[Marxism] ‘When the burning moment breaks’: gun control and rage massacres

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Dec 15 16:20:53 MST 2012


‘When the burning moment breaks’: gun control and rage massacres

by Jeff Sparrow
Posted on 6 August 2012

On 23 January 1924, a man opened fire with a .44 repeating rifle on the 
families picnicking in Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens. He shot five 
people, seemingly targeted at random, before the gun failed. Three died. 
The murderer, later identified as Norman List, ran from the scene. On 2 
February, his body was found in the bush in Pakenham, where he’d killed 

Today, in the wake of the Colorado killings and the new atrocity in 
Wisconsin, all the aspects of List’s deeds seem instantly familiar, 
recognisable components of what forensic psychiatrist Paul Mullen calls 
the ‘autogenic massacre’. Mullen defines the crime thus: ‘A heavily 
armed male, or just occasionally males, enter an area where people 
congregate and begins shooting victims indiscriminately, continuing with 
the killing until they turn their guns on themselves, or are shot and 
killed by police.’

In 1924, such massacres were largely unknown. List’s killings were an 
outlier, an anticipation of a pattern that only became more general much 
later: as Mullen puts it, ‘reports of autogenic massacres do not even 
begin to appear until the twentieth century and only emerge as a 
recurring theme in the last thirty years.’

It wasn’t until 1966, when a young man opened fire on students and staff 
at the University of Texas, that what we might call the generic 
conventions of the ‘autogenic massacre’ established themselves. What was 
previously a vanishingly rare crime morphed into something increasingly 
understood as inevitable. In the last three decades, there have been 
more than 30 massacres in US schools alone, with six mass killings 
already in 2012. As Mullen says: ‘The autogenic massacre emerged in 
western society over the last fifty years and is becoming increasingly 

Why is this happening? What does it mean?

Considerable effort has gone into psychological profiles of would-be 
killers. But as Christopher Ferguson, Mark Coulson and Jane Barnett note 
in their study of school shootings: ‘Most scholars recognise that 
empirical evidence on school shooters is slim and that “profiles” of 
school shooters carry considerable risks of overidentification.’

Clearly, rage gunmen often have psychological problems, often profound 
ones. But it’s necessary to tread carefully here since there’s a certain 
circularity in diagnoses made after terrible crimes: normal people do 
not commit rage murders; by definition, anyone who does is not normal.

Interestingly, after analysing a number of killers, Mullen concludes, 
‘they had personality problems and were, to put it mildly, deeply 
troubled people.’ But he goes on to add: ‘Most perpetrators of autogenic 
massacres do not, however, appear to have active psychotic symptoms at 
the time and very few even have histories of prior contact with mental 
health services.’

In any case, individual profiling cannot, by its nature, explain why 
‘deeply troubled’ people today conduct massacres in a way that they did 
not fifty years earlier. What is required is a social and historical 

Perhaps the most interesting attempt in that direction is developed by 
Mark Ames in his book Going Postal. ‘The rage murder is new,’ he argues. 
‘It appeared under Reagan, during his cultural and economic revolution, 
and it expanded in his aftermath. Reaganomics has ruled America ever since.’

Ames’ thesis is that the rage massacre entered public consciousness in 
the US during 1980s, after a series of killings by postal workers (hence 
his title). At the time, the postal service was under particular 
pressure from what we’d now call neoliberalism, as market reform 
fostered unbearable stress and unhappiness among the employees. When 
Ames’ interviewed massacre survivors, they sometimes expressed a 
surprising sympathy for the shooters. The experience of work – the 
activity that most people spend most of their lives performing – had 
become a waking nightmare, with any sense of job satisfaction destroyed 
and solidarity between employees collapsing into bullying and minor 


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