories of goal pursuit and obstruction (e.g., Leander et al., 2019Leander et al., , 2020Lemus et al., 2017;Stollberg et al., 2017) argue that different means exist within a given situation to fulfill a currently active goal (Kruglanski et al., 2002). As such, cultural norms play an important part in determining what constitutes viable goals to achieve through collective action. ...
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Sociopsychological theorizing and research on collective action (e.g., social protests) has mushroomed over the last decade, studying a wide variety of groups, contexts, and cultures. Through a quantitative research synthesis of four motivations for collective action (1,235 effects from 403 samples; total N = 123,707), we summarize and synthesize this body of research into the dual chamber model, a comprehensive and potentially cross-cultural model of collective action. We aim to replicate previous meta-analytic conclusions (about identity, injustice, and efficacy) and break new theoretical ground by (a) integrating a fourth motivation (morality) into the very heart of the psychology of collective action, (b) extending these four motivations to advantaged group members acting in solidarity with the disadvantaged, and (c) integrating theoretically relevant structural (i.e., cultural and other contextual) constraints. Results substantiated the dual chamber model as all four motivations yielded unique, positive, medium-sized effects and interrelationships were positive (particularly among morality and identity, conceptualized as the dual chambers of the protester's beating heart). Meta-analytic structural equation modeling supported the added value of including morality. Moreover, findings confirmed that the strongest specific motivations were emotional injustice and politicized identification, while newly adding moral conviction to that list. Finally, the four motivations extended to advantaged group members acting in solidarity with the disadvantaged, while only the identity motivation was constrained by theoretically relevant cultural dimensions and values (e.g., collectivism and hierarchy). We discuss the implications and limitations of the dual chamber model for integrative theorizing, innovative research, and the practice of collective action. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2021 APA, all rights reserved).
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Radicalization refers to the process whereby an individual comes to endorse non-normative, and often violent, means as a mechanism for goal achievement. The present chapter discusses three psychological factors-the 3 Ns-involved in this process, specifically as it pertains to violent extremism. First, we discuss the need, that is, the individual motivation underlying violent extremism, triggering events that activate this motivation within the individual, and the ramifications of these triggering events on extreme behavior. Second, we discuss the role of ideological narrative in justifying and legitimating violence as a necessary and permissible tool toward goal attainment. Third, and finally, we discuss social networks, and the role they play in how would-be-terrorists find themselves joining extremist organizations, and how these group dynamics increase one's willingness to perpetrate extreme acts of violence.
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We outline a general psychological theory of extremism and apply it to the special case of violent extremism (VE). Extremism is defined as motivated deviance from general behavioral norms and is assumed to stem from a shift from a balanced satisfaction of basic human needs afforded by moderation to a motivational imbalance wherein a given need dominates the others. Because motivational imbalance is difficult to sustain, only few individuals do, rendering extreme behavior relatively rare, hence deviant. Thus, individual dynamics translate into social patterns wherein majorities of individuals practice moderation whereas extremism is the province of the few. Both extremism and moderation require the ability to successfully carry out the activities that these demand. Ability is partially determined by the activities’ difficulty, controllable in part by external agents who promote or oppose extremism. Application of this general framework to VE identifies the specific need that animates it and offers broad guidelines for addressing this pernicious phenomenon.