Hate Crimes, Gun Violence, and Extremism: The Role of Community Intervention and Positive Intergroup Contact

Photograph of a gun
Figure 1. Used under CC0

submitted by August John Hoffman

It just doesn’t seem to ever end. Mass shootings, violence and conflict have become recurrent and consistent themes within our society and media today that are splashed everywhere. Earlier in the year (March 15, 2019) over 49 people were murdered in Christchurch, New Zealand by several extremists harboring anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim views. During these attacks the perpetrators even had the audacity to film their crimes and livestream them as they occurred. Within the United States, back to back mass shootings occurred on August 3 and August 4, 2019 in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. While the motivation behind these crimes may vary, they typically involve a direct hatred that is projected at immigrant populations combined with an immense fear of an unknown and precarious future. More importantly, recent reports that examine the motivating factors among perpetrators of hate crimes and ethnic violence cite a lack of individual meaning or purpose within their own community. Many alienated individuals (i.e., the “Lone Wolf”) keep journals or manifestos that meticulously describe their hatred for others. For example, the August 4, 2019 El Paso shooter wrote shortly before his shooting spree: “My whole life I have been preparing for a future that . . . does not exist” (Star Tribune, August 6, 2019).

How can communities become more proactive in efforts to not only prevent these senseless tragedies from reoccurring, but also help identify some of the indicators that have been associated with extremism and hate crimes? Researchers Jillian Peterson and James Densley (2019) have identified four consistent themes that have been associated with perpetrators of crimes involving shootings and ethnocentric ideology. The first is that most attackers have experienced some form of violent trauma themselves, neglect, or some form of psychological or emotional abuse. The environment that they were exposed to in some way contributed to their pathologies that provided the incentives for their eventual crimes. The second characteristic that many perpetrators have experienced is some form of an interpersonal crisis that was building over time. This may include a conflicted relationship with personal family members, employers, or friends that contributed some type of anxiety and stress to the individual. The third contributing factor to mass shootings includes the perpetrator’s own twisted validation of the justification of their crimes. For example, with increased social media, members of hate groups share their views and confirm that their crimes are necessary to achieve some type of end goal. Finally, perpetrators of mass shootings must have some mechanism to physically carry out their hate crimes. In this case, specific types of weaponry (i.e., assault-style weapons such as the AR-15) somehow were accessed prior to the crimes committed. According to the data provided by Peterson and Densley (2019), over 80% of shootings that occurred on school campuses (2012, Sandy Hook Elementary School; 1999 Columbine High School) resulted from perpetrators getting their weapons from their own family members.

If we intend to seriously address the problem of gun violence within the community, first and foremost we need to address how individuals are acquiring guns to commit their crimes. Supporting “Red Flag” legislation that requires more extensive background checks would be a good first step. In his classic research addressing positive group contact and cooperation, Gordon Allport (1954) described the value of positive contact, interdependent relationships and superordinate goals. In order for intergroup contact to be effective in reducing conflict and prejudice, four conditions must exist within the community: Equal status; cooperation; goals that are mutually beneficial; and institutional support.

A great way to debunk invalid and negative ethnic stereotypes that have been identified as a contributing factor to violence is to open the channels of communication and begin talking to one another. Isolation and groups that ultimately become polarized from one another contribute to the demonization process that can often lead to violence that is directed to refugees, immigrants and underserved groups in general. Communities that provide increased opportunities of intergroup contact, engagement and collaboration can help improve communication and understanding among ethnically diverse groups and ultimately reduce potential conflict and violence (Al Ramiah & Hewstone, 2013). For example, community gardening programs and green spaces are increasingly becoming viewed as an essential community resource for immigrant and refugee populations that can promote health and resilience that provides an opportunity of engagement and communication with other community members (Hartwig & Mason, 2016). Becoming aware that the problem of gun violence is not simply an abstract “legislative issue” but rather a community issue that we all need to be proactive in addressing is the first step in addressing this serious problem.

Allport, G. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.

Al Ramiah, A. & Hewstone, M. (2013). Intergroup contact as a tool for reducing, resolving, and
preventing intergroup conflict. American Psychologist, 68(7), 527-542.

Hartwig, K. A. & Mason, M. (2016). Community gardens for refugee and immigrant
communities as a means of health promotion. Journal of Community Health, 41, 1153-1159.

Patterson, J. & Densley, J. (2019, August 9). Our data unveiled four commonalities of shooters.
Star Tribune, Opinion section.

Author Information
August John Hoffman is a Professor of Psychology at Metropolitan State University. He can be contacted at: August.hoffman@metrostate.edu

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