Latin America suffers more lethal violence than any other region on earth. As of 2018, 43 of the 50 cities with the world’s highest murder rates were in that region. Topping the list are several Mexican and Venezuelan cities that experience more than 100 homicides per year for every 100,000 inhabitants. Moreover, roughly three-quarters of these murders are the result of guns. Like the United States, much of Latin America is saturated with firearms, and military-style rifles play a significant part in gun violence. Yet by one measure, Latin American countries are stunningly divergent from their North American counterpart: mass shootings by a “lone wolf” gunman are exceedingly rare.

Amid an unrelenting series of gun massacres, many have asked why the United States is more prone to mass shootings than any other country. Americans had barely begun to process the horrific killings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas—just ten days apart in May 2022—before being confronted with yet further shootings, in Highland Park, Illinois, on July 4, and Greenwood, Indiana, on July 17. (In Greenwood, the killer was shot by a bystander after killing three people.)  As after earlier such incidents, the policy response has been hampered by politics: many Democrats, and those supporting stricter gun laws, assert that lax controls on the gun market are to blame; Republicans, and defenders of unfettered gun rights, maintain that a pathological culture and mental illness are the real culprits. For example, Texas Senator Ted Cruz recently blamed a “cultural sickness giving birth to unspeakable acts of evil” among “young Americans.”

But as Latin America shows, the United States is hardly alone in having large quantities of guns. And the causes that Cruz and others have identified for this “cultural sickness”—fatherless families, declining church attendance, antisocial video games and online content, bullying on social media—are also prevalent in many European countries. Still, no other region of the world comes close to the United States in mass shootings.

In fact, the United States stands out internationally for two important and interrelated reasons: easy access to guns and a culture that privileges a largely unfettered individualism. Partly as a result of cultural forces that are stronger in the United States than in many other parts of the world, a larger sliver of men and boys, lacking effective social supports, become aggrieved outcasts, and in extreme cases, are driven to seek recourse in indiscriminate violence. Combined with the ready availability of weapons, the considerable privacy and autonomy that U.S. culture offers to these anti-social boys and men ensures that more of them will act on their murderous fantasies. In no other part of the world do gun access and culture interact in the same way: Although many European countries share the same cultural forces that produce aggrieved social outcasts, they place far greater restrictions on guns. By contrast, in Latin America, guns are in wide circulation, but these cultural forces, because of different traditions of social organization, are far less pronounced. Drawing on recent social science research, these insights not only offer a clearer picture of the drivers of U.S. mass shootings. They also make a strong case for more targeted—and politically feasible—remedies.

The United States Is Not Quite Alone

U.S. exceptionalism in mass shootings is beyond question. According to the criminologist Jason Silva, although U.S. citizens barely exceed four percent of the global population, the 114 gun rampages that have taken place in the United States since 1998 account for an astounding 38 percent of such events worldwide. That is an average of 4.6 mass shootings in the United States per year. (Silva, who has provided much of the mass shooting data cited in this article, counts only publicly reported incidents with at least four deaths other than perpetrators and excludes domestic violence, as well as mass killings sponsored by states, terrorists, insurgent groups, and criminal organizations.)

Yet the data also show something else: the region of the world that comes in second in mass shootings—albeit a very distant second—is Europe.  Social science research often focuses on the psycho-social background of mass shooters, logically raising the question of whether the rare and toxic mix of factors that seem to produce mass shooters in the United States are also present in Europe. Although there is no effective way to estimate the number of would-be mass shooters, it is known that risk factors that have been shown to be remarkably prevalent among mass shooters—exposure to trauma, major depression, suicidal ideation, and psychotic disorders—are only slightly more common in the United States than in Europe. Likewise, Americans living with a mental illness face more economic distress and obstacles to mental health care than their European counterparts, but all of these intercontinental differences are too small to account for the five-fold difference between the rate of mass shootings in the United States and that of Europe. And when it comes to one factor that U.S. conservatives have touted as a remedy to gun violence, Americans have markedly higher levels of church attendance and religious commitment.

Given similar cultural and health risk environments, then, the reason that far fewer public mass shootings take place in Europe than in the United States is clear: divergent access to guns. By at least one measure, Americans are 4.8 times more likely to own a gun, just as they are 4.8 times more likely to commit mass murder (cumulatively speaking, since 1998). And in all European countries, it is harder to acquire a firearm than in the United States. Waiting periods are longer, insurance costs are higher, and some countries require mental health screenings or full-blown psychiatric evaluations, as well as gun safety courses. Moreover, it is far more difficult in Europe to acquire high-capacity weapons. Had such measures been in force in the United States, many of the perpetrators of mass shootings over the past two decades might have found it difficult or impossible to obtain their weapons.

The Latin American Paradox

Although access to weapons does much to explain the disparity in the number of mass shootings between the United States and Europe, it does not account for the near absence of mass shootings in many other countries where guns proliferate. Consider the Philippines, where guns are sold openly in shopping malls and gun violence is endemic. In 2018, the country’s gun homicide rate was 50 percent higher than the United States’s. Yet mass shootings are exceedingly rare. The Filipino criminologist Raymund Narag has argued that the desire to avoid bringing shame to one’s family and community—an important dynamic in Filipino culture—may exert a powerful pressure not to commit indiscriminate violence. But this explanation does not account for the dearth of mass shootings in a very different part of the world. In Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and Venezuela—all countries awash in weapons—gun homicide rates far exceed those in the United States. Yet Latin America, which has about 2.25 times the number of people as the United States, has suffered only nine known lone-gunman-style mass shootings since 1998! Why?

One possible explanation is culture. It seems plausible that some cultural and social dynamics in play in Latin America may limit or redirect the kinds of grievances, delusions, and obsessions that might otherwise lead extraordinarily deviant people to commit mass shootings. Unfortunately, there is little research on whether these countries tend to produce fewer suicidal loners or outcasts harboring collected grievances or paranoid and grandiose delusions. It is not even possible to rule out that Latin Americans who fit such profiles actually rack up more killings than their U.S. counterparts, for example, by working as hitmen or for police, military, or criminal organizations. But a number of salient cultural differences between the United States and the countries of this region suggest that fewer Latin Americans who develop psycho-social problems similar to mass shooters ever seriously contemplate mass violence. 

Despite high rates of gun violence, mass shootings in Latin America are exceedingly rare.

Above all is the importance of family and kin. Extended kinship ties play a far greater role in Latin America than in Europe and North America. And although wealthier people in most societies tend to depend far less on extended family bonds, Latin America’s middle and upper classes have sustained durable kinship networks. Since most mass shooters in the United States would be considered middle class by Latin American standards, the kinship bonds among this stratum of society may be most relevant to explaining lower rates of mass shootings.

Advantaged Latin Americans are seemingly less likely than their North American counterparts to become loners because they live in larger households, have nearby family, and usually stay with their parents until marriage. Kinship traditions are not only protective in direct ways but also because they help promote collectivist values like loyalty, solidarity, and interdependence that help counter-balance individualist values. For example, Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede’s research group has described Colombia’s culture as “amongst the most collectivistic…in the world” with loyalty to the in-group (and hostility to outsiders) as an important source of status and privileges. Perhaps, if a group member develops mental or behavioral problems that leaves that person vulnerable to stigmatization and victimization—the kinds of problems that, in other cultural milieus, might be precursors to extreme violence—solidarity within the kinship network encourages members to support and defend that person. Less affluent people have an extra incentive to rescue social outcasts and help them feel valued and useful given that a group member’s deterioration could impose unmanageable economic burdens on the group.

Of course, not all Latin Americans enjoy extended kinship networks. And this may be especially true of those, however tiny in number, who exhibit mass-shooter risk profiles: Brazil’s infamous school shooter, who killed 12 children in a Rio de Janeiro school in 2011, had been adopted and lived alone. But another important cultural distinction may also keep Latin Americans off the dark path. Owing to their greater exposure to ecological, health, economic, and political dangers and disruptions, Latin Americans are purportedly more adept at establishing bonds of support and trust beyond their immediate families. The opportunity to form such elective associations, which sociologists call “relational mobility,” is particularly high in Latin America: in one study, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and Venezuela exhibited the highest average levels of relational mobility among 38 countries and territories studied. (Although levels of relational mobility are also high in the United States, they are only half the level of Mexico’s.)

Relational mobility may be important to preventing mass shootings because it fosters an “expressive form of interdependence” that relies heavily on social engagement. Multiple studies have demonstrated that in a variety of situations, Latin Americans are more likely to display socially engaging emotions such as empathy, warmth, trust, and affection, and less likely to express socially disengaging emotions, such as pride and anger, than their counterparts in Europe and the United States. Perhaps, therefore, Latin Americans who are on a destructive path or in an acute crisis have access to more empathy and social support than their U.S. counterparts.

One-Man Armies

In contrast to Latin American society, the United States appears to have a very different balance between collectivist and individualist values.  In the United States, concerns about collective health and safety are often subordinated to the strong emotional and moral value Americans attach to guns with respect to personal freedom and family protection. As the sociologists Michael Kimmel and Matthew Mahler have pointed out, though, the ideal of self-reliance does not affect all parts of U.S. society uniformly. Some groups draw more than others on narratives of self-reliance as they interpret and manage their emotional turmoil and grievances. These variations may help explain why the typical ethnic and geographic background of mass shooters in the United States—mostly white males from rural or suburban towns—is so different from that of other homicide offenders. More than any other groups, white boys and men struggle to situate their personal struggles within collective non-violent struggles.

Although it has been exported globally, the American archetype of the one-man army, the stoic who is willing to sacrifice everything to combat a perceived social or institutional evil, may not carry equal weight in other cultures. A troubled Mexican man, for example, may feel little affinity for the morals and methods of Rambo, Dirty Harry, Travis Bickle, Jack Reacher, the Punisher, the Joker, and so on—white American loners with few, if any, spiritual conflicts or kinship-related restraints. Of course, even more salient role models for many mass shooters are earlier mass shooters. And each new mass murder increases the chances that one or more of those in the pool of extreme antisocial misfits will find a martyr with whom they may identify.

A final noteworthy dynamic that may minimize mass shootings in Latin America and other developing regions of the world is poverty. In the United States, more would-be mass shooters have access not only to guns but also to information technology—phones, computers, and the Internet—that allows them to validate their dark musings and even plan their attacks. In many developing countries, by contrast, these resources are not as readily available. These economic factors, along with denser social networks and a shortage of mental health professionals to confide in, increase the odds that a plot might be discovered by people who have a strong communal or kinship incentive to avert them. Perhaps most important, many poor Latin Americans cannot afford to buy guns, the price of which on the black market can often exceed a month’s wages.

Although cultural and economic factors help explain the dearth of mass shootings in Latin America, they may not be sufficient to account for the dramatic disparity with the United States. In fact, although guns are prevalent in Latin America, the more relevant question is how difficult it is for the tiny number of people at risk of committing indiscriminate violence to acquire them. Many if not most of the mass shooters who legally purchased guns in the United States would not have been able to do so legally in Latin America. Some, for example, would have failed the psychological screenings that are required in Argentina, Brazil, and Chile; others would have lacked the confidence and know-how to make the trip to Mexico’s sole gun store. The formidable hurdles that Latin American countries erect for purchasing guns legally are unheard of in the United States.

Of course, given the availability of illegal guns in many Latin American countries, it may seem that people consumed by mass-homicidal urges would surely find a way to procure one. To provide a sense of the ubiquity of guns in Brazil, consider that a national buyback effort to reduce gun violence in Brazil launched in 2005 netted over one million weapons. But as the criminologist Adam Lankford has suggested, many mass shooters may lack the personal temperament, social skills, and connections necessary to buy from illegal gun dealers or establish trust with sellers of traceable guns. Those obstacles may be particularly formidable in countries where economic classes are spatially and socially segregated and where high-capacity firearms often remain in the hands of ruthless gangs.

Targeted Reform

Both common sense and international comparisons indicate that the most effective way to reduce mass shooting events in the United States would be to dramatically limit the numbers of guns in circulation overall—an approach that has proven politically impossible in Washington. But as the comparison with Latin America shows, this need not be the end of the story.

First, a prevalence of guns alone does not account for U.S. exceptionalism in mass shootings. The cultural evidence points to other kinds of remedies that may, in the long run, prevent would-be killers from following through. As Latin American societies demonstrate, it is possible for people living in violence- and gun-infested communities to experience trauma, mental illness, personal failures, and bullying and, yet, almost never seek redress on the lives of innocents. Americans should seek to discover and adopt specific practices that emulate Latin American approaches to helping troubled social misfits or failures feel supported, valued, included, and productive.

Perhaps more important, Latin American countries provide strong evidence that restricting who can purchase guns may go a long way toward preventing lone-wolf mass shootings, even in societies where guns proliferate. And such targeted limits may actually be politically viable in some U.S. state legislatures, given that half of Americans, including half of gun owners, support mental health screenings for all gun purchases, and an even greater majority of Americans—68 percent—support such screenings for purchasing at least some types of firearms, like semi-automatic or automatic ones.

Given the far-reaching political challenges of changing gun culture in the United States, the possibility of significantly limiting the number of guns in circulation may seem impossible in the near term. But by improving social and emotional support for those most at risk, and by making it more difficult for depraved and dangerous people to purchase weapons that can be used for mass violence, the United States could erect far more effective barriers to mass shootings.

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  • PAUL HIRSCHFIELD is Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of the Program in Criminal Justice at Rutgers.
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