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American dream, American shooter: How shattered expectations could create killers

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It's been two days since two employees of a Virginia TV station were gunned down while on assignment.

Many questions remain as to why the alleged shooter, Vester Lee Flanagan, might have committed such a violent act.

There is likely no one answer, but criminal justice professor Adam Lankford has one theory: our culture's false promise of the American Dream may be largely to  blame.

US Shootings by the numbers

Lankford has analyzed over 40 years of data on mass shootings. He says the numbers paint a troubling picture.

“In terms of the total number of mass shooters, we had 31 percent,  despite having only 5 percent of the world’s population ... In addition, when you narrow the analysis just to workplace shootings and school shootings, we had 62 percent of the total,” he said.

Social Strain Theory

Lankford thinks a theory developed over 70 years ago could shine some light on why the U.S. leads the developed world in mass shootings. It’s called Strain Theory, and it goes something like this: Americans feel pressure to do better than their parents. They’re raised believing they can achieve their dreams. When the plans don’t pan out, stress begins to mount. This strain, Lankford argues, can open the door to violent behavior.

“In the case this week, we saw the reoccurring theme of aspirations for fame at any cost, and that does seem to be more salient in America than anywhere else,” he said.

 He cites a Pew survey of young people in which 51 percent of respondents said fame was one of their generation’s most important goals.

“That seems uniquely American,” Lankford says.

Genesis of a killer

Though every case is different, Lankford says this week’s killing shares a few common traits with past workplace shootings. For one, it appears that Flanagan had a history of negative interactions with his colleagues.

“[Also], we saw the delusions of grandeur, where this guy wanted to be a superstar anchor -- according to all his posts -- he had the mental health problems, and then -- ultimately -- he does  achieve fame and was able to control the message, but he did it by killing,” he said.

Lankford says workplace reprimands or a firing can act as a catalyst for persons with a history of instability.

Not every disillusioned dreamer goes on a rampage, however. What’s the difference between an average American and a killer? Lankford points to one characteristic, shared by almost all mass shooters: perceived victimization.

“You and I suffer from strains and have to deal with them, but the key thing is -- for healthy people -- not to [blame] those on everyone around you … When I see that someone is eager to blame their personal problems on someone else, that’s when I start to get worried,” he said.

Press the blue play button above to hear the interview