Posted on 4/6/2014

This past week, a soldier at Ft. Hood, the largest army base in the United States, went on a shooting rampage, killing three other soldiers (and wounding about a dozen more) before killing himself. Members of the community of Killeen, TX, where Ft. Hood is located, as well as the general populace, must be wondering: is there something special about Ft. Hood that makes soldiers there become so violent and turn against their fellow soldiers? If so, what is it, and what can be done to protect soldiers in the future?

The investigation into this event is ongoing, so more details will certainly surface in the coming weeks that could shed important new light on what caused Specialist Ivan Lopez to go on this rampage of blood and bullets. People close to the investigation are currently speculating about his psychiatric condition, noting that he had seen a psychiatrist and had a history of depression and anxiety, and they have also reported that Lopez had an altercation with one of the victims before the shooting occurred. The altercation was reportedly related to leave-of-absence paperwork, which Lopez was told he would need to come back the next day to pick up.

Until we know more facts, we should be careful about speculating too much about Lopez’s state of mind or about the events that precipitated this shooting. My own experience studying cultural and psychological factors related to violence leads me to offer a few preliminary thoughts, however.

First, there is probably nothing “special” about Ft. Hood, other than the fact that it is a large Army base. That fact alone means that there are approximately 100,000 people trained in the use of firearms within a small geographical area, many of whom are also on their way to or recently returned from one of the most stressful and longest-running theaters of war that the US has ever known. Those facts alone make Ft. Hood a powder keg. Tragic as these shootings are, they should not be terribly surprising.

Second, what we know about honor cultures in general (of which the military subculture is one special type) is that they promote the despising of weakness in all forms, including mental weakness. Being “tough” is among the highest virtues in honor cultures, along with being strong and brave and ready to face down any threat to your honor, or to the honor of your family or “tribe” (e.g., your team, your community, your nation). As a result, people in honor cultures tend to avoid seeking help for mental health needs, and honor-oriented communities tend to invest minimally in mental health care resources, such as mental hospitals, psychiatrists, and psychologists. Those who do seek help for mental health needs worry that they might be found out by others and stigmatized for doing so. And this worry is probably not just paranoia. In a recent study, Mikiko Imura, Lara Mayeux, and I even found that parents who admit that their children have mental health needs tend not to take them to see a mental health specialist if they live in a honor-oriented region of the US. I guess even parents’ love for their children is qualified by cultural values.

Rampage shootings are, thankfully, very rare, and there is no evidence that I have seen that they are increasing in frequency (at least since the late 1980’s). Schools and military bases remain some of the safest places for our loved ones to be. In fact, the people we love are in more danger on the way to school or work than they are once they arrive. Because of this, it worries me when politicians or others suggest that one way to reduce the risk of victimization by random acts of violence (on military bases or elsewhere) is to let more people walk around carrying guns. 

More children die of accidental gunshots in a typical year than have died in the last 20 years of intentional school shootings. The same could be said for military personnel, including those who work at Ft. Hood. Arming more people is a great way to reverse this pattern. The greater feeling of security people might have by being allowed to carry guns onto military bases is as illusory as the greater feeling of safety we all have when we get off of a plane and step into the familiarity of our own car. We are many times more likely to die while driving that car to or from the airport than we are to die on a plane that someone else is flying.